Tonight could be the final game of the Philadelphia Flyers 2019-20 season. We came into this season with plenty of questions: Are Alain Vigneault and Chuck Fletcher the right men for the job? Will Kevin Hayes’ impact be worth the money? Does Matt Niskanen have anything left in the tank? How will Carter Hart look as the starter on a team that’s expected to make the postseason? Is the penalty kill better? Can this team finally reach the second round again?
Luckily for us by the end of the regular season it seemed as though the answer to all these questions was a resounding yes. The very start of the season was up-and-down and the West Coast road trip around New Year’s Day was the hockey equivalent of walking in on your parent’s having of sex, but once this team hit their stride in late January they looked scary. Hart started stealing goals and games, the team finally found ways to win on ice with other clubs’ logos, and the squad started mowing down top franchises in the league. They were a team that went 19-5-1 before dropping their final game of the shortened regular season while showing nearly no fatal flaws.
Despite a four-and-a-half month layoff it looked as though the Flyers hadn’t skipped a beat when 24 teams shipped up to Canada. After knocking off the Pittsburgh Penguins in an exhibition game, Philly took advantage of a unique opportunity and jumped from fourth in the conference to first after taking down the top three teams in the East. The club’s three-game showcase to prove they’re contenders culminated with a depth player posting a two-tally night and a maligned blue liner hinting he might be on his game while the team beat the only squad that is guaranteed a Conference Final spot at the moment.
Then it unraveled. Despite the fortuitous development of taking on the 12th-seeded Montreal Canadiens in the first round, the Flyers pulled off the impressive feat of ultimately being outscored in a six-game series while seemingly throwing every single aspect of this team’s skill set (aside from goaltending) into question. Some (this writer) thought maybe the Habs’ speed was the problem and a tight series like that against Montreal might prepare them for the defensive-oriented New York Islanders. So far it looks like that isn’t the case. Although they have had their moments against New York and maybe deserved a better fate in Game 4 it’s hard to argue they should be anything other than down 3-1 in this series. Which just sucks.
Even though it was only eight years ago 2012 feels so far away. After taking down the Pens in perhaps the best Eastern Conference Quarterfinals match up ever the Orange and Black went out with a whimper in five games the next round to the New Jersey Devils. Since then it’s been, to put it mildly, a bumpy ride for the organization and its fan base. The team made it to the postseason three different times from 2014 to 2018 with none of the appearances resulting in a trip to the second round and exits that resulted in more questions than answers. When it felt as though maybe the franchise was starting to piece together a competitive team for the 2018-19 campaign it resulted in the general manager getting canned in November, his milquetoast hire behind the bench following in December, eight different goalies seeing playing time, and the fan base left to trust a new front office after the last front office failed to live up to expectations.
With all that going on the Flyers were able to form a team with four 20-goal scorers with depth behind them, a top four that was sound in all three zones, and a young starting goalie that gives you a chance to win every night the following season. Those ingredients are still there even if it feels like they might have disappeared a bit during these first two rounds. The question of if we’ll see ‘the old’ Flyers from the regular season tonight may not go the way we want, but that doesn’t mean this season will be a waste.
I think this team is close. I really do. Looking at the six aforementioned questions the Flyers have completed the last one while there really shouldn’t be any concerns over Hart or Hayes moving forward. The concerns over Niskanen and the penalty kill may be concerns that only last for as long as the Flyers remain in the bubble, but neither are issues that will destroy the franchise for years to come. The upcoming seasons will tell us if Vigneault and Fletcher are the right guys for the job, but they have the potential to be the duo that can help Philly ultimately win it all again.
With the past and future covered let’s talk about the now. The moment we’re living in. The moment that features rightful criticism for two of the fan base’s favorite players for not producing a goal since entering the bubble while the team could be knocked out by a club from New York. Where the forward depth has disappeared, the top four on defense have all made costly mistakes, and we’re looking for good periods instead of good games. Obviously the competition in the postseason jumps up a notch, but even with that in mind this team has never really hit its stride in the first two rounds. It’s been the type of performance that’s resulted in some fans asking if the Flyers are actually good or did they just have things break their way for three months before the abrupt pause?
It’s questions like these that we need to see something different tonight and for the rest of the series. There’s an argument to be made that reaching a Game 5 of the second round despite being outscored 26-18 in the first 10 games of the first two rounds means that the team could be doing a lot of things right with the exception of scoring goals. The effort was there in Game 4, but the Islanders still played their game. They have played their game in all four contests of this series much like it felt the Canadiens made the Flyers feel uneasy for all six tilts in the previous round. It’s the nature of the beast playing two clubs like this in the playoffs, but the Flyers are the top team in the conference. All season long this roster showed us why we should believe they were built differently, why we can trust that this postseason will go differently. They proved they’re different by finally advancing past the first round, but the two-round journey that’s come from that victory has resulted in another potential offseason with a lot of questions.
The team has a chance to avoid some of those questions with how they play from here on out. They started to get some quality chances in Game 4 and they have an opportunity to materialize that into production in Game 5. The effort has been clear but the need for production is evident, and being the first team in the bubble to make the Isles’ defense look sloppy would go a long way in quieting a lot of the concerns facing the club if this is their final game. It’d go a long way in quieting concerns about the foundation of this team moving forward. It’s a tall order and it’s something that Barry Trotz’ group isn’t going to just let the Flyers have, which is why they need to take it. Most of us viewed this team differently and although most of us may have not thought they would go all the way, the expectation was they would go out proving they could hang with a potential Eastern Conference Finalist. Not like this.