The Flyers gutted out an inartistic 3-2 win over Montreal on Friday night, clinching a series they could have easily lost.
But, hey, style points don’t matter in the Stanley Cup playoffs. It’s all about advancing, and only eight of the NHL’s 31 teams can make that claim.
The Flyers, who moved to Round 2 for the first time since 2012, won because their team defense did just enough good things and because Carter Hart was slightly better than Carey Price. (And when is the last time the Flyers won a playoff series because of their goalie?)
That said, they won’t beat the New York Islanders – a well-rounded team with size and the best coach on the planet, Barry Trotz – if they don’t improve in a lot of areas. They know that, know they weren’t at their best in their six-game series win over Montreal.
That can be good or bad depending on your perspective.
Good: The Flyers were talented enough, deep enough, to beat a tough, hungry opponent, and there’s room for them to raise their game in the next series.
Bad: If the Flyers don’t get to that higher level, they will be eliminated in Round 2 because they are facing an Islanders team that is much stronger than the pesky Canadiens.
Flyers center Kevin Hayes, who had two points and a plus-3 rating in their series-closing win Friday night over Montreal, prefers to look at the good.
“I think it speaks volumes that we didn’t play to our capability, and we still got four wins,” Hayes said.
Four hard-earned wins – three by one goal, the other a 2-0 victory.
In those four wins, Hart allowed a total of three goals. He was the No. 1 star in three of the victories, the No. 2 star in the other win.
Hart and the bend-but-don’t break defense are the main reason the Flyers are advancing. The 22-year-old goalie needs more help from the offense if the Flyers are going to advance to the Eastern Conference finals. The Flyers scored just 11 goals (1.8 per game) against Montreal, their fewest in franchise history in a six-game series win. Montreal outscored them, 13-11, marking the first time in the Flyers’ history they won a playoff round while allowing more goals than they scored.
To their credit, even though Travis Konecny, Sean Couturier, Claude Giroux and James van Riemsdyk are still looking for their first goals of the postseason, the Flyers found a way to get it done. They did it by blocking shots, getting big saves at key times, and capitalizing on just enough of their limited scoring chances.
Still, they need to be more crisp with their breakouts, more active on their usually suffocating forecheck, and better on their special teams.
The Flyers need to find another level, general manager Chuck Fletcher agreed on a Zoom call Saturday from Toronto, “if we want to continue to win games and move on.”
Fletcher said there are “unique challenges” for teams playing in the bubble.
“Teams are different,” he said. “We have seen teams that have played much better here than they were playing before the pause. There’s also some teams that aren’t here anymore that couldn’t get their game back to their level. There’s been unique challenges here. … I think the key is how you continue to adapt, evolve, and get your game going.”
The wacky made-for-TV Round 2 schedule – starting Monday, the Flyers and Islanders will play four games in five and half days – leaves little practice time. So teams “are going to have to come in with the right mindset and make quick adjustments,” Fletcher said. “Get your game to a high level very quickly.”
That means coaching will be at the forefront.
The Flyers’ Alain Vigneault is a brilliant coach who has pushed most of the right buttons this season. He is opposed by a genius, Trotz, who led Washington to the Cup two years ago, has the fourth-most wins in NHL history, and is future Hall of Famer.
Vigneault has two secret weapons, former head coaches Mike Yeo and Michel Therrien, as assistants. Maybe the three of them can outfox the master?
“I think we’re a team now that has an identity,” Fletcher said. “A season ago, I don’t think we played the game the right way. We didn’t defend well. We didn’t manage the puck well. We didn’t manage the game well. I think we have a much better defensive identity now than we did. The players understand what’s expected of them. They’ve bought into it. That’s very important. I don’t think we would be here if we weren’t able to accomplish some of those things. I think that in the first round with AV, you saw what a veteran coach can do.”
Vigneault juggled lines, demoted veterans like Giroux, promoted rookie Joel Farabee, and benched an unproductive van Riemsdyk for two games, among other moves.
“He’s not afraid to make changes,” Fletcher said. “Has a pretty good sense of the game within the game, if you will.”
One thing he didn’t get, however, was enough production from many of his veterans. If that continues, the Flyers will be eliminated by the Isles in what would still be deemed a good season for the Orange and Black.