When the game began Tuesday night, the Flyers and the Penguins were separated by a point.
When the first period ended, the difference was about the same, technically — the home team with the better play and the better chances, and, well, if the Flyers were a curling team and not a hockey team, they might have even emerged with a nice little lead, and we’d be talking about a whole different game than the latest clunker they laid in front of the paid crowd.
But they are a hockey team, which means an average of 2.8 goals per game ain’t going to get it done over their next 43 games any more than it did over the first 39. Which means that slim separation in points between them and the Stanley Cup champions is much larger when you consider how Tuesday’s 5-1 loss played out or the historic capabilities of the Penguins and those of this era’s Flyers.
The Penguins scored three goals in 137 seconds to flip a 1-1 game into a 4-1 game. They did so with goals from their fourth line, their first line, and their fourth line again.
On the ice for the Flyers? Their second line, their first line, and their first line again.
Those fellas had their chances. The Flyers had four odd-man rushes in that first period. It was tragically comical to see how all but one ended, especially since Pittsburgh started its backup goaltender.
The Flyers (16-15-8) outshot the Pens, 10-6, in that period, and it ended with all sorts of promise, as Penguins defenseman Kris Letang was sent off for a high stick with just eight seconds remaining. With clean ice to start the second period and the home crowd ready to rumble, the Flyers got one shot on goal.
Between periods, Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan urged his team to not be as cute as it had tried to be in the first period, a period that Flyers starting goaltender Brian Elliott aptly described as “not very much intensity from either side really.’’ Sullivan told his players to just put the puck on net, and they started to after the penalty kill.
Elliott, who had been outstanding over the 13 games he started in succession, aptly took blame for the loss. But he also saw the front end of the game much differently than either his coach or his captain did, the way I and many others saw it.
“First period, we played solid. We played fast. We had some good plays. We had a lot of chances,’’ said Claude Giroux, who had one shot in 21 minutes, 5 seconds, and 24 shifts. “In the second and third, that wasn’t the case.’’
Said coach Dave Hakstol, “I don’t think there’s a whole lot we would change in the first 30 minutes. It’s the next 2, 2½ minutes that cost us the game.’’
That’s a convenient take, one he uses often in a postgame critique that often – too often – contains the “liked the effort, not the result’’ refrain. Truth is, those early flubs cost them the game as much as those 2½ minutes did. Score once even, twice ideally, and the desperate chances that so often mark these debilitating Flyers losses might be reduced, if not eliminated.
But that would require more players with pop than this team’s statistics suggest it has. “Just got to keep working on it,’’ Hakstol said when reminded of that 2.8 goals average. Only five teams had scored less than the Flyers entering Tuesday’s game.
“In terms of generating opportunities and continuing to push the envelope with combinations, things like that. Absolutely we can keep continuing to work to get better there,’’ Hakstol said.
Really, he’s already pushed more envelopes this holiday season than a postal worker. Jake Voracek has been paired with every center they have to produce secondary scoring. Wayne Simmonds has moved up and down lines. Travis Konecny has, too. Shayne Gostisbehere and Ivan Provorov have been paired together to try and generate more offense from the blue line.
At the end of the day, you are what your record says you are, to quote Bill Parcells. And the Flyers are either a team with too many muckers, too little scoring depth, and, thus, little counterpunching ability. Or they are a team that needs a different message, style of play, and technique than what they are being given.
Tuesday night, Michael Raffl, their second-line left winger, made an incredible move on a breakaway, then backhanded the puck across the slot behind goalie Tristan Jarry. In terms of degree of difficulty, the move, and the shot, were 10s. Any contact with either of Jarry’s flailing pads, and the puck was in the net. Instead, it slid across the crease.
Raffl scored Nov. 22 against the Islanders and had a little spurt after that, pumping in three straight during a surprisingly successful road trip out West in early December. He has scored one goal since. He plays hard every night, is physical, has decent wheels, and is a plus-7 despite an 11-point total.
It’s not that this team isn’t trying. It’s just that, in the NHL, trying isn’t nearly enough.