Decision by decision, from a Game 3 regret to a reshuffled lineup at practice Tuesday, Dave Hakstol has begun to treat this Eastern Conference quarterfinal against the Penguins with the short-term thinking that any playoff series deserves.
For a coach whose mission is to shepherd the Flyers, particularly their youngest and most promising players, through this transition phase for the franchise, and who is supposed to keep the long view in mind at all times, it has seemed a struggle to get his team to play at its best in the postseason. In 2016, during Hakstol’s first NHL playoff experience, the Washington Capitals outscored the Flyers 12-2 through the first three games and continued to control the flow of play through the next three, as some spectacular performances by goaltender Michal Neuvirth pushed the series to six.
Now, the Penguins have blown out the Flyers twice in three games, winning 7-0 in Game 1 and 5-1 in Game 3, and while the Flyers weren’t necessarily talented or deep enough to go toe-to-toe with either that Capitals team or this Penguins team, it’s still distressing that they haven’t been able even to keep most of these games close.
Over five of the nine playoff games Hakstol has coached the Flyers have been outscored 24-3, and maybe those lopsided outcomes are just a reflection of how far the Flyers really are from being Stanley Cup contenders. (A reminder: They’re pretty far.) But they might also reflect a coach who is still figuring out how to adjust his message and strategy from the regular season to the postseason.
“I think every game has been different,” Hakstol said Tuesday. “There’s no connection, first of all, to a playoff series [two] years ago. There just isn’t. But this series, I think each game has been different from my perspective and our team’s perspective. For sure, game number three, we let the game get away from us with some sloppy penalties. And there’s more to it than that; it’s never just that simple. But if you want to look for one key reason, that’s a good place to start.”
It’s a good place to start, but not to stop. It wasn’t a power play, for instance, that had Hakstol second-guessing himself after Game 3, not really. Yes, Evgeni Malkin did score on a man advantage early in the second period for a 3-0 Pittsburgh lead, but Hakstol admitted that he erred by not calling a timeout immediately after the goal to settle down his players. Five seconds after Malkin scored, Sidney Crosby won the center-ice faceoff, powered into the Flyers’ zone and slipped a cross-ice pass to defenseman Brian Dumoulin, whose wrist shot scooted through Brian Elliott’s legs for the Penguins’ fourth goal.
“I had no doubt we could come back and dig our way out of that hole, and you want to save that timeout for the critical time at the end of the game,” Hakstol said. “But if you go home with it in your back pocket, what good does it do you?”
There is merit to the notion that a coach ought to trust his players when the going gets hard, that Hakstol understandably didn’t want to display panic in just the series’ third game. But that approach is better suited for the long road of the regular season, when there is time for a team to learn a lesson or two or 10. In the heat of the playoffs, NHL coaches break from their norms and shake things up all the time; players come to expect it.
No one in the Flyers’ locker room appeared surprised, then, that with nearly 48 hours to think about what went wrong in Game 3, Hakstol came to the Skate Zone on Tuesday ready to do something different. He changed line combinations, having Nolan Patrick center Travis Konecny and Wayne Simmonds, reuniting Claude Giroux, Jake Voracek and Sean Couturier, a group that had been together for the regular season’s first 25 games.
“At the time we went away from it, that line had been outstanding,” Hakstol said. “We weren’t playing well as a team at the time, so we wanted to build a little bit more depth into our forward group. … But we feel a little differently about our forwards now.”
Put simply – and assuming Couturier, who had to be helped off the ice Tuesday after colliding with defenseman Radko Gudas, is healthy enough to play in Game 4 – Hakstol poured all the Flyers’ high-end offensive talent on their first two lines. It was the move of a coach who was desperate to win his next game, who couldn’t afford to have his team overwhelmed again by a superior opponent, and Hakstol has to get used to making those kinds of decisions at this time of year.