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Islanders 5, Flyers 4: What we learned from a game that we already watched two days ago

This is getting old.

Kate Frese / SBNation

I thought about starting this article by talking about how Friday’s 5-4 loss to the Islanders was a microcosm of this Flyers season to date. A game that saw some early promise and excitement, as a flawed team managed to take a lead thanks to some strong performances from both its best players and its youngest players. A game that saw those good feelings evaporate as time went on, due to come combination of dumb mistakes and miscues, lack of talent, poor discipline, and plain bad luck. A game that ended with silver linings but also the Flyers trailing on the scoreboard.

And it’d have been reasonably accurate. But at this point, calling a game like that a “microcosm” wouldn’t be doing justice to the fact that the Flyers have played basically this exact same game three times already this month, including once against this same opponent two days ago about 100 miles up I-95.

There are positives, and there are reasons to believe things aren’t as bad as they seem. The Flyers have lost seven straight games and are still only five points out of a playoff spot. The season isn’t sunk, even if the events of the past two weeks have — to state the blatantly obvious — put a bit of a dent in this team’s hopes of playing more than 82 meaningful hockey games this season. That’s all well and good. And some good performances from young players, which we’ll get to, help soften the blow a bit.

But there’s a point at which we stop being able to earnestly find moral victories. Even if four of these seven losses have been in overtime, which seems to be little more than a slightly weighted coin flip, continuously losing close games just drags on a team. This losing streak has consisted of shutouts, blowouts (well, one blowout), and blown leads. There’s some morbid diversity in how the Flyers have gotten to this point, and when there’s no one answer to the question of “how do we stop this”, finding the multiple answers that may be necessary proves harder and harder with each passing game.

Lament the wasted opportunities. Stew over the blown leads and penalties that caused them. Swear under your breath about some of the coaching decisions made. Get mad about whatever the hell makes you mad in this game. Because no amount of silver linings changes the fact that this is all a big drag right now. It may turn soon. That’s hockey. But we’re left searching for answers until it does.

Two key numbers:

23:45 — the total ice time on Friday for Brandon Manning, second-most among all skaters on the team behind Ivan Provorov (at 25:34). The ice time figure was the second-highest Manning’s ever registered in a single NHL game; the one time he played more than that, Mark Alt was making his NHL debut and Oliver Lauridsen was on the ice for the Flyers.

In that time this afternoon, Manning was the second-worst Flyers defenseman on the afternoon in on-ice shot attempts, tallying a minus-6 (+17/-23) that was only better than that of his primary defensive partner, Travis Sanheim. He was on the ice for two Islanders goals, and he failed to get in the way of the passing lane on the set-up to Andrew Ladd that tied the game in the third period.

In some ways, I get it. There’s a lot of youth on this team right now, and Manning — as something of the elder statesman of the team’s defensemen sans-Andrew MacDonald and Radko Gudas — is a guy the coach thinks he can lean on as the team tries to get out of a funk. But in other ways, this is the kind of thing that is just going to infuriate a fanbase that doesn’t see much reason for hope and wants to know if any one of its young guys can do better than the career third-pairing defenseman.

And while it’s not Dave Hakstol’s job to placate his team’s fanbase, it’s his job to properly allocate out ice time properly. Leaning on Manning the way he did yesterday is probably not doing that. You can get away with decisions like this when you’re winning games, but when you’re, y’know, not, eyebrows will be raised over moves like this.

3 — the number of two-goal leads the Flyers have blown in the past two weeks. The Flyers led 2-0 in Winnipeg on Thursday of last week and 3-1 against Calgary last Saturday before going on to lose both of those in extra time; on Friday, they led 4-2 going into the third period before coughing that lead up.

So what’s the deal here? Is it a mentality thing? Are the Flyers turtling once they get a lead by design? Are players naturally sitting back, the way that score effects would lead one to think they might?

If it’s a run-of-play thing, that’s not showing up in the numbers. The Flyers tied Winnipeg in shots on goal across the second and third periods of that game, and they actually outshot Calgary by a fair bit in those same timeframes last Saturday. And while the Islanders outshot the Flyers yesterday during their comeback attempt, they didn’t exactly dominate the final frame; total shot attempts in the third period were just 23-21 Islanders, though that number was admittedly buoyed by a Flyers power play that was productive but didn’t result in any goals.

The easiest target here is probably discipline and composure, both keys for a team with a penalty kill that’s been floundering lately. And it certainly looked like a problem on Friday — a scrum by the Flyers’ net led to a 4-on-4, and shortly thereafter Jakub Voracek was called for a completely asinine “hooking penalty” that set the Flyers on a penalty kill that would see their lead cut to one. Even if the numbers didn’t quite show it, it felt as though the Flyers were in scramble mode for much of the rest of that period up to and even a bit after Ladd’s tying goal.

