It’s a delicate balance in a league where parity and inconsistency not only co-exist, but define each other.
Defending a late lead and erasing one in the NHL trace less to a strategy than it does of a mind-set, the ebbs and flows of a team’s confidence dictating results more than any decision about how aggressively to forecheck.
There are a slew of reasons, good and bad, why the Flyers entered their league-mandated bye week on the fringe of the playoff picture, but at the tippy top has been that very struggle. Four times during the 10-game November winless streak that nearly doomed them, the Flyers couldn’t hold onto leads. In five of six losses, they held a two-goal lead halfway through or beyond.
They lost the lead three times to Calgary, and twice blew a two-goal lead in a home game against the Islanders.
Twice their opponent tied them inside of the last two minutes.
“I think we can be better in the last 20 minutes,” Flyers coach Dave Hakstol said last week after his team nearly frittered away a three-goal lead in the third period against the Islanders.
The truth is, they have been.
Since that winless streak, the Flyers are 11-4-1. Six times in that stretch, they have taken a lead of two goals or less into the third period and emerged with two points. In three other games, they rallied to win games they were either tied or behind in.
For sure, there have been blips — they coughed up two third-period goals each in losses to Los Angeles and Buffalo, and nearly squandered a 5-2 lead entering the third period of a Jan. 4 game against the Islanders. But the body of work is encouraging, and at least suggests a team that is curing some of its bigger ills in time for a second-half push.
“I know the coaches have worked hard at it with the players to change a few little things,” Flyers general manager Ron Hextall said. “But I think it’s really a mentality. That’s first and foremost.”
That mentality, though, is where the balance comes in. Teams can be done in by getting too defensive, and burned by over-aggression. A good pinch keeps opponents bottled in their own zone and increases the chance of an errant pass. But a bad pinch, or even an unlucky one, can create an odd-man advantage that a more cautious approach would avoid.
“Closing down a game is not easy,” said Hextall. “It’s not as easy as people believe it is. Because the other team has nothing to lose and they are going to make a push. There’s too much parity in this league for the other team not to make a push. So they’re going to push you.
“At points, it looks like the team protecting the lead isn’t trying to possess the puck. That’s not the case with us. We want to possess the puck. We want to make plays offensively. We certainly want to play down in the offensive zone. In saying that, you don’t want to make a lot of risky plays. Because we all see you’re protecting the lead, you make one risky play and it ends up back in your net.”
Ah, but again, the balance. Where is that line between risk and aggression? And is it that simple?
“I think, as a team, as you grow and really start to sort out roles — that’s part of it,” said Hakstol, who has liberally mixed and matched both line pairings and defensive pairings over the first 42 games.
It should not be overlooked that injuries to Andrew MacDonald and Shayne Gostisbehere, and a 10-game suspension of Radko Gudas, forced young defensemen into expanded roles during that winless stretch.
Healthy during much of that stretch, with a goaltender playing at his peak, the Flyers seem much less jittery these days.
“I think we don’t wait to see how they are going to play or what they are going to do,” Flyers captain Claude Giroux said last Sunday when asked about the improved closeouts. “We kind of play our game and it’s been working well for us.
“We have a couple good games though, and then we slack off how we play. So we’ve got to keep it going.”