Flyers vs. Kings recap: Shutout loss in overtime puts the Flyers at a crossroads
For the second straight game, the Flyers prioritized playing safe defensive hockey over all else. It sort of worked today, but it also didn’t, and it’s up to them to decide if this is really a winning strategy. (It’s probably not!)
Today, the Flyers lost a 1-0 contest to the Los Angeles Kings at home in overtime. Jeff Carter (he used to play for the Flyers) (not a lot of people know that) (it’s rarely mentioned) scored the only goal in the contest, beating Michal Neuvirth about halfway through the 3-on-3 period while Brandon Manning and Dale Weise were on the ice. Neuvirth was by far the Flyers’ best player in the game, making one of the best saves we’ve seen all season on Dustin Brown in the second period and two other saves later in the game that looked pretty similar to that first one. Radko Gudas checked some guy into next week (and, also, into Steve Mason) and it was awesome.
We won’t get a ton into the remaining play-by-play specifics here, because it was a 1-0 loss and there’s not a whole lot to talk about here. Let’s talk big-picture.
The Flyers have played three games since the All-Star break ended. The first of those three games was hands-down the worst game they’ve played all season. The two since then — Thursday’s 3-1 win over Montreal, and today’s loss — were both close-fought games, ones that could have gone either way had a bounce gone a different direction. In that vein, picking up three out of a possible six points in the entire stretch here seems fair enough.
But with the exception of a brief stretch late in the first period of today’s game and some of the third period against Montreal, the Flyers have basically played offense-optional hockey in the past three games. They would pick up 16 shots (a season-low) against Carolina and 17 today against L.A., and even in the one win in the bunch, the Flyers only tallied 24 shots against the Canadiens — well-below their year-to-date average of 31.1 shots per game.
We won’t belabor the point about the Carolina game — I spent too many words yelling about that one after it happened, and the Flyers’ true talent is obviously above what they showed in that game. But even despite the fact that the Flyers have picked up three out of four points since then, the way that the team, from the top down, has reacted to its worst performance in years tells us a lot, and not much of it is good.
You already know that Travis Konecny and Shayne Gostisbehere were scratched today, as they were on Thursday. The coach’s response to that terrible game, in which the Flyers had just 16 shots on goal, was to bench two players who can help create offense because they may not be helping out very much defensively. This overtly sends a message to the rest of the team that playing offense is not a priority and taking actual chances on the ice is bad. Charlie talked about this a bit in his always-fantastic observations for Thursday’s game:
It also is fair to theorize that the reason that Philadelphia tightened things up with Gostisbehere and Konecny out of the lineup may have been because the remaining players received a clear message from the coaching staff: if two of our biggest offensive risk-takers just got scratched, the rest of us had better keep things simple and play a conservative game, or we could be next. I can’t imagine that motivation will remain effective forever, though. Even if Hakstol’s decision “worked” last night, removing two of the team’s best offensive weapons will eventually cost them games, as the Flyers simply don’t have the defensive talent up and down the lineup to repeat this formula nightly.
And, post-game today:
Players in the locker room disagreed that tactical changes had been made to play more conservative. However...— Charlie O'Connor (@BSH_Charlie) February 4, 2017
...both Couturier and Streit said that in support on 50/50 battles, they might be less likely to move forward & more likely to play it safe.— Charlie O'Connor (@BSH_Charlie) February 4, 2017
Sure enough, the result is a team that already is lacking in offensive talent (because, y’know, you took two guys who have it and replaced them with Dale Weise and Nick Schultz) that suddenly finds itself worried about what may happen if it tries to play offense at all. The end result is three goals and 41 shots on goal across two games, and an overwhelmingly unexciting product to watch, win or lose.
And here’s the thing: playing boring, defensive hockey can work! Sure, it’s not necessarily that fun to watch, but the Flyers’ job is to win first and foremost, and if you’ve got the right personnel, you can beat teams by not giving them an inch and grinding them into submission. Shit, look at the team the Flyers played against today. They’ve won two Cups this decade by doing just that.
But the Flyers don’t have that personnel. Taking out the defensive liabilities that are Ghost and Konecny aren’t going to make the Chris VandeVelde-Pierre-Edouard Bellemare-Roman Lyubimov fourth line better defensively than they actually are, or make any of Schultz, Manning, and Andrew MacDonald (who played 23:47 today) more than No. 6 NHL defensemen (at best). Taking Ghost and Konecny out of the lineup won’t stop the Flyers from giving the puck away in the defensive zone the way that they did far, far too many times today (the official scorekeepers had them at 14 giveaways; I would guess the actual number is far higher than that). This game is a regulation loss without some heroics from Neuvirth, and trying to recreate it because it only ended up in one goal allowed is asking for failure.
So does Dave Hakstol think he has the personnel to play good defensive hockey on the ice now, now that he doesn’t have his offensively-talented, defensively-worrisome young players out there? Or does he realize what he has — a group of defensemen with two actual top-4 players, and a bottom-6 that isn’t that good offensively but also isn’t really great defensively — and has decided that this is the best way to win hockey with that group?
I’m not sure which is worse.
What I do know is that playing like this, with this lineup, is going to lead to a lot more boring hockey games and a lot more losses. With the exception of Matt Read, who had the team’s lone 5-on-5 goal on Thursday and had a couple of solid chances go wide today, the Flyers have been completely punchless any time Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek haven’t been on the ice in the past two games. Some of that is because of the mental aspect we discussed earlier, but part of it is because it’s so damn hard to score without good offensive players. If there’s no real offensive creativity on a line, the only way you’re going to definitely outscore your opponent is by out-executing them AND out-working them AND occasionally getting lucky. That’s a really damn hard thing to do in any sport ever, and taking two of the five or so best offensive playmakers that the team has is not going to magically make the rest of the lineup capable of doing it.
Maybe this is all just a phase, an experiment from the coach desperately looking for an answer to the slide he’s seen unfold since the new year as he’s watched the Eastern Conference wild card race tighten up substantially. Honestly, now that I’ve spent 1100 words complaining about this, you can probably bet that Ghost and Konecny are going to be back in the lineup against the Blues on Monday.
But the point is this: we may not know that the Flyers are good enough to win games by playing something other than boring defensive hockey. This season has been a mixed bag, and nothing is clearly working well enough that it’s the easy answer. But we do know that what they’re doing right now is not the answer. Forget the fact that the Flyers have collected three out of four points since Thursday. Unless you think Michal Neuvirth is going to keep stopping 95.5 percent of the shots he faces (and if there’s one good thing to come from this stretch, it’s that Neuvirth might just be back to where we know he can be), this is not a winning formula and Dave Hakstol has to get back to putting his best players on the ice no matter what his concerns about them may be.
Back at it against the Blues on Monday.