By Kevin Durso, Sports Talk Philly editor
From the drop of the puck, the Boston Bruins were totally in control. They won races to pucks. They fired shots from all angles. They had prolonged offensive-zone shifts. They did everything needed to play their usual brand of hockey.
Unlike last season, the Flyers are a little more equipped to counter that. They have much more physicality in their lineup, and that adds some snarl to the game and gives it much more emotion. This isn’t just the lifeless bloodbath it was last season.
But this game offered shades of that, particularly in the late second and third periods. One breakdown erased a two-goal rally. An early goal in the third proved to be a dagger. Just when the Flyers thought they may have a chance to get back in the game on the man-advantage, it was taken away from them with a questionable penalty.
Still, that doesn’t erase the display that was on the ice, one that has the Flyers trying to survive more than drive play. The Flyers clearly have flaws in their play, and it’s fair to wonder how much longer they can go without addressing them.
Here are five takeaways from Saturday’s 5-2 loss to the Bruins.
1. Boston Marathon
Right from the drop of the puck, the Flyers always appeared to be chasing the game. The Bruins immediately jumped ahead in shots with seven of the first 10 in the game prior to a Flyers power play at 4:36 of the opening period. That gave the Flyers a chance to turn things in their favor and perhaps get on the board first.
They did not even get a shot on goal in the two minutes. That allowed Boston to further the push, and when they got back-to-back power plays of their own midway through the period, they peppered the Flyers goal. Boston took seven shots in the 3:48 of power-play time they had in the first.
Finally, on their 20th shot of the period, the Bruins finally scored, taking advantage of a battle won behind the Flyers net. It was simply justice for the period they had played. They finished the period with 21 shots, and while they spent the remaining two periods basically matching that first-period total with 23 shots in the final 40 minutes, they also struck for four more goals.
Even when the Flyers did manage to get the game tied up and continue the push they were making for the remainder of the period, it was one mistake from going the other way. The Bruins were always threatening at one point or another in the game, and that can make it an uphill climb trying to compete.
2. End of the Line?
For the past several weeks, the anticipation of getting both Ryan Ellis and Kevin Hayes back into the lineup was the fuel for maintaining perspective when watching the Flyers. With each passing game, it was becoming more and more apparent how much the results were driven by goaltending, how the team was lacking on offense and driving play and not getting enough of a payoff to be able to continue to win games.
Now that the Flyers have lost back-to-back games for the first time all season, it becomes a little more magnified. Through 16 games of this season, the Flyers are perfectly split down the middle – eight wins, eight losses, three coming beyond regulation. That gives them 19 points in the standings, good enough for the first wildcard spot at the moment.
Now, it’s still way too early to focus on specific playoff position just yet, but with that being said, the Flyers have seen far too many of these type of nights where they are left chasing the game or trying to get an edge where they are the more dominant team throughout. And after getting Ellis back in the lineup for only a game and Hayes for a total of two, it leaves you to wonder if the Flyers are reaching the end of the line for the fill-in situations they face.
We’ll get to Derick Brassard more in a moment, and he has certainly been a pleasant surprise in terms of his production so far this season on a low-risk, high-reward contract. However, he’s back to being in the second-line center role, when he’s more of a fit as a bottom-six forward. He’s admirably filled the role Hayes typically plays, but is it something you can lean on for upwards of half a season? That’s probably asking too much.
Similarly on defense, Justin Braun has left a lot to be desired with his play this week. That’s not to be overly critical of his play, which has been excellent prior, but to ask him to play on a top pairing may not be something you can do for much longer. Similarly, the pairing of Nick Seeler and Keith Yandle may be running its course. As much as you may have to use a seventh defenseman throughout the season, you don’t want it to be in sustained stretches such as this.
The problem for the Flyers is that there really aren’t any viable options to fix any of this quickly. They can call up Morgan Frost to try to play center – and it wouldn’t be surprising if that happened as soon as next week – but is he going to suddenly deliver higher production at the NHL level right off the bat? Probably not. Similarly, you could turn to Cam York or Egor Zamula, but given the Phantoms’ struggles, is it really a good time to bring in a young player and rely on him in a similar way to last season?
