EDMONTON, Alberta — They traveled nearly 14,000 miles to play their first five games and, yet, the Flyers went backward.
Back to .500 (2-2-1), after a 2-0 start.
Back to the questions about whether enough was done in the offseason to address their offensive needs and whether promising winger Joel Farbee will be recalled from the Phantoms sooner rather than later.
Back to wondering if their slow starts in games and their inability to convert golden scoring chances will make this seem like last season.
But at least they’re back home, have gotten two long trips (Europe, Western Canada) out of the way, and now they can start to develop some continuity in their on- and off-ice routine. That hasn’t been easy because of a brutal travel schedule in which they played their first three games in three different countries and their first four games in four different time zones
To their credit, the players didn’t use that as an excuse for their 0-2-1 Western Canada trip that ended with a 6-3 loss to the Edmonton McDavids on Wednesday, but it had to take its toll.
Also to their credit: On the second end of back-to-back games, they dominated the action and outshot Edmonton, 52-22, but got trampled on the scoreboard.
“Sometimes, the game looks unfair, but I’m a firm believer if you do things the right way, things will even out,” coach Alain Vigneault said.
Center Sean Couturier said if the players play like they did Wednesday, “we’ll win a lot of games. Maybe we deserved a better result. I feel the few chances we gave up were really quality chances. Maybe we’ll need to clean that up, but if we shoot 40, 50 shots in a back-to-back, there’s still some positives, even if it doesn’t seem that way.”
Despite many more chances and an 85-37 domination in shot attempts, the Flyers lost focus on the penalty kill against the Oilers — something that can’t be done against superstar Connor McDavid — and got shaky goaltending. It seemed like whenever opportunistic Edmonton had a Grade A scoring chance, it converted. McDavid, naturally, was in the middle of things, equaling a career high with five points.
“It’s a lesson,” said Justin Braun, who wasn’t the first defenseman to get undressed by a mind-boggling McDavid move that produced a highlight-reel goal. “You have to shut down the top players in this league if you want a chance to win.”
The Flyers, on the other hand, couldn’t finish. Some of it had to do with Mikko Koskinen (49 saves) and his brilliant goaltending. Some of it had to do with shooting right at the 6-foot-7, 202-pound goaltender. The Oilers hit the corners with their shots. The Flyers hit the goaltender with most of theirs.
It’s been a strange start for the Flyers, who are still digesting Vigneault’s system — not easy to do when so many different line combinations are being used.
Vigneault has his team playing with a defense-first style, and he likes how the players, for the most part, have bought into his philosophy. But he admitted that it may have affected the team’s attack.
Because the Flyers have put a premium on defense, “a couple guys may be slow in taking off [to the offensive end],” said Vigneault, who scrambled all four lines Wednesday. “They’re making sure maybe about the emphasis we’re putting on defense. You have to find the right balance in both.”
It will be a work in progress for the next few months as the Flyers search for that balance, the right line combinations and defensive pairings.
At times in the first five games, the Flyers have looked much quicker and hungrier than last season.
At other times, they have looked, well, just like last season — that is, slower than their opponent. Their penalty kill has been both brilliant (killing a two-minute, five-on-three that keyed a win over New Jersey) and awful (then again, McDavid does that to opponents).
“I’m not going to talk about last year. I think we’re a different team,” Claude Giroux said after goalie Carter Hart struggled in his Edmonton homecoming. “We can’t get down on ourselves. We’ve very confident in this group that we can be successful. It’s not time to hit the panic button.”
Their starts to games have been both good and bad. They were mostly bad last year. In the first two weeks this year, they won the two games when they scored first and lost the three games they didn’t.
“I do feel we’re on the right track,” Vigneault said. “There’s a lot of good willingness on the part of the players to do things the right way. I mean, I know the result (Wednesday) is not what we wanted, but we did do a lot of good things.”
Now they have two straight home games — facing Dallas and Vegas — and that’s something that happens just one other time in their first 22 contests (thanks, NHL). It’s a chance to steady themselves, build some chemistry and limit the mistakes that lead to goals.