We’re a little more than a quarter of the way into this Flyers season, and it’s fair to say there’s been a decent amount of uneasiness and discontent among those who cheer for and observe this team. A season that was generally expected to be a step forward has been unimpressive and has felt stagnant, because on most nights (or days) the team hasn’t been good enough.
Which is why it was interesting to hear Dave Hakstol, after a 4-0 win on Friday that not only broke a four-game losing streak but may well have been the Flyers’ best all-around performance of the somewhat-young season to date, suggest that this showing really wasn’t that different from a few of the team’s recent home performances that didn’t have quite as favorable an outcome.
“The numbers aren’t going to be much different tonight from the previous three games here at home,” Hakstol said to the media on Friday. “We had a blip on the radar in Buffalo, especially in the first period, but in terms of chances that we generated and created, shot attempts, shot attempts for, as well as at the other end of the rink, what we gave up, they’re going to be pretty similar to the previous three games that we played in this building.”
That sentiment from the team’s head coach is both at least somewhat accurate and missing the point a bit.
Here’s what Hakstol is correct about: in each of their last three home games before Friday, all losses (2-1 against Florida, 3-0 against New Jersey, and 6-5 against the Lightning in overtime), the Flyers out-shot and out-attempted their opponent, controlling play for large stretches of time but ultimately falling behind and never quite making it all the way back. Save for one period against Buffalo last Wednesday that rendered the rest of that game largely useless, this team has been playing some pretty sound hockey in recent weeks, even if it doesn’t always show up on the scoreboard. And the fact that the Flyers, as a team, are now comfortably above break-even by most underlying team-level measures at 5-on-5 should be commended.
But while those three aforementioned losses showed improvements from what took place in the first month of the season, when the Flyers were largely noncompetitive in the majority of their losses (all but one of their seven October losses were by at least three goals), this isn’t a team — or, if we’re being honest here, a coach — that can handle long stretches where the results aren’t there any more. A group that was almost comically streaky last season is too prone to seeing things snowball on them to just sit and watch good performances repeatedly go unrewarded. It was at this time last year where a short losing streak that saw some solid underlying performances snowball into a 10-game losing streak; you’d have to forgive any Flyers fan who was thinking of that skid as the losses piled up in the days prior to Friday.
Put simply, this isn’t a team that can afford to be without either one of the process or the results right now. We’ve long stressed the importance of the process here before, and without it it’d be hard to get very excited about a win here or there. And yet, at the same time, when you’re supposed to be taking a big step forward and you’re under .500 on Thanksgiving, no one wants to hear about how great the underlying performance is when the scoreboard is showing a loss.
That’s why nearly everyone seemed to be in good spirits following Friday’s victory. The Flyers took a first-period lead (thanks in part to a somewhat fluky bounce off of Brady Skjei’s leg and past Henrik Lundqvist) and, with momentary exceptions here and there, didn’t really ever lose control of this game after that. They got strong goaltending from Calvin Pickard, they never lost focus despite several outstanding saves by Lundqvist that could well have frustrated them into a worse performance on another night, and they finally broke the dam open late in the third period to make the game look as dominant on the scoreboard as it did on the ice.
So with the losing streak halted, the question becomes a simple one: how much, if anything, does this one game mean? How does this team make this the start of something good? Can they — a team that, to be frank, has been the picture of averageness in recent years — show that the improved process they swear has been there in recent days is here to stay, and that we should expect good results to continue to follow?
People will ask after a performance like this — a true 60-minute effort, to use traditional hockey parlance — why the Flyers can’t play like this every night. That particular question has an easy enough answer: because if any team could just play at their collective best every night, they’d win 65 games and the Cup every year. There are professionals getting paid on both sides of the ice, and only the absolute best of the best consistently outperform their opponents. This team isn’t the absolute best, and we shouldn’t expect them to be at this point in time.
But 22 games into the season, maybe only one other game — the November 10 win over Chicago — was in the same ballpark as this one insofar as dominant performance and strong results go. No one should be expecting games like this every night. But seeing them more frequently than once every 11 games, showing that this is your true ceiling as a team rather than something you’re just capable of doing once a month or so, would go a long way towards inspiring confidence in the folks disillusioned by the start to this season.
Two numbers that mattered
20 — the number of high-danger scoring chances the Flyers tallied on Friday at 5-on-5, courtesy of Natural Stat Trick. The total was easily their highest of the season; in only one other game this season (their loss to the Devils eight games earlier) were they even above 13.
The Flyers went at Lundqvist in several different ways on Friday, with a diversity in their attack that we haven’t really seen much. They had no fewer than a half-dozen or so odd-man rushes and chances in transition, but were also able to generate chances on the cycle after recovering their own dump-ins. Had it not been for the heroics of the aforementioned ugly goaltender, this could well have been a 4-0 or 5-0 game at the second intermission rather than the end of the game.
6 — the number of minutes the Flyers played on the penalty kill on Friday. Obviously, they did not give up a goal in that time, which spanned across three different penalty kills. Of note here is the fact that that particular amount of time — six minutes — is the most the Flyers have spent on the PK in a single game this season without giving up a goal, alongside an identical performance on October 13 against Vegas.
