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Preview: It’s finally the final Flyers-Lightning matchup of the season

Tonight is Shore to be a fun Night (for someone) (it’s Shore Night at the Farg)

NHL: Philadelphia Flyers at Tampa Bay Lightning Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

And so the team that kicked off this miserable stretch of games returns to Philadelphia to torment us some more. Prior to their shootout loss to these defending champs on November 18, the Flyers had been wavering back and forth, seemingly undecided on their 2021-22 path. Even that first Tampa game felt like a moral victory: a 4-3 game that was sent to overtime by an 8-seconds-left Claude Giroux goal off a face-off that was ultimately lost in the skills competition. But the Flyers have lost every game they’ve played since then, with our only respite from the misery of watching them lose coming in the form of a Covid-affected postponement of Tuesday’s game against the New York Islanders.

The Flyers are now 8-9-4 for 20 standings points, just one tick above last place in the Metropolitan Division. They’ve received 47.6% of their possible points, which puts them at 24th in the NHL, much closer to the Senators and Coyotes of the league than the Oilers or Panthers or tonight’s opponents. And on top of that, it now appears like Philly will be without Joel Farabee for a few weeks after he left Madison Square Garden with a shoulder injury. It seems we’ve finally got Kevin Hayes back for good, but can add Farabee to the list with Ryan Ellis, Derick Brassard, and Wade Allison.

Even worse than the losses, the statistics, and the injuries is the feeling of watching this team play: it never really feels like they’re going to score. There seems to be no penetration of the opponents’ home plate area with the puck and even the power play has been dismal by both results and process. On top of it all, it feels like a waste of the one thing we’ve been clamoring for forever: great goaltending. Carter Hart and Martin Jones are both putting together career years in net and only have more losses than wins to show for it.

Tonight’s squandered goalie performance will be provided by Hart. Hart is having exactly the kind of season that we all said last year would’ve floated the 2020 Flyers to the playoff bubble: among the league leaders in save percentage, goals saved above average, and goals saved above expected. Or at least, he was before getting drawn into the muck of 2021-22, giving up four and six goals against the Lightning and Hurricanes, respectively, in consecutive games. Another tough loss to the Rangers puts him at 5-6-3 with a .919 save percentage and 2.70 goals against average.

This early week back-to-back with tonight’s game and tomorrow’s matchup with the Colorado Avalanche serves as the bookend to the most difficult stretch of the Flyers’ season, but it remains to be seen if they can escape the dumpster fire of the last month-ish without it spreading to the rest of 2021-22. Last year felt like a good year up until the Flyers had a historically bad month in March that they basically never recovered from.

A good way to put November in the past and move on to the easier part of the schedule would be to show up in one or both of these next two games. Despite a two-goal-plus-an-empty-netter loss to the Rangers four days ago, the Flyers did not look completely outmatched or as listless as some of their losses have looked. They even outshot their opponent for the first time during this losing streak (though we can also thank the nearly nine minutes of power-play time as a result of a Dryden Hunt five-minute major for that). With Tampa on the road on the second game of a back-to-back, starting Brian Elliott and without some key players and Philly on three days rest starting Carter Hart, tonight’s game is probably as good as the circumstances can get for predicting a Flyers win against the Lightning.

*All stats via Natural Stat Trick and Hockey-reference.com.

Projected Flyers lines:

Claude Giroux—Sean Couturier—Cam Atkinson
Morgan Frost—Kevin Hayes—Travis Konecny
James van Riemsdyk—Scott Laughton—Zack MacEwen
Oskar Lindblom—Connor Bunnaman—Patrick Brown

Ivan Provorov—Rasmus Ristolainen
Travis Sanheim—Justin Braun
Keith Yandle—Nick Seeler

Carter Hart
(Martin Jones)

Projected Lightning lines:

Alex Killorn—Anthony Cirelli—Gabriel Fortier
Ondrej Palat—Steven Stamkos—Alex Barré-Boulet
Patrick Maroon—Pierre-Édouard Bellemare—Corey Perry
Taylor Raddysh—Ross Colton—Boris Katchouk

Victor Hedman—Jan Rutta
Ryan McDonagh—Zach Bogosian
Mikhail Sergachev—Cal Foote

Brian Elliott
(Andrei Vasilevsky)

Keep an eye on:

  • Morgan Frost, who doesn’t seem to be affected by the gloom of being a 2021-22 Philadelphia Flyer yet, or at least no one has told him. He had his best game of the season on Wednesday, netting his first goal on four shots. He received some power play time with the top unit, including starting the five-minute PP following the Dryden Hunt misconduct.
  • Steven Stamkos, who is stepping up with his fellow superstars — Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point — out of the lineup. Stamkos is ninth in the NHL in scoring with 25 points in 21 games, has an active seven-game point streak, scored an OT winner last night, and just had his second child last week.
  • The puck drops, because not a single Lightning center is above 50% in face-offs. Yes, it’s a small aspect of the game, but it turns out there is a statistic that the Flyers have an advantage over the Lightning in.
  • Alain Vigneault, whose job security is quickly becoming the subject of speculation and rumor. Vigneault has lasted at least four seasons in all of his previous head coaching jobs but has not had as bad a record with a team this early in his tenure as he currently does with the Flyers (74-53-19) since his very first job leading the struggling Montreal Canadiens in the late ‘90s.
  • The Canadian Flyers looking to make the Olympic roster this year, who’ll be performing in front of their potential coach, Jon Cooper, tonight. This’ll be his second time leading Team Canada, but his first at the Olympics after a silver medal at the 2017 IIHF World Championships. Hart has a real shot at the roster, and Giroux and Couturier have a chance of being bottom line or extra forwards in Beijing. Canada has snubbed our captain in the past, so it’d be no surprise if he can’t crack the lineup at this point in his career, but every team can always use a spare Selke winner on their roster.

Stray stats:

  • The Flyers are 47-41-8-8 (W-L-T-OTL) all-time against the Lightning. Tampa is 21-22-7-1 when they play in Philadelphia.
  • Hart is 0-1-1 against Tampa this year, with 60 saves on 67 shots. While he looked strong in the first game, the Lightning’s first two shooters in the skills competition seemed to have no trouble scoring on him and we didn’t even need a third to decide the game. Hart has yet to win a game against Tampa in his young career: 0-4-1 with a .882 save percentage and a 3.62 goals against average. Meanwhile, Vasilevsky is 10-2-0 against the Flyers, with a .932 SV% and 2.29 GAA.
  • In games that were his first game against a previous team, the well-traveled Brian Elliott is 2-1-1 with a .905 save percentage and 2.50 goals against average. Predictably, his worst of those games came in net for the Flyers in a 5-4 loss to the Calgary Flames in his first season in Philadelphia. Sean Monahan scored a hat trick entirely on the power play and in the second period.
  • At 12.5%, it’s reasonable to wonder if the Flyers have the worst power play in the league, especially when compared with the offensive talent they have on the unit. The only teams with a worse percentage are the Islanders—who have had some COVID issues and are slumping hard this year—and the Coyotes—who are kind of not even trying to ice a competitive team this year.
  • Of the qualified goalies with a better 5-on-5 save percentage than Carter Hart (.930), none are seeing more shots per game. In fact, only Elvis Merzlikins (.922) and Filip Gustavsson (.913) face more shots on average than Carter Hart. No one is facing more 5-on-5 high danger shots per 60 minutes than Hart. It’s still possible that he pulls out a career year in 2021-22, but the team in front of him is trying hard to make sure he doesn’t.