As the Flyers reached the halfway point of the 2021 regular season and celebrated a 4-3 win on Thursday night, one which featured one of their best periods of their season (a middle frame that saw the Flyers totally control the run of play en route to a 3-0 win) followed immediately by what was nearly the most demoralizing moment of their season (which is saying something, given what had happened literally one night earlier), something dawned on me that was both objectively, obviously true and yet just feels so thoroughly untrue that I almost refused to process it:
“Holy crap, this team is 3-0 against the Islanders this season.”
Right? Remember? The Flyers beat the Isles in overtime on both nights of a back-to-back at the tail end of January, and the teams played their third of eight this season in that Thursday night roller coaster. It is, indeed, true that in all three of those games, the Flyers scored more goals than the Islanders, and as such “won” those games.
Yet it just continuously feels so hard to process these wins, because no team manages to make the Flyers (and us, Flyers fans) suffer their way to victory quite like the Islanders do. Including the playoff series in the bubble, the Flyers’ last six wins over the Islanders have all featured them blowing a lead of at least two goals en route to the Islanders tying the game eventually, forcing the Flyers to stage a late push to salvage a victory. (That push usually comes in overtime — before Thursday’s victory, each of those last five wins needed overtime.)
Now, let’s ask some questions. First: is blowing leads bad? Yes. Yes, it is.
Is it entirely fair to feel like these are grimy, dirty wins that barely count as wins? No, not really. As a quick refresher of how score effects work will remind us, it’s harder to take a multi-goal lead than it is to rally to erase one. And truthfully, that game on Thursday night was really a pretty good showing until there were about seven minutes left; unlike in many of those other victories-snatched-from-the-jaws-of-defeat-snatched-from-the-jaws-of-victory-the-first-time, the Flyers really were the better team than the Islanders through the healthy majority of this game, and had the goaltender not let up one or two or three goals that ranged between “well, he could have stopped that” and “yeah, he definitely should’ve stopped that”, maybe the entire tone of this all sounds different. Honestly, you play like that most nights, you’re going to win most nights.
Is that really going to make us feel any better about it? No. No, it’s not.
Anywho, the Flyers play the Islanders again tonight. They might win. They might not. They will almost certainly make us feel pain.
Players to watch
It’s a chalk pick after he scored two goals, including the game-winner, on Thursday. But Thursday night was a fall-2019-pre-diagnosis Oskar showing, with him exerting himself as a physical presence along the board and in front of the net and using his strength and smarts to win battles and get to the right places. This all came one night after Lindblom was healthy-scratched, in what Alain Vigneault termed a “reset” for the forward who is still trying to get back to where he was before that diagnosis. Personally, I wasn’t a huge fan of the move at the time, but did that quick day of rest maybe do Oskar — who was undeniably struggling in the few games prior — a lot of good? I’m not 100% convinced, but I will gladly confront the potential that I am wrong there if it means Oskar continues playing like he did on Thursday.
Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Starting Goaltender (But Probably Brian Elliott) As of this writing on Friday night, Saturday’s starter isn’t confirmed, but the guess here is that it’s going to be Brian Elliott, given that this week Carter Hart has given up 12 goals in 2.5 games and just played on both nights of a back-to-back. It is theoretically possible that Alex Lyon, who has played in one professional hockey game since the sports world came to a halt in March of last year, could get this start; the Flyers did call him up from the taxi squad prior to Thursday’s game and had him sit on the bench in what was a clear attempt to give Elliott a rest, and if they want to take that line of thinking even further, they could maybe give the soon-to-be-36-year-old the weekend off as well. But the most likely choice is Elliott. Who, in each of his last four starts, has a) lost and b) either given up four goals or got pulled before he could give up a fourth goal. Everything is fine.
Ha! Ha ha! That was all wrong! I wrote that all last night thinking that there was no way they were going to go back to Hart, for (if you include his appearance in half of the Rangers debacle) the third time in four nights and the fourth time in six nights, given how poorly those games generally went. And then they went and announced this morning that they were gonna do that. Seems like they’re really set on giving Elliott a breather, which is good. Which brings us back to Hart, who looked good through 40 minutes last Thursday and then sorta had the wheels come off in the third. The coaching staff seems to think he’s moving in the right direction, but from both a workload and a recent-play perspective, going back to him tonight is a risk. Let’s hope it’s a good one.
Two big questions
What happens if they get a lead?
I don’t want to belabor the point here, because there are a bunch of paragraphs up there about this already. The Flyers tend to grab early leads against the Islanders, and then they tend to blow those leads. No matter whether that’s random or a byproduct of what the Isles are doing, things just ... tend to go wrong. A blown assignment, a lost battle, a missed save, and things start to snowball. Beating the Islanders in overtime is cool. But you know what’s really cool? Beating the Islanders in regulation. You know what’s even cooler? Beating the Islanders in regulation in a way that doesn’t give all of your fans a coronary. Maybe give it a shot.
A unit of defense? Perhaps?
That said, for as much suffering as this matchup has tended to bring upon the Flyers lately, the Flyers’ team defense against the Islanders as a whole has certainly been better than what it was last season and in the bubble. By both Natural Stat Trick and Evolving-Hockey’s Expected Goal models, Thursday was the Flyers’ stingiest defensive showing of the season by Expected Goals allowed, both overall and at 5-on-5. By the former’s count, the Flyers only allowed one single high-danger scoring chance in the game’s first two periods, and that happened on a power play in the first. Between this one and the Flyers’ previous game against the Islanders — yes, another 4-3 win that featured a blown lead, but one in which the Flyers also largely controlled play and in which they allowed just 1.02 xG at 5-on-5 per NST — there’s been some momentum here. Against a team that really just felt like a boogeyman throughout last season, and one that has frankly run over the East for much of this year, that’s an encouraging sign. If they can just get some goaltending.
(Just gonna casually slide that last sentence in there and hope nobody notices.)
Tonight’s game begins at 7:00 p.m. ET and can be seen on television locally on NBC Sports Philadelphia and nationally on NHL Network, or heard on radio via 97.5 The Fanatic. Vigneault also said that there won’t be any lineup changes from Thursday, which means we’re looking at the following once again:
van Riemsdyk - Couturier - Farabee
Laughton - Hayes - Voracek
Lindblom - Giroux - Konecny
Twarynski - Patrick - Aube-Kubel
Provorov - Braun
Sanheim - Myers
Gustafsson - Prosser