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Blackhawks 3, Flyers 0: We’re entering survival mode

Things seem worse than they really are, but that doesn’t mean they’re not bad.

Philadelphia Flyers v Chicago Blackhawks Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

There’s a glass-half-full way to look at last night’s 3-0 loss from the Flyers’ perspective, even though a lot of us really don’t want to hear it. Given the difficult circumstances — the Flyers entered the night minus a pair of top-4 defensemen, as well as their top designated replacement for those defensemen — to play a team like the Chicago Blackhawks the way that the Flyers did is no small task.

The Flyers went swing-for-swing with the Blackhawks for almost the entire game, more or less trading chances with a team that — while not the juggernaut that it used to be — still has plenty of firepower and skill. They generated several odd-man chances on Chicago goalie Corey Crawford, who happened to have the answer on each of them and at every one of the 35 times the Flyers came trying to create trouble for him.

This was a pretty even game — by the numbers, the Flyers had a slight edge in shot-attempt share, while the Blackhawks picked up a small advantage once you adjust for shot quality. 20 seconds in the second period, ones that featured the Flyers’ penalty kill finally succumbing after an outstanding start to the night and a back break over Robert Hagg’s stick right to Jonathan Toews on a breakaway, made the difference last night. It happens. There are tangible points to take from the action, and we’ll get to those, but the result here isn’t one worth kicking and screaming over.

But this team, right now, can’t go more than about 48 hours at a time without catching a bad, roster-altering break, and another one came rolling in late in the first period. As he was slipping to the ice, Radko Gudas’ head hit the elbow of Chicago’s Brandon Saad. Saad nudged Gudas’ head as he went around him on the ice, and from there, Gudas wouldn’t return to start the second period (the team announced at the following intermission that he was out with a lower-body injury).

In the context of this game, an already-difficult task (win) then became even more herculean. Winning with five playable defensemen is hard; winning with five defensemen who entered Wednesday with 267 total games’ worth of NHL experience between them, against a team that’s won three Cups this decade and has a guy who’d be a Vezina finalist if the still-young season ended early today, is damn near impossible. And though the Flyers sure didn’t quit after going down 2-0 — the third period was probably their best of the night, from a competitive standpoint — it was hard to shake the feeling that a comeback was never really in the cards given how things are snowballing right now.

We were all pretty excited about this team a little over a week ago. Four losses and several meaningful injuries later, everything is pain. So go the ebbs and flows of a hockey season. It’s not getting any easier from here — the Flyers are back at it again tonight, with the same five defensemen that finished out last night and one other guy (Will O’Neill) who will be making his NHL debut — so right now we’re just left hoping that some good fortune will start to shine on the Flyers again soon. Or, y’know, good health. That’d be a start.

Two key numbers:

29:51 Ivan Provorov’s ice time in Chicago. That’s a career-most for Provorov in a single game, shattering his previous career-high that he set ... on Monday, against Arizona, when he played 28:07 (in an overtime game, I may add).

Sans-Andrew MacDonald, sans-Shayne Gostisbehere, and sans-Samuel Morin, Ivan Provorov had figured to have some extra work on his already-crowded docket for these next few games. And after Gudas — the team’s de-facto No. 2 defenseman for the time being — was removed from the game, his responsibilities unsurprisingly ballooned even further: in the second and third period, Provorov was on the ice for 21:36 of the 40:00 that took place. We’re reaching Erik Karlsson In The Playoffs-levels of ice time here with the Flyers’ 20-year old defensive cornerstone. And they weren’t exactly cheap minutes, either — around two-thirds of Provorov’s 5-on-5 time was spent against at least one of Jonathan Toews or Patrick Kane (via Natural Stat Trick).

The Flyers made it clear from about Thanksgiving onward last year that they believe Ivan Provorov is their best defenseman, and they’re probably right. And now, Provorov is the only man standing among the four guys that the Flyers envisioned starting the year among their “top-4” (MacDonald, Gostisbehere, and Gudas). It’s tough to imagine Provorov will play quite that much time tonight in St. Louis, since the Flyers are on the second half of a back-to-back and should have their sixth defenseman on the ice, but Provorov — already taking on a significant amount of responsibility — will be asked to do as much as humanly possible until one of Gostisbehere or Gudas is ready to return.

16 — the number of high-danger scoring chances the Flyers tallied, also via Natural Stat Trick. That ties two other games for the second-most that they’ve tallied in a game this season; only once (on opening night in San Jose, with 17) have they registered more. Of those 16 chances, 10 came at 5-on-5.

Earlier on Wednesday, we talked a bit about the need to not just take shots but to try and get good opportunities for high-danger chances, something the Flyers tried and were ultimately unsuccessful at (for the most part) on Monday against the Coyotes. The hope here was that failing to generate those dangerous chances in one game (the Flyers had just eight total high-danger chances against the Coyotes) wouldn’t lead the team to just settle for easy shots the next time out.

To their credit, the Flyers tried again last night, and they were pretty successful at creating those tough chances. Excellent passing out of their own end to start breakouts did wonders for them; the NBC Sports counter had them with seven odd-man rush chances at one point late in the third period. Crawford was repeatedly left scrambling to make saves as the Flyers consistently generated scrums in front of the net.

