What do you get when you put a team struggling through the month of March one season removed from a playoff run that came up a game short of the conference final and a team riding a 17-game winless streak?
The answer came in the form of an exhausting game to even watch. This was a battle royale of mediocrity. This was a game that probably played out exactly as it should have in both result and process.
Yes, the Flyers are a better team than the Sabres. The standings certainly reflect that. But for 40 minutes, they weren’t close to that, so much so that they not only once again dug a hole to the worst team in the league, requiring another frantic third-period rally, but they also had to shorten the bench to do it.
Anyway, here are five takeaways from Monday’s 4-3 Flyers win in overtime against the Sabres.
1. A Lazy Start
It was something noted on the broadcast by Jim Jackson that told the staggering reality of the Flyers month of March. This was not the first time they entered a game coming off a win that could serve as a bonding experience or a character victory that put them back on track.
There was the rally from a 3-0 deficit on March 4 in Pittsburgh. There was the comeback win over Buffalo on March 9. There was an overtime win against the Rangers and another late-regulation win against the Islanders. There was Saturday’s late-regulation win over the Rangers as well, capped off by a goal from Sam Morin, the first of his career.
At some point, one of these games had to turn the tide and get the Flyers to get out of their own way and start playing better hockey. The first 40 minutes of this game demonstrated just how poorly they’ve played and how little those other results have mattered.
The Flyers got completely out-muscled and out-played in the opening period, somehow coming away only down by a goal. They had a chance to correct it then. They struggled further and fell behind by three, allowing two more goals. We’ll get into some of the specifics of those goals in a moment, but it’s the principle of the matter.
The Flyers needed to be ready from the start. For whatever reason, once again, they weren’t. That’s a huge problem when you are trying to convince everyone, both fans of the team locally and those who watch on a national scale, that you are actually deserving of a playoff spot.
2. “Five-Man Unit”
Now to the two defensive plays that might as well have been shown on a loop. After all, these screenshots were all over Twitter as the game progressed.
All five Flyers are on the same side of the ice on the Jokiharju goal sequence. pic.twitter.com/jNJDXZCG3c— Bill Meltzer (@billmeltzer) March 29, 2021
This one led directly to the first goal of the game for Buffalo. Jake Voracek is completely in the wrong here, as Alain Vigneault noted following the game. He’s supposed to be weak-side winger who maintains coverage on the right side. Instead, Voracek made a common assumption this season, that the Flyers had won a battle and would be exiting the zone, completely leaving the zone before the Flyers had possession. Now Oskar Lindblom, the left winger in this case, is also caught on the right side after being engaged in the board battle.
Ultimately, all five Flyers end up on the same side of the ice, leaving Henri Jokiharju all alone and able to walk down Broad Street before firing a shot that beat Brian Elliott five-hole. It’s not a good goal allowed by Elliott, but the defensive coverage is what led to the opportunity to begin with.
That’s one where Buffalo actually scored. Later in the game, this one popped up.
That's one way to play defense... pic.twitter.com/pX27rKWqt0— BroBible (@BroBible) March 30, 2021
You may have heard the players say before, or more specifically GM Chuck Fletcher, say that the Flyers have struggled to play as a five-man unit defensively, unlike last season. When they say five-man unit, it means playing for each other and everybody doing their part as a group. There is a place for everyone to be, a time to provide support, and time to leave the zone when possession has been gained and the battle won. It means that the play of the group is aided by each individual fulfilling a role.
This, this display of defense, puts a new spin on five-man unit. That’s a five-man unit morphed together to try to block the net, I suppose. Realistically, here’s one of the biggest issues the Flyers have defensively. They play defense individually.
You may ask, how does every player end up on the same side of the ice? How can that happen? Hell, even Scott Hartnell seemed to be out of answers on the intermission report. “I don’t know what to tell you,” Hartnell said during the broadcast. Quite frankly, I’m not sure what to tell you either, but I know Hartnell’s response here as a former player rings much louder.
3. Riding the Pine
Before we get into the comeback in the third period, the Flyers invoked a new method for finding a way to win this game. Alain Vigneault came back for the third and shortened the bench. He removed Oskar Lindblom, Nolan Patrick, and Joel Farabee from the game, having the trio ride the pine for the remaining 20 minutes and overtime. This included two power-play opportunities where both Patrick and Farabee had been used regularly.
Maybe there’s some reasoning behind Patrick and Lindblom, given their consistency and overall mental state and physical state still trying to get back at it after long pauses from playing. But Farabee, who is leading the team in goals scored, that one was much more head-scratching.
Vigneault explained the decisions after the game.
“We were down by three. We needed this game, so I decided to shorten up the bench and went with what I thought was our best nine forwards at that time,” Vigneault said. “I put Coots’ line back with G and Jake. I thought Scotty Laughton’s line with Raff and Q were working extremely hard and put Hayesy with TK and James and shortened up the bench and the guys found a way to get it done."
The line that obviously stood out was the “best nine forwards.” Because while you could argue that both Patrick and Lindblom have had both good and bad moments this season and are very much a work in progress still, even at this point in the season, Farabee has consistently been in the top nine.
