For three straight games, the Flyers essentially played a team missing their top player. They took care of business as necessary, picking up six points in three games over the last week since returning from Lake Tahoe.
With their full lineup back on the ice, the Penguins showed the formula that defeats the Flyers, and did it without Sidney Crosby in the lineup. Following a quick response to a Flyers goal off a turnover, they commanded the play from there, and it didn’t seem to matter that the Flyers were throwing plenty of rubber at the Pittsburgh net.
Here are five takeaways from Tuesday’s 5-2 Flyers loss to the Penguins.
1. Power Play Debacle
The Penguins entered the game with the 29th-ranked penalty kill. You wouldn’t know it with the way the Flyers executed.
The Flyers were 0-for-5 on the power play, and the greater issue than not finding a way to score was the timing of the power plays and the way they could have transformed the game.
The Flyers had two power plays early in the first with a chance to put the Penguins in an early hole. Nothing.
They had another midway through the second with a chance to cut into the Pittsburgh lead right away. Nothing.
They had one late in the second that carried over into the first 1:45 of the third, and another two minutes after that. Nothing.
Ultimately, the Flyers did cut the margin back to one, only to give it right back, but there were many more opportunities to get the game back in their control. One power-play goal could have turned the tide.
It’s not like the Flyers power play has suddenly gone cold. This has been an ongoing struggle, and it seems to stem from two issues – an abundance of passing and trying to create a perfect play and a lack of execution when it comes to winning races and puck battles. There’s not a lot of ways the team can fix it. It is strictly an execution issue that the players have to take care of.
2. Defensive Woes
The Flyers grabbed a 1-0 lead just 2:32 into the second period. It took the Penguins just 1:07 to respond. The goal was gift-wrapped.
Shayne Gostisbehere made a cross-ice pass directly to Kasperi Kapanen, who was off to the races and didn’t miss, beating Carter Hart through the five-hole.
Kapanen struck again on the power play a few minutes later, then nearly finished off the hat trick with another glorious chance.
Two minutes after his second goal, Bryan Rust scored on a rebound as both he and Jake Guentzel ended up behind the Flyers defense.
Moments after the Flyers scored to cut the lead to one, Phil Myers made an ill-advised pinch that sent the Penguins away on a 4-on-2, that ultimately led to Cody Ceci’s goal that put things away.
So where do we begin with these problems?
First, puck management. What Shayne Gostisbehere did on Kapanen’s first goal is inexcusable. You have to have better awareness when in control of the puck. Turnovers like that will kill you every time.
Gostisbehere had a series of bad play over those next few minutes, capped off by being on the ice for the Rust goal. Upon entry into the zone, the Penguins make a quick exchange as Guentzel hands off and goes to the net. Rust also heads to the net on entry. Rust blows by Joel Farabee, Guentzel nuzzles himself behind both Gostisbehere and Ivan Provorov and the distance shot from Kris Letang leaves a rebound to two wide open Penguins.
This is fundamental. Know where your man is and don’t let him get positioning. Just like Chris Kreider did for the Rangers last Wednesday, there was no taking away the front of the net.
Outside of the defensive miscues, there was simply too much exposed for the Flyers. The Penguins essentially stole and used the Boston blueprint. Out-hustle them to every puck. Bring the physical edge that they can’t seem to match. Take advantage of every mistake and put it in their net.
When it is exposed the way it was on Tuesday, it presents more questions than answers for the Flyers. It creates questions about how they are to succeed down the road this season, how they are supposed to build on the previous season’s playoff run. It was obvious their play to start the season couldn’t be sustained, but is that really what this team is?
Unfortunately, we haven’t had the chance to see this team at full-strength for much of the season. On Tuesday, the Flyers were at full strength while the Penguins were missing a future Hall-of-Famer still on top of the hockey world. The result wasn’t pretty.
3. Top Line Continues Success
One positive from this game was the continued success of the trio of Sean Couturier, Joel Farabee and James van Riemsdyk. Farabee had the two goals in this game, putting them ahead in the second for a few brief moments and keeping them alive for a few extra moments in the third.
Couturier had an assist on the first goal, extending his points streak to seven games. He has a point in every game he’s played this season, minus the 45-second appearance in the second game of the season where he left with an injury.
van Riemsdyk also picked up an assist on Farabee’s second, and that brought him to 26 points in 19 games. He’s had quite the season so far, and it seems to continue every game now.
Farabee has really been the standout of late though. He continues to put himself in the right spots and be in position to score goals. His two goals on Tuesday brought him to 10. That tops his rookie total by two goals and puts him on an 82-game pace of 43 goals. And he’s still only 21 years old.
4. Hardened Hart
If you simply glanced at the score, the goalie and the shot total and thought his was another bad outing for Carter Hart, you’re mistaken. Hart was essentially left out to dry.
The box score shows the Flyers out-shot the Penguins, 42-27. At 5-on-5, they out-shot the Penguins, 29-19. But scoring chances were dead even at 20 apiece at 5-on-5, and high-danger scoring chances favored the Penguins, 9-6, at 5-on-5.
The Penguins scored their five goals on a breakaway, a perfect power-play passing play, a rebound with no defenders around, a tic-tac-toe odd-man rush, and a partial empty-netter.
Hart had no support on Kapanen’s breakaway or Rust’s rebound goal. He was forced to go back-and-forth across the crease as the Penguins took advantage of the 4-on-2 late in the third to go back up by two. Even the empty-net goal, which counts against Hart since he was on his way to the bench and never made it back in time to make the save, can’t be faulted to him in that game situation.
So while Hart allowed another five goals and made just 22 saves in the defeat, this game was not on him. This game was the result of a lack of execution in front of him. When the Flyers play like this, Hart often gets left to try to defend it all. He was especially sharp in the first period, but then was thrown into a spot where he couldn’t bail his team out, though he certainly did his best with some key saves off additional Flyers miscues.
5. Learning Experience
Go back to the second takeaway, talking about how the Flyers were exposed in this game with the Boston blueprint. Make this game a learning experience. This isn't the Rangers. This isn’t Buffalo. This is a team that could very well hold your playoff spot after the next game.
Perhaps it was the early misses on the power play and the return of fans in the building that did play a role. Momentum can change in an instant, a crowd can feel it and a team can feed off it. It sure seemed Pittsburgh did.
Tuesday’s game is over, and you get the same team on Thursday. You get a chance to respond. You get a chance to be the harder team to play against, the hungrier team. You get a chance to be the tougher team on the puck. You get a chance to control the game at special teams and make that the story in the other direction. Address the issues, find a way, and move on.