Three days before St. Patrick’s Day, the end of the rainbow may have finally dissipated for the Flyers. The kid goalie thudded back to earth, and the porous defense that had seemingly buried them before his arrival returned like a mean-spirited leprechaun in a 5-2 loss to the Washington Capitals at the Wells Fargo Center.
With 12 games remaining on their schedule including Friday’s in Toronto, the Flyers will need 20 of a possible 24 points available in their remaining games to reach 96 for the season. That’s the number interim coach Scott Gordon has targeted as their entry fee, the exact number reached by the Flyers when they reached the postseason in 2016.
The Flyers gained at least a point in 18 of their final 23 games to reach the Stanley Cup playoffs as a seventh seed that season. Their reward was a first-round matchup with these same Washington Capitals, whom they extended to six games despite scoring just six goals over the entire series.
Still, this was seen by many as the start of a new era. Michael Neuvirth’s performance created hope that he would be one of those great late bloomers. Ron Hextall’s bold choice to replace Craig Berube with Dave Hakstol, a successful college coach with no pro coaching experience, appeared prescient. The ride for the first-year coach had been bumpy, but the team, with prospects and picks galore in their future, appeared on the upswing.
Especially since they seemed to finally have found their elite goalie.
It all sounded so familiar.
Two years before, the Flyers had extended the heavily favored New York Rangers and Henrik Lundqvist to seven games, largely due to the play of their goalie of the future at the time, Steve Mason. Four months after signing a three-year $12.3 million deal with the team, Mason shook off a concussion to play in five of the seven games, recording a 1.97 goals against average and a .939 save percentage.
He was 25.
The Flyers and many of their fans are big on their history. Unless, of course, it gets in the way of the narrative of the time. And no doubt about it, with prospects sliding into the lineup and grabbing important roles by the months in this season’s remarkable resurrection, their goal of joining the NHL’s elite performing teams seems much less far-fetched than it did just two months ago.
Even with Thursday’s loss, the Flyers record since bouncing from last place in the NHL is 19-6-2.
And yet their margin of error has continued to shrink.
"This is probably as close to being in the playoffs as being in them,’’ Gordon had said before the game. "They’re all Game 7s, really.’’
Which begs the question: Are the playoffs necessary for you to believe this team has turned some proverbial corner? Is the cooling down of Carter Hart, who allowed four goals in the first 19 shots he saw Thursday, a likely leveling off for a rookie, an offshoot of rust, or …
A sobering reminder of our collective overexuberance about similar stretches by his predecessors?
There are compelling arguments on all sides. Under Gordon, young players such as Travis Sanheim, Oskar Lindblom, Travis Konecny and lately, Philippe Myers, have improved before your eyes, daily. Jake Voracek, missing for four of the last five games due to illness and a suspension, is playing perhaps the best hockey of his career. Certainly the most physical. Beyond Hart, there are young goalie prospects galore who could fill the void if he is not The One.
But there’s this gnawing characteristic of this team that won’t go away until they join that elite club. Whether it’s 2014, 2016 or now, 2019, they seem to play better once nothing is expected of them. In a sport of streaks good and bad, they trend wildly in both directions.
Are they this good? Or this bad? Grappling with that question has cost both coaches and GMs their jobs. The Flyers have yet to beat the Capitals in three tries this season, all since Gordon took over. They were also winless in four matchups with Columbus this season, and they are also winless in three tries against Tampa Bay, although two of those went into overtime.
"They’re a good team,’’ said Scott Laughton after Thursday’s loss. "They’re champions for a reason.’’
Elite teams play under the weight of expectations, often elevating their game because of it.