The timeout was called 8 minutes, 22 seconds into the game. A second goal had just eluded Carter Hart, Joel Eriksson Ek corralling Phil Varrone’s errant pass and then banking it off the hard-luck hockey veteran. Heads hung. Hart, just 20 in his 10th start, looked uncharacteristically unnerved.
This kind of thing has occurred repeatedly in this Flyers season that never really was. But Dave Hakstol, the previous coach, was often protective of his timeouts, saving them for a rainy day.
The rain had come. And everyone, players, fans — Scott Gordon if he watched replays from Allentown — were painfully aware of what so often came next. A sense of desperation, stick-gripping, all the things practiced to escape that season-long slump this team has been mired in, washed away in the panic that ensued.
“If you’re getting behind a lot, there is this feeling that you are chasing the game,” Gordon said after the Flyers rallied twice to defeat the Minnesota Wild, 7-4, Monday night. “And you’re never putting the opposition on their heels. And they can feel more confident about what they’re doing, and it goes the opposite way for the team that is chasing.”
If the Flyers need a title to their team video this season, "Chasing the game" sounds like a tap-in winner. Of the 29 previous games in which they surrendered the first goal, they lost 22 of them. In 19 of those games, their opponent scored the next goal to push the lead.
And the panic.
“When [they] get two goals like that early, I think sometimes you get heads hanging. It’s frustrating, especially with the wins being far and few between,” Gordon said. “It’s very easy just to say, ‘Well here we go again.’ But I didn’t feel that, and I just wanted to reinforce that to make sure they understood there is nothing wrong with the way we were playing.”
Gordon is the team's interim head coach. There is this sense that he will last to the end of this season, if for no other reason than the goals for this season have changed since he took the job. No one talks about the playoffs anymore. The league's top draft pick this June is closer to their grasp now. The angst on the internet has been replaced with trade proposals both rational and absurd, about evaluations both rational and absurd.
Gordon escapes most of this, probably because he is seen as a rental. Maybe he sees it that way, too. Just a few months ago, when he was coaching in Lehigh Valley, I asked him if he longed to return to the NHL, where he had coached the Islanders and later assisted in Toronto.
"I didn’t think about coaching in the NHL when I was at Providence, and I don’t now,'' he said then, referring to the Providence Bruins of the American Hockey League. "I just worry about what’s in front of me. I’m not a high-stress guy. I do what’s in front of me. That’s my job, and I worry about that.''
He has been true to that here. Someone counted 11 different line combinations Monday. He’s reconstituted the first power play unit to include five forwards. He’s preached pace, a lost concept over the first 2 1/2 months of this herky-jerky season, and the Flyers were rewarded with five power plays Monday as a direct result. You want to turn your power play fortunes around, getting a bunch of them in a game is one good way to do it.
He’s fixing people, too, or at least his tenure is coinciding with their emergence. James van Riemsdyk, dubbed a grand failure under Hakstol’s tenure, scored a hat trick Monday and has five goals over his last four games. He had six goals in the previous 27 he played.
Now 29, van Riemsdyk used "dialogue" repeatedly in answers about his current coach.
Gordon was a Toronto assistant from 2012 into 2014, when van Riemsdyk first pumped in 30 goals in a season. When he sat JVR down to talk before a game in Washington last week, it was to remind him why that player had been so successful.
“It helped for sure,” JVR said after Monday’s game. “He knew what I was capable of as a player. I remember when I went to Toronto, I kind of went there without having too much opportunity when I was here the first time showing what I could really do. When I first got there, I’m playing 4-on-4, last-minute of the game, defensive situations, offensive situations. I’m on the power play, on the penalty kill. It’s funny at certain times you feel a little boxed in … Gordo is someone who saw me play in those situations and knows what I can bring to the table. And he challenged me to be better.”
Gordon has done the same with several of the players he had as a coach in Lehigh Valley — and with one who bypassed there. After not scoring a goal in his previous 25 games, Nolan Patrick had four points Monday night, a byproduct of a jump in his game since Gordon began the practice of selectively using video at practices, and even before games, to preach to him about pace.
“Nolan, for me, is at the tip of the iceberg of what he’s going to be,” said Gordon.
Will Gordon be there to see it melt? Coach Joel Quenneville, the three-time Cup winner, is still out there. So, too, are a handful of men with thicker resumes than Gordon, men with ties to new general manager Chuck Fletcher, to team president Paul Holmgren, to both. It’s a list that is likely to expand, not contract, when this season comes to an end.
To his credit, Gordon is coaching like he has nothing to lose.