For the better part of the month, the Flyers have been stuck in a downward spiral where everything seems to go from bad to worse on a nightly basis. With basically only one day off between games, sometimes none, there was no real way to reset.
Even when they did deliver a good effort for a majority of the game, they would find a way to lose the game in the end. If anything, they needed to be rewarded for a good effort.
Leave it to a totally unexpected hero to step in and not only deliver the winning goal, but lift his teammates’ spirits as well.
Sam Morin’s first NHL goal was the difference in this game, one the Flyers absolutely needed to have. It doesn’t solve all their problems and it remains to be seen what effect this has on the team moving forward. But this could be their last chance to take a positive moment, a moment that can bond a team, and turn the season around.
Here are five takeaways from Saturday’s 2-1 win over the Rangers.
1. Sam’s Big Moment
Before really getting into this game, before breaking down another close game where the result went the Flyers way, take a moment to appreciate the moment for Sam Morin.
Sam Morin was drafted in 2013, the first of a long line of defensive prospects that were going to be brought in to re-shape the blue line. This process lasted for the better part of the next five years as numerous defensemen were drafted and developed and made the NHL roster.
In 2017, in the final week of the season, Morin got to make his NHL debut. He played in two games the following season. He played in five at the end of the 2018-19 season. Last season, he played in one. Coming into this season, Morin had nine career NHL games to his name, now over seven years since being drafted.
A big part of the lack of games played for Morin had little to do with reaching the NHL level. He couldn’t even be on the ice at all. He was often injured, suffering two ACL injuries 19 months apart. Over the course of four seasons, he had played in just 41 games, period.
It’s one of the big things Morin had constantly said throughout training camps and his push to recovery: “I need to be on the ice. I need to play.” It even got to the point where the Flyers thought the best place for Morin was at winger, not defense, so they had him switch positions this season. Upon reaching the minors, it didn’t take long for Morin to be needed back at his familiar post. On Thursday of this week, after playing four games this season as a winger, he was back on the blue line.
Saturday’s game may show you why the ice time is so important. For one, Morin was one of the top defensemen in the game for the Flyers, another game where there remained some questions of coverage, sealing gaps and managing the puck.
Then came the moment. Morin was up on the play as the Flyers tried to create offensively, entering the zone off the bench. He got a pass from Nicolas Aube-Kubel and let it go, a quick wrister on a one-timer that worked its way through a screened Igor Shesterkin, perhaps glancing slightly off of Brendan Smith on the way in.
Michael Raffl was at the net too, but he knew immediately. Morin had his first NHL goal. The rest of his teammates on the ice sprinted to him to celebrate.
You can look at this month however you want. Wholesale changes may be needed. Perhaps the Flyers just need to weather things with the group and have them figure it out. Perhaps Chuck Fletcher’s hands are tied in a unique environment for trades and movement around the league. Whatever the outcome of this season is, and wherever the team goes from here, this is a moment that will stand out, one way or the other.
It could be the best moment of the season, which would certainly make sense since Morin called it “the best moment of my life.” It could also be the spark that brings this team back together, that mends whatever is up in the locker room. It may all still be beyond repair. One goal and one game doesn’t change the rest of the month and what we have seen so far.
But the players can make it the turning point. They can make it the boost they need to be better, to change everyone’s minds about the team and their direction. If, if, that happens, we’ll all look back and remember this goal as the unifying moment, perhaps the one where the team got its identity and swagger back.
2. Stable Goaltending
Sam Morin doesn’t get to play hero if not for a stable game in goal from Brian Elliott. There was nothing overly showy about the goalie’s performance. He was just solid throughout.
The one goal he allowed, another power-play marker to Mika Zibanejad, was a slam dunk that no goalie can stop with that seam. Otherwise, Elliott gave you the performance that you needed when you desperately needed a win.
Goaltending has definitely played a huge factor in the Flyers slide. It’s far from the only problem, but when you have the worst save percentage in the league and the second-most goals allowed per game, it’s hard not to look at the last line of defense, especially when your future star goalie is struggling so bad and the veteran backup appears to have hit his limit with how far he can carry you.
