For a more established team, Thursday’s 5-1 loss to the NHL-best Tampa Bay Lightning would be seen exactly the way some of the Flyers saw it, as a blip at the end of what was otherwise an exhilarating sprint back into the playoff conversation.
The night ended with the Flyers still holding one of those two coveted wild-card spots, separated from the teams above and below by just a couple of games. The NHL has done a lot of subtle things to maintain interest and attendance throughout the league, but the hard salary cap and the somewhat misleading way of listing a team’s record and accumulating points are at the top. The Flyers, for example, are on the inside looking out because Travis Konecny has quickly become one of the greatest three-on-three players of all-time.
OK, slight exaggeration there, but it made you laugh, right? So should any contention that the Flyers are anything more than the .500 team we thought they would be when the season started. Only in the NHL can you lose 10 straight games and accumulate five points. Only in the NHL can shootout acumen/luck determine a playoff spot. That 2010 run to the Finals? It was made possible when Brian Boucher stopped Olli Jokinen in a shootout during the last game of the season.
We should note that the shootout was important only because of a 7-2-1 run the Rangers made over the final 10 games. As in this season, those Flyers seemed buried by a one-month stretch between late November and late December in which they lost 14 of 17 games. New York also made up 10 points on the Flyers over the final three weeks of the season to make that final game relevant.
Those Flyers had goalie issues. They began the season with Ray Emery and ended it with Michael Leighton, he and Boucher losing the job at times because of injury or ineffectiveness. This Flyers team doesn’t have that problem, at least not yet, despite the clunker Michal Neuvirth delivered Thursday — allowing five goals and making 17 saves, none of them memorable.
Neuvirth was no doubt the No. 1 goat of that game, one in which the Flyers possessed the puck at least 80 percent of the first period, had breakaways and odd-man rushes, and could not score. That, too, underlines their relative mediocrity. Each of Tampa’s top three lines Thursday included at least one player with 16 goals. Beyond the Flyers’ prolific first line, only Wayne Simmonds, who plays on the power play and has spent some of this season on the first line, could claim that. The Lightning also have an all-star goalie (Andrei Vasilevskiy) who not only stopped 36 of 37 shots, but also made most of them look easy.
Flyers fans and the team’s cash-collecting management are right to say that anything is possible once you reach the playoffs. What’s different is the gap in team makeup and philosophy. John Stevens was fired in December 2009 despite having a 13-11-1 record. Peter Laviolette’s 28-24-5 record the rest of the way wasn’t any better. But theirs was a team built for the here and now, driven by high-priced veteran all-stars such as Chris Pronger, Kimmo Timonen and Danny Briere who had built their resumes elsewhere. They underachieved during the regular season. They found their rightful footing in the postseason.
This team isn’t playing for the same stakes. In addition to the “anything-can-happen’’ mantra that comes directly from the accounting department, general manager Ron Hextall tells you that every time he downplays any trade-deadline improvement that might cost even one of his draft picks or prized farmhands. The fundamental difference between these Flyers and the Sixers of just a few years ago is that the Sixers didn’t try to compete as they rebuilt. In fact, anytime someone played well enough to gain value, they traded him for future value.
Hextall has done that, too, but after the season. Brayden Schenn has 21 goals and 29 assists for the St. Louis Blues this season, and has scored in four straight games. The good news is prospect Morgan Frost, the draft pick the Flyers obtained in that deal, is giving every indication this season that he will be a special player in a few years.
But that doesn’t help you now, does it? Neither does Carter Hart’s winning the Western Hockey League’s Goalie of the Week award seemingly every week. There is a chance Oskar Lindblom, playing a more potent and complete game in Lehigh Valley, will boost the back of your lineup come playoff time. So, yeah, anything could happen.
Meaning a playoff berth, which is how this evolving team and its evolving coach should be measured. In winning 16 of its last 23 games, both the coach and his team deserve our admiration.
Let’s just keep it real.