Sadness of that particular stat aside, it’s fair to acknowledge that this was a genuinely good performance from the much-maligned penalty kill. Their primary (only?) reliable means of success is preventing the other team from getting set up in the offensive zone, and they actually did a pretty good job of that on Friday, regularly turning the puck around and clearing it out within seconds of the Rangers bringing it into the zone. Only one near-miss at the end of the second period — one which could have been a goal had Anthony DeAngelo pulled it in a bit cleaner — stuck out as a wasted opportunity for the visitors.
Even acknowledging that the Rangers don’t have a ton of great offensive talent, bad power plays have definitely kicked this (bad) penalty kill’s teeth in before. And multiple times already this season, terrible penalty killing has spoiled solid-or-better performances at even strength. Two of those three Rangers power plays yesterday came when the score was 1-0, meaning one slip-up would have knotted up a game that had no business being knotted up. For at least a day, credit the penalty kill for showing up and doing its job when the team really needed it to.
Three performances of note
Calvin Pickard — For most of the game, not much was asked of the Flyers’ current starting goalie, but in the moments here and there where the Rangers were able to actually generate some pressure, Pickard was up to the task. His big stop on Lias Andersson too keep the game tied with about six minutes remaining in the game was the one that will show up on the highlight reels, as it kept the Flyers in the lead just long enough for them to head down the ice and make it a 2-0 game moments later. But after a pretty brutal performance in his last start six days prior against Tampa, Pickard has strung together five straight periods without allowing a goal; no matter the level of difficulty on most of those shots, it’s tough to ask for much more from a guy who’s been thrust into the starting role after multiple injuries. Hakstol didn’t commit to a starter for Saturday’s game, but it wouldn’t be too surprising to see the team go back to Pickard to face the club that waived him just before the season in Toronto.
Sean Couturier — The Flyers’ entire top line looked excellent on Friday, and as much as one could reasonably say that there were no true weak spots in their lineup, they were probably the ones whose individual efforts did the most to create that win. But let’s give the shout-out here to Couturier, who was not only the lone Flyer to actually shoot the puck past Lundqvist during game action (if we acknowledge that Travis Konecny’s first-period goal went in mostly because Brady Skjei found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time) but also managed to do so twice. Couturier gathered an impressive nine individual scoring chances on the day, and had a very nice 69.23 percent on-ice Corsi For on the afternoon. If Couturier isn’t all the way back from his early-season struggles, he certainly looks close.
Dale Weise — The big news in pre-game for the Flyers was that some minor line shuffling ended up placing Dale Weise on the second line in place of Oskar Lindblom, a move that was somewhat defensible (given the recent performances of the first and third lines, as well as the fact that to be honest Weise hasn’t been that bad this year) and yet was still one that would make a viewer shake their head a bit and wonder how they got to this situation. So let’s give some credit to Weise, who had what was probably the best possible outing one could ask of him given the situation. Weise played legitimately well, generating offense both on his own and with the help of his linemates. He had seven individual shot attempts and five scoring chances, and had it not been for an absurd penalty call on him late in the second period, it’d have been a darn near spotless game for Weise. Hakstol stated after the game that he thought that Weise’s new linemates — Nolan Patrick and Jakub Voracek — hadn’t quite been at their best in the past few games; he seemed happy with where they were yesterday after the game, so expect to see this trio in place for at least another game or two.
Four stray thoughts
- Travis Konecny got himself a Gordie Howe Hat Trick on Friday, not only scoring the aforementioned first goal but setting up both of Couturier’s tallies in the third and getting in a fight with Noted Worse Strome Brother Ryan Strome after a hit on Couturier in the second period. Congrats to everyone who was mad about the Flyers not getting in a fight for the first quarter of the season, because it appears they listened to you.
- Man, just look at this shot attempt heatmap. How great is it? I think it’s pretty great.
- Tyrell Goulbourne did, in fact, make his 2018-19 regular-season debut after his second call-up of the young season. He played 6:01 across 10 shifts. He actually had one nice set-up attempt from behind the net that went just a bit wide at one point, but as a whole he was clearly just meant to be an energy player in limited shifts. That said, given the all-around performance of the team on Friday, you can expect him to be in the lineup tonight in Toronto.
- A housekeeping note: Anthony Stolarz was called up after the game, while Brian Elliott was placed on injured reserve to make room for him. It’s unclear entirely why this took place, or if someone got hurt; Pickard appeared to be fine in post-game media availability, and if something happened to backup Alex Lyon, it wasn’t made known at any point. The Flyers have one game tonight in Toronto before coming back home, so you would think they wouldn’t make this move unless they felt it was necessary. The best bet here is that Lyon got dinged up at some point, potentially in warmups yesterday, and the Flyers (who are clearly fine keeping just 20 skaters on their roster for the time being) want another body around tonight just in case. We’ll see if we learn anything more on this before game time.