And sure, the Flyers could scour the market and see if anyone is available. They could look for another center or another depth defenseman. But is anyone really selling yet? Is someone available at a price that makes sense? Seems like there are no true solutions out there at the moment that fit financially.
3. Power Play Finally Breaks Through
One of the big areas where the Flyers have struggled is on the power play. And on their first two attempts of the night, they were able to get much going again. It pushed them to a 1-for-25 stretch on the man-advantage.
Finally, they managed to take advantage of one right at the midpoint of the period. Derick Brassard scored his second goal of the night in picking up the power-play goal, and at that moment, it tied the game.
The Flyers had truly seized momentum at that point. They were starting to drive the play and be in a better position to potentially get the edge. Of course, that didn’t last, but it was a needed goal for the power play.
The Flyers have to start scoring more on special teams. It’s not good enough to just have a better process. The problem is that it’s not like the process has been good with any consistency to feel that it is close to being turned around.
Enough of these 0-for-4 or 0-for-5 nights with a power play that essentially can’t even get set up is going to cost the Flyers more games. Potential a lot more if they don’t figure it out. For a few moments in this game, it completed a rally back into the game and put them in position to potentially grab another win.
4. Momentum Killers
Speaking of the power play, a few games ago, it was discussed that the lack of generating much of anything on special teams can be as much of a momentum killer as anything. Well, the momentum killer in this game wasn’t a lack of scoring on the power play, but goals late in periods and early in periods that can totally transform your mindset.
The Flyers gave up the first goal of the game with 1:35 to play in the first period. They allowed another goal just 30 seconds into the second. To their credit, they erased one of those goals 52 seconds later and did get the game tied midway through the period.
But Derek Forbort’s second goal of the second period with 3:33 remaining seemed to be a turning point. The Flyers had played so well in that period, climbing back into the game and really bringing a physical style that slowed things down and brought the game to a pace they can play at. That goal forced them to play from behind once again, though only by a goal as the third period began.
Craig Smith’s goal just 1:28 was another momentum killer. It’s not that the Flyers had built anything to that point in the third, but it immediately transforms the battle ahead. If Forbort’s goal late in the second let some air out of the balloon, Smith’s goal was essentially the needle that popped it altogether.
For the most part, this has not been the team the Flyers are for most of the season. They haven’t been the team that gives up the late goal and lets it deflate them or gives up an early goal that steals all hope and momentum before a period even gets going.
5. Tougher Road Ahead
One of the keys to success in an NHL season is avoiding the long losing streaks. The Flyers have their first little losing streak 16 games into the season, their first back-to-back losses of the season.
The Flyers have done a good job all season responding to adversity and finding a way to rebound from defeat. The week ahead presents a pretty significant challenge, trying to avoid a prolonged losing streak that could easily carry right into the month of December.
The Flyers have Sunday and Monday off from games, then return for three games in four nights, facing Tampa Bay and Florida on the road, then returning home for the annual Black Friday game against Carolina, the first of four straight divisional games for the Orange and Black.
The road doesn’t get any easier and the Flyers have to use this time to reflect on the recent results and to try to get into the right mindset to change the results. For now, they are hanging around the playoff line. They have an 8-5-3 record and 19 points. That may be good enough for now, but it won’t be if they can’t continue to deliver results in challenging games against very strong opponents.
But remember, it is still early. Two seasons ago, the Flyers became one of the hottest teams in the league from January through to the pause in March. Through 21 games that season, they had a 10-7-4 record and 24 points. They are two wins and five points shy of those marks with five games to reach them.
And certainly, as they seemingly play every team in the Top 10 in the league standings during the first quarter of their schedule, there will be games like next Friday’s against Carolina and ones to come against the rest of the Metro where head-to-head points are up for grabs. That will be the Flyers chance to separate themselves from the rest and step up to the plate. Can they do that? It remains to be seen, and certainly things need to be a lot better on many fronts for it to happen.