NEW YORK — Five observations from the Flyers' crushing 5-4 loss Tuesday night to the New York Islanders, the Metropolitan Division's worst team:
It's no secret that the Islanders are a fleet team and that rookie Mathew Barzal has two speeds: fast and faster. Why, then, did Flyers coach Dave Hakstol have the plodding Jori Lehtera on the ice shortly after the Flyers had tied the game at 4 with a furious third-period rally?
Late in the game, Barzal blew past Lehtera and scored on a breakaway. It turned out to be the winning goal. Lehtera works hard, but he cannot play center at this stage of his career and match up against speedy players such as Barzal.
Scott Laughton, one of the Flyers' quickest players, was benched for the first time this season Tuesday, and it cost the team dearly.
On Barzal's goal, defenseman Ivan Provorov pinched into the offensive end and was caught up ice. Provorov is known for his great hockey IQ, but he didn't show it on that sequence. You cannot gamble in that situation, especially with the fourth line on the ice. Another question: Why was the fourth line even on the ice with the game tied and 6:28 left?
Petr Mrazek "battled out there," Hakstol said after the defeat. But he didn't make the big save that could have turned around the game.
With the Flyers, Mrazek is 6-6-3 with a 3.22 goals-against average and .891 save percentage. Which leads to an interesting question: Whom do you start in Thursday's must-win home game against Carolina?
Michal Neuvirth and Brian Elliott are close to being ready to return from injuries. If they are ready, give one of them the nod because Mrazek has been underwhelming.
In fact, rookie Alex Lyon might be a better option at this point.
Robert Hagg led the NHL in hits and was one of the Flyers' steadier defensemen all season before a mini-slump.
It's time to get him back in the lineup because the Flyers could use his physical play. The third pairing of Brandon Manning and Radko Gudas has been an adventure.
Some overreacting fans, irate with the loss to the Isles, say the Flyers don't deserve to make the playoffs because they couldn't beat such a weak team.
The frustration is understandable. Playing without any urgency for most of the first 40 minutes — when they fell into a 4-1 deficit — was unacceptable, especially for what was at stake. And the loss could give the Flyers a tougher first-round opponent if they do make the playoffs.
But consider this: Since Dec. 4, the Flyers have the NHL's fifth-best record. Yes, they can be maddening with the way they play up or down to their competition, but, for the most part, they have played very good hockey — better than 26 other teams — over the last four months. With two games left, their magic number is three points to clinch a playoff spot.
This team has done things the hard way all year, so don't be surprised if it comes down to the final game against the Rangers on Saturday to decide if they are in the playoffs.