When you haven’t won a game in over two weeks, it’s tough not to let a bad break such as the one the Flyers caught early in the period snowball on you. It’s not hard to start thinking “here we go again” as soon as something crappy like that doesn’t go your way. But hockey games are rarely smooth affairs from start to finish, and if this team wants to get off its current schnide, it’s going to have to do a better job rolling with those punches. (And, also, of killing penalties. That might help.)

Three Flyers of note:

1. Travis Sanheim

No one player embodied what the Philadelphia Flyers were yesterday quite like Travis Sanheim, whose game was a combination of smooth offense and tantalizing potential in all three zones to go along with defensive lapses and clear learning moments.

In the first period, Sanheim was everywhere. He made a couple of very nice maneuvers and passes in the offensive zone to set up chances for his teammates. And in the defensive zone, he looked exactly like you’d hope a mobile, 6’4” defenseman would look: he was standing players up and separating them from the puck, along the boards and in space.

But as the game went on, Sanheim swung in the other direction. He seemed hesitant, his reads in the defensive zone weren’t great, and he played at least a minor role in two Islanders goals. Sanheim attempted, unsuccessfully, to tie up Cal Clutterbuck in front right before the mustachioed Islander artfully deflected a point shot past Brian Elliott in the second period. And on the Islanders’ game-tying goal, while the puck doesn’t even get here if Manning stops the pass and he should probably shoulder most of the blame on it, that probably doesn’t matter if Sanheim is a half-step quicker getting over to cover Ladd in his partner’s stead.

The end result was Sanheim having, by far, the worst on-ice metrics of any Flyer on the afternoon, as his minus-11 in 5-on-5 shot differential was at least three shots worse than any other Flyer and six worse than any other Flyers defenseman. For a player who has routinely crushed it by basically every on-ice metric available in his rookie season so far, the dud in that department does catch your attention a bit, and you wonder if his overall lackluster performance yesterday is why the team didn’t go to him in 3-on-3 (we’ll get there, though).

2. Nolan Patrick

We’ve mostly been downers so far in this post, and rightfully so, but let’s lighten up the mood a bit. Nolan Patrick’s looked better and better just about every time he’s played since coming back from injury earlier this month, and yesterday he really looked like the guy they were expecting when they drafted him with the second overall pick. (Which they got by moving up from 13th in the draft lottery. Remember when that happened? Hey, we all need a pick-me-up on days like this.)

The one point that Patrick registered on the scoresheet — a secondary assist on Simmonds’ goal — came after he forced his way into the offensive zone with control, took a pass from new linemate Danick Martel and went back behind the goal line, and then emerged to put a pass right on Shayne Gostisbehere’s tape that’d eventually turn into a rebound goal. That was a good example of what Patrick was flashing for most of the afternoon, as his skating was as good as it’d looked at any point this season and he was creating chances for his icemates left and right. Patrick even got a chance of his own in the first period when an obstructed breakaway turned into a penalty shot; on the shot, he had an opening on his backhand side, but he couldn’t quite get enough on the shot to angle it behind Thomas Greiss.

Martel, whose outstanding pass gave Patrick that breakaway opportunity, seems to have almost instantly unlocked something in Patrick that we hadn’t seen much of in his first 13 games. The little guy has added a bit of everything to that line — speed, skill, grit and toughness — and right now the Flyers can’t possibly break that group up. Patrick was a monster on Friday by every on-ice measure available; his +8 in shot attempts and +7 by scoring chances led all forwards wearing orange and black. And Corey Sznajder, who has manually tracked almost every Flyers game this season, noted that each of Patrick’s zone entries on the day was a carry-in, and called it “probably Patrick’s best game from an offensive standpoint” of the young season. A few more games like this from No. 19, and at least some of the grumbling is going to quiet down a bit.

3. Samuel Morin

We’ll round out this section with a third rookie, because I know you all and I know you don’t want to read about the other guys on this team right now.

Two days after an uneven season debut, Morin’s first regular-season game on Wells Fargo Center was probably the best game of his (three-game old) NHL career. Morin actually led the Flyers in on-ice shot differential at 5-on-5 (+12), and he was in no way a passenger to partner Shayne Gostisbehere (who also played a good game) in tallying that number. While Morin did the things that he was good at — coverage and physicality in the defensive zone, threatening players on the rush with his reach — it was his work on the puck that was really encouraging, as that’s likely the area that will determine how high Morin’s ceiling is as an NHLer.

