Over the last decade, a stack of statistics have been added to the various ledgers that account professional hockey, some more germane than others. Monday, as the Flyers prepared for their game against the Vegas Golden Knights and their fourth top-tier power play in as many games, Matt Read mused why there wasn’t at least one more out there.
“When we have an opportunity to clear it, we’re clearing it,” said the veteran, a recent call-up. “I don’t know if there is a stat out there that keeps track of that. But if you don’t get that puck deep or out of the zone, that’s when things get scattered. That’s when you lose people. I think the last couple of games we’ve done a better job of not losing people.”
The numbers that are crunched backed that up. In the three games prior to Monday night’s, against the league’s first, second, and fourth power plays, the Flyers’ much-maligned penalty kill unit successfully defended nine of 11 power plays. It gave them at least a chance to grab a point in Boston (they didn’t) and to hold onto two at home against Winnipeg.
The end of each game, however, foretold Monday night’s 3-2 loss to the Knights, and underlined a basic truth: Like the Phillies of the early 2000s, and the current Sixers, the Flyers are a team in transition, streaking this way and that, undoing ugly plays with beautiful ones, and vice versa.
They lost to Boston on Saturday when Brad Marchand bull-rushed a puck into their net with 22 seconds left. They lost Monday night when Vegas scored inside of the final four minutes after the Flyers botched numerous chances to clear the puck from their own zone.
They also lost last night because they surrendered two power-play goals in two power-play tries, and coughed up another game-deciding late goal when their third line of Wayne Simmonds, Michael Raffl, and Val Filppula could not handle the forecheck of a mishmash of Vegas’s third and fourth line, centered by our old friend, Pierre-Edouard Bellamare, who gained a second assist by keeping the puck from clearing the zone.
“We’ve seen this story before,” said Flyers captain Claude Giroux, whose 25th goal tied the game at one early in the second period. “And it’s frustrating. We played a hell of a game. We played the way we wanted to, and everybody was going. A couple minutes left and they find a way to put it in. It’s frustrating.
“We’re letting these games get away from us,” echoed Shayne Gostisbehere. “It’s March. We can’t be doing this. We need every point we can get.”
A quick glimpse of the standings tells you how true that was. It seems eons and not weeks ago that the Flyers rented first place in the Metropolitan Division for a day. Still in third, the Flyers hold a three-point lead over New Jersey for the last wild-card spot and have played one more game. And Florida, with three fewer games played, is just six points back and charging (despite a slip against Ottawa on Monday night).
It’s convenient and misleading to pin this on a sudden slump. Yes, this team had a remarkable 10-0-2 streak in February, but toward its end, the errors that are proving toxic against a string of much better teams were often masked by the competition they sometimes played down to. They won ugly against the moribund Rangers and won ugly twice against the struggling Canadiens before Carolina delivered that 4-1 streak-breaking wake-up call at the start of the month.
That game marked the start of a string of measurement games against teams that were having either much better seasons than they are, or coming on strong — teams with characteristics that gained them points even on off nights. Tampa Bay beat them late. Florida swamped them. Pittsburgh beat them good, too.
The Flyers’ most consistent characteristic this season has been effort. The power play that once looked so mighty has been, for quite a while, predictable and easily solved by opponents . The penalty kill, a ray of hope amid this lull that allowed them to hang with Boston and outlast Winnipeg, went AWOL On Monday night, one goal was actually knocked into the net by their own goaltender, Petr Mrazek.
“Your goaltender has to be your best penalty killer,” Flyers coach Dave Hakstol had said earlier in the day.
He was not on that play.
So where do they go from here? Well, there’s your silver lining of this uneven playbook. Columbus is Thursday’s home opponent. Three of their next four opponents after that have announced they are rebuilding. They still have games with Pittsburgh, Washington, and Boston, but the final three games of their season are against teams on the outside looking in.
Then again, if the Flyers don’t fix things soon, they might be out there with them. These games were supposed to be their mid-terms.
It’s been so dismal, they may not be allowed to take even one final.