Of course, he made those saves. Sometimes the goalie just beats you. But the underlying process here was pretty sound, and it’s one that should be acknowledged given how shorthanded this team is right now. Nine of those 16 chances came in the third period, and while you can chalk a little bit of that up to score effects, there’s something to be said about continuing to come out firing in a situation that’s got to be as physically and mentally draining as the one the Flyers are mired in now.

Three Flyers of note:

1. Valtteri Filppula

The one lineup change of note coming into this game was the swapping of Travis Konecny up into Jordan Weal’s spot on the second line, leading to a Konecny-Filppula-Wayne Simmonds line that figured to have some offensive firepower. And after being one of the team’s only effective forwards on Monday, all eyes were on Konecny to see what he’d do with his promotion.

But while Konecny played pretty well, we’ll give the shout-out here to Filppula, who seemed to be all over the place in the neutral and offensive zones. He led the way on a couple of those rush chances mentioned earlier, and he just missed a goal on a wraparound (after receiving a great pass from Konecny himself).

The night wasn’t perfect for Filppula. He took two first-period penalties, and the cumulative effect there on the penalty kill may have added up by the time they gave up their first goal in the second period (which came on the Flyers’ fourth PK of the night). But this line showed enough against Chicago that it was probably the team’s best at 5-on-5, and it should stay together tonight in St. Louis.

2. Jori Lehtera

Praise one Finnish veteran for his role in his line’s visible improvement, look down on another for his line’s lack of performance. Them’s the breaks.

Where Konecny and Filppula benefitted from Hakstol’s lineup decisions on this game, the ones who paid for those moves were those on a slow and wholly ineffective third line. The biggest offender here seemed to be Lehtera, who repeatedly was steps behind linemates Weal and Dale Weise on the ice. In the nearly 10 minutes Lehtera was on the ice at 5-on-5, the Flyers tallied just one unblocked shot attempt on net.

Lehtera hasn’t actually been too bad in a number of games lately, as he’s been forced into action more following injuries and scratchings. He’s only tallied one point on the season, but he’s played the part of a bottom-6 role player well. But his fit with Weal and Weise — two guys who are better skaters than him — isn’t always going to be great, and last night was a night where his not being able to keep up with them curtailed what the rest of them could do.

3. Robert Hagg

Robert Hagg didn’t ask to be the Flyers’ No. 2 defenseman. But whether it’s because the team likes his fit with Provorov, they already trust him with big minutes, or they really don’t trust anyone else with big minutes, Hagg was essentially just that for the Flyers last night.

The lasting image of Hagg’s night is, unfortunately, his goof-up on Chicago’s second goal, right before which he completely fanned on a shot, allowing Jonathan Toews to blow past him with the puck and bury a breakaway chance. But there were other heads-up plays, such as one late in the first period that likely saved an otherwise-goal when he pushed the puck away from Brian Elliott on a rebound. And Hagg’s possession figures on the night were respectable.

Like Provorov, Hagg shouldn’t be expecting anything less than this kind of a heavy workload (he played 21 minutes on the nose) for as long as the Flyers are this far away from healthy. His work on Wednesday night had one key mistake, but a number of positives. That’s a ratio the Flyers will probably take, and he’s going to need to keep providing it.

Four leftover thoughts:

  1. No real need for a Corsi Report of sorts on this one: it’d all look pretty similar. Via Natural Stat Trick, 12 of the Flyers’ 18 skaters (17 if you don’t include Gudas, who left the game early) had a 5-on-5 Corsi-For percentage somewhere between 52.9 and 57.9 on the evening. Like I said before, I thought the Flyers’ most noticeable line on the evening was the Filppula line, but the whole night was a pretty even showing across the board from the team.
  2. Travis Sanheim can’t be too far from his first NHL goal, right? He led the team in shot attempts at 5-on-5 with eight, and even he got a breakaway chance of his own. He had a nice bounce-back of a game from Monday, when a number of fingers were being pointed at him following his mistake on Arizona’s game-winner. He’s learning and getting more confident, but that first goal could really open up the floodgates for him.
  3. So when do we ask if the Laughton line should start getting actual third-line minutes? I’d understand saving Laughton and Leier a bit at 5-on-5 because you want them to be fresh on the PK, but on a night like last night, tough to come up for an explanation why none of them could play more than 9:07 of total ice time while everyone on the struggling “third line” got at least 10:34. Maybe you roll them a bit more tonight, hoping that they’ve got a bit more in the tank on the second end of a back-to-back?
  4. And finally, a few last-minute quick hits: Liked a lot of what Brian Elliott did, and it’s tough to argue with 32 out of 34 saves, but man, the rebound control being a little bit better would go a long way. Gotta corral it the first time around on that Anisimov goal ... Sean Couturier had six shots on goal last night, all at 5-on-5. Maybe he’s just trying to get his shooting percentage regression all out of the way in one game? ... Mark Alt spent the majority of his ice time in his third NHL game on the ice with Jonathan Toews. No pressure, new guy ... Finally, not that it would’ve made Corey Crawford any less beatable, but you wonder if this game plays out a little differently if the team doesn’t take four penalties in the first 29 minutes of the game. A lot to ask of your penalty kill on a night where they’re already pretty taxed.