With each passing game, the Flyers only seem to get worse. The mistakes remain, the sloppy play continues, and it is burying this team long before the season hits the true stretch run.
The Flyers are a struggling team right now. And perhaps their two biggest problems with their struggles is that they continue to dig holes too difficult to overcome and continue to shoot themselves in the foot.
Both Alain Vigneault and Claude Giroux said the Flyers are trending in the right direction. James van Riemsdyk agreed and said they did a lot of good things. But the results don’t lie. The Flyers are not a playoff team at the moment in the standings for a reason. And they need a quick fix or this will be yet another season of disappointment, yet another season of mediocrity.
Here are five takeaways from Saturday’s Flyers-Capitals game.
1. Not Sharp to Start
After the last game, I noted that the Flyers had a lead just once in six games at the end of a period. On Saturday, that trend continued. The Flyers trailed 2-0 at the end of the first and 4-2 at the end of the second.
This is exactly what can do teams in. You can’t play from behind all the time. You can’t just decide to expel energy and mount a rally and put it all together in the final period hoping to make up the deficit.
The first period was an especially troubling one for the Flyers in this game. The first goal came just under five minutes in and was a controllable shot for Brian Elliott that left a massive rebound. Yes, there was a turnover that led to the opportunity. Yes, there was a late coverage on the guy going to the net that got the goal. But the save that Elliott made needed to be controlled.
It was the start of a rough night for Elliott, who eventually allowed three goals on 10 shots before his night game to an end.
Perhaps the biggest sign that the Flyers were not sharp to start wasn’t just Elliott. On the second goal for Washington, the Flyers played 19 seconds with four players on the ice. Nineteen seconds before Nicolas Aube-Kubel realized it was his turn to get on the ice. By the time he did, he was out of the play and a non-factor. He was demoted to the fourth line for the final two periods.
But that’s a sign of preparation. You can be ready to go from the jump or you can fall behind. The Flyers are lately a team that looks like they almost expect to trail after the first period.
2. Turnovers, Turnovers, Turnovers
Both of the goals for the Capitals in the first period were the result of, you guessed it, turnovers.
Let’s start with the first, the goal by Daniel Sprong on a rebound. Before the shot by Jakub Vrana that Elliott should have controlled, Nolan Patrick turns the puck over at center ice to Evgeny Kuznetsov. That’s how the Capitals are able to enter the zone two-on-two and eventually jump on the rebound. Patrick also had a turnover on a power play that led Travis Sanheim to take a penalty, giving the Capitals their first power play and eventually Alex Ovechkin's 716th career goal.
On the second goal, before Aube-Kubel finally jumps on the ice for his shift and gives the Flyers five players on the ice, Giroux drops the puck to no one in particular. That’s what allows Washington to take control and before you can blink, the puck is in the net.
To a degree, one thing van Riemsdyk did say after the game is absolutely true: every mistake is ending up in the back of the Flyers net right now. It’s becoming more magnified with turnovers and they are happening consistently. Every game, this team mismanages the puck and shoots themselves in the foot.
It’s a recipe for failure, and the last seven games have been a fitting look at just how much the Flyers were surviving early in the season as teams struggled to get going. Now that others are finding their stride, the Flyers are getting left behind.
3. Giving It Back
At the start of the second period, the Flyers looked like a more motivated team and managed a goal less than three minutes in to get the margin back to one. New game, right? Nope, they gave that goal back in just 29 seconds.
It was a pretty egregious goal too. Off an offensive-zone face-off, the Flyers are completely flat-footed. Nick Jensen sprints through the forward group, then gets a step on Shayne Gostisbehere. Nate Prosser can't close off the gap, and Jensen roofs one to make it 3-1 just like that.
It’s one thing if this happens once in a blue moon. When you are playing teams like the Capitals or Bruins with regularity, it’s certainly possible that a good team gets the push back they need and can score. But this is happening almost every game at this point.
Just look at the last seven, where the Flyers are now 2-5-0:
- March 2 at Pittsburgh – Flyers score at 2:32 of the second, Penguins score 1:07 later. Flyers score at 11:00 of the third, Penguins score 1:08 later.
- March 6 at Pittsburgh – Flyers score at 6:08 of the first, Penguins score 1:46 later.
- March 9 vs. Buffalo – Flyers score at 1:56 of the first, Sabres score 2:37 later.
- March 11 vs. Washington – Flyers score at 11:14 of the first, Capitals score 1:56 later.
- March 13 vs. Washington – Flyers score at 2:36 of the second, Capitals score 29 seconds later.
That’s five of the last seven games where the Flyers have allowed a goal within three minutes of scoring. In one of those games, it happened twice. It can’t happen. It’s not the right response a winning team.
Every player has to be ready for the next shift, whenever that may be. If it comes after a goal, you can’t give it right back, especially when you are climbing out of a hole like the Flyers have been.
4. Playing Soft
At one point in the third period, as the Flyers desperately tried to make it a game again, Giroux was taken down and then dragged like a ragdoll by Garnet Hathaway. His teammates watched it the entire time. No one came to the aid of the captain. That is a massive problem in team toughness.
Before everyone thinks that means Sam Morin needs to be in the lineup for physical presence or the Flyers need a fighter on the roster, team toughness isn’t about the physical play. It’s about being tough to play against.
The teams that are toughest to play against are relentless on the forecheck. They make it a nightmare for defenses and then aggressively prevent the forecheck from generating in the offensive zone. They provide support along the walls. They go to the net and create traffic and mass chaos, taking away the goalie’s eyes and gaining inside positioning.
The Flyers are not a tough team to play against right now. All of the qualities that made them so endearing a season ago appear to be gone. They don’t win battles throughout the game. They don’t get to the net. They don’t make things hard on the opposition.
Opposing offenses are able to go wherever they want. They can take liberties on players all game. They can crash the net with ease. They win battles on the forecheck.
Call it whatever you want: soft, weak, uninspired. It’s not winning hockey, and it’s a big reason why the Flyers have struggled throughout the course of the season to be the team that generates more, not just in the last two weeks.
5. The Right Direction?
Now let’s address the elephant in the room. After the game, both head coach and two veteran players stated that the team was trending in the right direction. The results say differently, as a 2-5-0 record in the last seven games – of which the two wins were both multi-goal comebacks – is not trending in the right direction.
First off, you can’t continue to dig holes at the beginning of games. You can’t play from behind that constantly and expect to win. That’s a trend you want to break as soon as possible.
Another trend in the wrong direction is the consistency that this team turns the puck over and pays for it on the scoreboard. The defensive coverages are oftentimes weak, but so many of these goals against start with a turnover that was completely avoidable.
All of the above is not trending in the right direction, not playing younger on the forecheck and supporting teammates, allowing goals in the immediate moments after scoring, getting sound goaltending and sharp play from the entire group. It’s all spiraled near out of control.
As the Flyers complete 25 games in the season and have just 31 to go, they are now 11 points behind the division-leading New York Islanders, who are on the schedule three times in the next eight days. They are nine points behind the Capitals, after allowing them to make a stop in Philadelphia for three games and claiming all six points. They are now six points behind Pittsburgh. And they are three points out of a playoff spot behind Boston, yes, the team they are 0-3-2 against this season.
That is not trending in the right direction, no matter how much better the Flyers have gotten lately at generating more shots or suppressing them from the other end. They still give up too many goals, still play with horrible puck management, still miss defensive zone coverages, and now they are getting behind in games early and getting shaky goaltending to go with it.
It feels like things are coming to a head soon. The Flyers will either have to do something to change the tide, and quite possibly the roster, or there will be the better part of the second half of the season left waiting for this campaign to mercifully end.