Elliott delivered on that performance on Saturday though. He wasn’t single-handedly the difference, but he gave you the saves needed.
3. A Key Late Kill
When the Rangers struck for a goal on their first power-play of the game, after getting one power-play goal in the 9-0 game and three in the 8-3 game, it felt like another long afternoon for the Flyers penalty kill.
Even as they killed off two more penalties, it was a call on Scott Laughton with 10:15 left in the third that presented that looming doom that has seemingly waited at the door for the Flyers all month.
It wasn’t the prettiest kill, but the Flyers secured it nonetheless, keeping the game tied at one. That set the stage for Morin’s goal down the stretch, and the opportunity to win the game. Timely special teams will definitely help, and for the Flyers, that was as timely a kill as they have had in a long time.
4. Struggles Still Exist
Let’s not gloss over a victory without looking at some of the areas that were still problematic.
If Morin played a solid game defensively first, alongside Shayne Gostisbehere, who also looked better, the pairing of Travis Sanheim and Phil Myers struggled once again. It’s really becoming a chronic problem, watching this duo be caught flat-footed and slow to the puck.
In the first period, the Flyers had also come out with some good jump and were at least trying to get pucks on net from everywhere. They also were winning possession in board battles to keep the pressure on, and the Rangers really didn’t get much to the net. Then the power-play goal for the Rangers happened, and for the rest of the period, the Flyers lacked the speed and lacked the jump they had earlier. The entire operation becomes slower and more methodical than ever.
There’s also the puck management, which also remains a chronic problem on this team. Their transition passes are terrible. The team still looks to pass too often, notably when they had a second-period 5-on-3, which they ultimately scored to tie the game on the second half of that. Despite that, there are even just passes made on rushes or upon entry into the zone that are moving way too fast for players’ reactions.
The skating is slow, but the thinking behind the pass is fast. These are routine plays you see elite teams make because they are moving their feet as fast as they are moving the puck. Instead, the Flyers lack the physical speed to match the speed of the puck as it’s moving around the zone.
All these areas aside, the Flyers did get the one thing that matters: the win. This style of play may very well still work against the reeling Buffalo Sabres next week. But beyond that, this will still not come close to cutting it against the Islanders or the Bruins, two teams the Flyers will see plenty of in the coming weeks.
5. Build On It
Back to the moment for Morin, which could certainly prove to be a bonding moment and turning point for the Flyers. For their sake, it has to be.
These are the moments that you get to share within a locker room that bring everyone together. In a losing streak and a challenging month such as this one, this can be the positive thing that happens that gets you out of your own head.
That’s half the battle for the Flyers. When you watch them make constant mistakes, there is sometimes a way to analyze it and point out the flaw. But at the source of the problem is the mental challenge those mistakes present.
With limited practice time or days off, there is not much opportunity to get away from the struggles or frustrations. You can try to work on it in practice. You can try to clear your mind away from the rink. It was what Chuck Fletcher alluded to earlier in the week, talking about the pandemic and the lack of outside activity the players can even have that they typically do in a season that can be a release and a bonding experience with teammates. There’s just not much of an opportunity to free your mind.
That can take a toll, especially when you are back in a game within 24 or 48 hours on a regular basis and have to try to work through those issues then. One goal against, and it feels like everything is falling apart, so you tend to play inside your head and make the smallest mistake or first goal against turn into much more than that. You get away from your game, you make another mistake thinking about the previous one and another goal can end up in your net.
This is a game the Flyers need to build on from that sense. That first goal allowed never became anything more than one. Even if it took them a good amount of time to find the equalizer on a power play of their own and even if they didn’t get the game-winning goal until late in the third, it still kept them in the game long enough to do both.
That is how the Flyers can at least start to turn things in the right direction. They can avoid the snowball effect, focus on being better on the next shift when something goes wrong or doesn’t go their way. It can lead to positive trends within a game and a more consistent push.
The next opportunity comes on Monday, when the Flyers get ready to close out this brutal month with two games against a team that is somehow struggling more than they are.