This response had a lot of social media wanting Vigneault’s head on a silver platter. How dare he bench the team’s leading scorer and say that he wanted to use the best nine forwards he had? But was there something more to it than that?
Vigneault was asked if part of the point of shortening the bench had to do with putting this game on the shoulders of the leadership group and veteran players, since he had noted pre-game that this was a game where they needed to step up.
“That’s 100 percent. At this time in the situation we’re in, if we’re going to move forward and get the job done, your top players have got to be your top players,” Vigneault said. “That’s one of the reasons I put Coots back with G and Jake. We needed a push. We needed those guys to step up. By shortening up the bench, it gave more ice time to a few guys and we were able to find a way to win this game which we desperately needed."
It’s a fair answer with one caveat. Vigneault points out top players and it’s hard to look at Farabee and believe he doesn’t belong in that group. Perhaps it’s fair to push Lindblom and Patrick to the side a bit, not based on potential, but current performance. After all, Vigneault said it was the top nine at this time. But Farabee? That just made no sense.
You can bet Farabee will be motivated as anything for the team’s next game on Wednesday. A one-game reset sure seemed to help Lindblom as well, and now that Patrick got a seat as well, maybe this gets all three of them going.
Or, perhaps more likely, this was AV’s way of saying to the leadership group and veterans that this is the last chance as a group. You can win this game, start the push for the playoffs, and save yourselves from an offseason of complete unpredictability, or you can enter into it with open arms.
The Flyers definitely made their choice on this night at least, even if it came against the floundering Buffalo Sabres, but it will have to continue if they really want to keep playing beyond early May.
4. The Top Dogs
The head coach went all-in and pushed his chips to the center of the table. He bet on captain Claude Giroux. He bet on Voracek. He bet on Sean Couturier. He bet on Kevin Hayes, Travis Konecny and James van Riemsdyk. He bet on Scott Laughton’s line with Michael Raffl and Nicolas Aube-Kubel.
It paid off.
It started simply enough with Hayes taking a nice feed from Travis Sanheim and releasing a quick one-timer that beat Linus Ullmark, hit the post and went in off the netminder’s legs.
From that moment, you saw the fear in Buffalo’s eyes. It had nothing to do with who they were playing. It was that “here we go again” snowball-effect feeling.
Sure enough, the Flyers couldn’t cash in on a power play midway through the period and instead struck for a goal just seconds later, with Giroux in the perfect place for a nifty little pass from Couturier.
It took until the final two minutes of play, when the Flyers called a timeout and got Elliott to the bench. The Sabres and their 17-game winless streak came up just a few inches short of ending, as Giroux disrupted Tage Thompson exiting the zone with daylight in front of him as he pushed the puck just wide of the empty net.
Back the other way, the Flyers got set up in the zone, got some good puck movement, and Ivan Provorov got the puck on net. It bounced a couple of times, first hitting the stick of Thompson, then deflecting off Couturier and bouncing in past Ullmark to tie the game at three with 1:29 to play.
It may have been harder than it should have been, but just when it looked like the Flyers were going to become the footnote of the conclusion of Buffalo’s losing skid, they found a way to prolong it.
5. Pretty Play from Provy
The top players showed up in overtime as well. There wasn’t much time in the extra session, so it’s easy to break down.
Buffalo won the opening face-off and controlled briefly. As the Flyers started to get control, Giroux turned back into the Flyers zone looking for a way to reset and get back on the attack. Giroux started to lose his footing as he jousted for the puck with Rasmus Dahlin. For a brief moment, Dahlin knocks Giroux to his knees twice and jars the puck loose.
Dahlin turns and looks like he wants to possess the puck and move it back out to the neutral zone for the open forward, but doesn’t get a lot on it. As Giroux tries to get up, Dahlin loses positioning and Konecny comes back to retrieve, turning back the other way as Provorov jumps up on the play. Dahlin is caught, and actually throws a bit of a shot to the back of Giroux’s head as he tries to get past and get back into the play.
On the two-on-one, Dahlin is now the player truly caught deep for Buffalo, leaving two forwards to defend the rush. Casey Mittelstadt is the defender as Taylor Hall chugs up the ice trying to get back into the play. As a forward, Mittelstadt loses leverage on the odd-man rush, eventually getting turned around trying to keep pace and drawing closer to Konecny. Konecny slips the pass between his legs to a streaking Provorov, now in all alone on Ullmark. Provorov makes a pretty move to open up the netminder and slides it through the five-hole for the win.
As sweet of a goal as it was and as much as the Flyers needed the two points, this was less about them coming back to win and more about Buffalo finding a way to lose another game, one they could have closed out. Mere inches from being a regulation loss for the Flyers to a team that hadn’t won since Feb. 23.
The constant need to fight and claw to get back into games and eventually win them to gain any traction in the standings, the constant falling behind early, making repeated mistakes to shoot themselves in the foot, it is ultimately what defines this team and is becoming their identity. This is who the Flyers are. They can either shake that and make a push or watch the season fade away and brace themselves for a long and challenging offseason where a lot of difficult decisions and changes will be made. The choice continues to be theirs.