All throughout the game, Morin managed to make simple but effective passes that weren’t going to get him in trouble. A shift in the middle of the first period, where he got the puck out from along the boards while under pressure and passed it out to get the puck up-ice for the Patrick line, set the tone for a good afternoon on the puck for Morin. He was only officially charged with one giveaway in his 15:28 of ice time, and that came on the penalty kill just before Jordan Eberle’s goal; outside of that minor hiccup, there was a lot to like in Morin’s game on Friday.

A common player comparable for Morin that I saw around the time he was drafted was “Luke Schenn, but a better skater”. That comparison may not have been entirely meant as a compliment, but Morin’s performance on Friday reminded me of Luke Schenn’s better stretches in orange and black. For a player with a skill set that really just doesn’t fit what’s asked of modern NHL defensemen, Schenn has survived as a solid depth player in this league because he plays to his strengths and doesn’t try to be more than those strengths, mostly managing to keep himself out of trouble even if the end results aren’t spectacular. Morin’s game on Friday was one in which he did well what he does well, and kept it simple by way of quick decisions in the areas where he’s not as strong. That’s a good sign for him, and hopefully as he gets more familiar with this level he’ll continue to make good decisions.

Four leftover thoughts:

  1. The loudest reactions on social media following this game were tied to coach Dave Hakstol’s decisions during the 3-on-3 period, and it’s hard to disagree that those decisions were anything short of questionable. Hakstol broke up the Giroux/Voracek/Gostisbehere unit again in this game, starting the contest by putting Couturier with Voracek and Provorov, then giving Ghost a run with Simmonds and Patrick, then running Giroux out with Valtteri Filppula and Brandon Manning. I disagree with some of the player choices, but I get them. Manning’s presence out there seemed to particularly infuriate fans, but I understood it — he’s a better 3-on-3 option than Hagg and Morin, while Sanheim’s play trended downwards as the game went on. But no individual player choice is as questionable as the decision to break up the team’s long-standing top 3-on-3 unit, and there’s a point at which you can say that the coach is probably overthinking things when it comes to his best players. The Flyers won about a dozen games (please do not fact-check that statement, I know it’s not accurate) in the past two seasons with Giroux, Voracek, and Gostisbehere on the ice at 3-on-3. When your team’s lost six games in a row, maybe try and go with what you 100 percent know can work in this situation. I can’t bring myself to care that much about the other choices when that elephant is still in the room.
  2. It seemed like a pretty clear sign was being sent to the team’s struggling penalty killers early on in the game, when the team led off its first penalty kill with Sean Couturier and Michael Raffl rather than the typical top duo of Scott Laughton and Taylor Leier. And then, for good measure, Leier was replaced by none other than Claude Giroux on the next rotation, a move by Dave Hakstol that seemed to say “look, you made me do this” to the rest of his penalty killers. Leier didn’t play on the penalty kill at all on Friday; we’ll see if the team’s rolling Giroux out on the penalty kill again on Monday night in Pittsburgh or if this was just a one-time thing.
  3. There had been murmurs that Andrew MacDonald may play on Friday, but that obviously didn’t come to fruition. Still, a return to play for the veteran seems imminent, and I have absolutely no idea what Hakstol is going to do with the lineup to make room for him. Prior to this game, I’d thought it’d be Manning that would head back up to the press box, but his mammoth share of ice time yesterday leads me to at least somewhat think otherwise. Could it be Ghost? He looked back to form on Friday after an atrocious showing in Brooklyn on Wednesday, but who knows. Would the team really send Morin right back to the press box and/or the minors just after calling him up? Hopefully not. I don’t think anyone other than Provorov and Hagg are safe; we’ll find out soon enough who the unlucky blueliner is.
  4. And, finally, some quick hits: Nice for Wayne to crack the goose-eggs that have been haunting his goal column. If he hadn’t scored on that chance — staring at a gaping net from a Ghost shot that pinged off the post — I’m not sure he ever scores again ... Crappy breaks acknowledged, there were a couple of fortunate moments for the Flyers on Friday. Their fourth and final goal happened because Greiss misplayed a puck behind his net, while earlier in the period Brian Elliott gave up a goal on a shot from the neutral zone that was called off because of delayed offsides. Could’ve been bad, I suppose ... Speaking of Elliott, he followed up his Wednesday performance in which he performed much better than his poor in-game numbers with a Friday performance in which his poor in-game numbers pretty accurately told the story. No really bad goals in there, so to speak, but you can’t really sugarcoat 27 saves out of 32 ... Finally, congrats to Claude Giroux for reaching 600 points in orange and black. Hopefully 700 is on the table by the end of next season. That bomb of a one-timer he fired to put the Flyers on the board yesterday was for everyone out there yelling “SHOOOOOOT IT”, because holy crap, did he.