Just when it seemed like the hockey gods couldn’t make things worse for the Flyers, somehow they found a way.
Down by three goals to the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday through two periods, interim coach Mike Yeo and the Flyers learned that winger Wade Allison — who was making his season debut after rehabbing ankle and elbow injuries over the past four months — wouldn’t return to the game with a lower-body injury. Late in the third period, winger Zack MacEwen hobbled off the ice and down the tunnel after a collision with defenseman Rasmus Dahlin.
While the extent of Allison’s and MacEwen’s ailments are unknown, their early exits marked two more “not again” moments for the already shorthanded Flyers. Injuries have eaten away at the roster all season. Counting those two, the Flyers would have nine players out due to injury, the others being defenseman Ryan Ellis (lower body), center Sean Couturier (upper body), center Kevin Hayes (adductor), winger Joel Farabee (upper body), forward Derick Brassard (hip), forward Patrick Brown (MCL), and forward Nate Thompson (shoulder) at the halfway point of the 82-game slate.
Ellis has missed 37 of 41 games this season; Couturier, 12; Hayes, 21; Farabee, eight. None of them is likely to return anytime soon — Couturier and Ellis haven’t been skating and Hayes and Farabee are each expected to miss about a month after being placed on injured reserve last week.
The Flyers, 13-20-8, went into Saturday night’s game with five forwards in the lineup who have spent part of the season with the AHL Phantoms (Allison, Morgan Frost, Max Willman, Jackson Cates, and Gerry Mayhew). However, regardless of experience level, Yeo said he expected more from everyone in their 6-3 loss to the Sabres that extended the Flyers’ skid to 11 games. With a loss to the Dallas Stars Monday, the Flyers would equal the franchise’s longest winless run of 12 games, set back in 1999.
“We have guys out of the lineup,” Yeo said. “We need players to perform and that’s not talking about young players or old players, that’s people that are wearing the Flyers jersey. We need them to go out and perform, because if we don’t have everybody going, then obviously we’re putting ourselves in a tough position.”
Since he took over, Yeo has preached the importance of good “habits” and doing the little things well to help make the system go. When COVID-19 hit the roster toward the end of their seven-game point streak to close December, the Flyers got away from the progress in their process. But in the losses to the Boston Bruins and the New York Rangers last week, Yeo found that good habits started to emerge as players came out of COVID protocols and the team approached four games in six nights.
Against the Sabres, Yeo saw “none of that” progress. Instead, he saw instances where individuals weren’t adequately handling their responsibilities.
“If your job is to be F1 on the forecheck, you have to be a good F1,” Yeo said. “If your job is to be a pressure guy in D zone coverage, then you have to do that really well. If somebody is not doing their job, then it makes it really tough for everybody else to read off them. So we’ve got to get back to that mindset.”
Even though the Flyers gave up the first goal for the ninth time in their last 10 games, they didn’t completely give up their fight. Goals from defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen and captain Claude Giroux quickly helped the Flyers rally back from a one-score deficit in the first period.
But after Tage Thompson’s game-tying, power-play goal for Buffalo, the bottom completely fell out for the Flyers. Yeo unsuccessfully challenged the goal for offside, sending the Flyers back to the penalty kill. Less than 30 seconds later, Thompson scored again. Two minutes after the second power-play goal, a defensive breakdown led to Peyton Krebs’ first NHL goal and what proved to be insurmountable Sabres lead.
“Right now, I feel like we’ve hit rock bottom,” Giroux said. “We can’t catch a break. We do a lot of good things out there, but I mean, something bad happens, it’s really bad. I feel like when it was 2-1, we were playing well. And that power-play goal that he [Yeo] challenged, I think it could have gone went one way or the other. And, you know, from the bench, for me, it looks like he was offside, but obviously, they have a better view. But that kind of killed the momentum a little bit.”
Plagued by bad breaks on and off the ice, the Flyers are being challenged to play perfect hockey with an imperfect lineup. While Brassard has been skating and appears to be close to a return, help from the Flyers’ top players like Hayes, Couturier, Farabee, and Ellis won’t be coming anytime soon.
Meanwhile, Yeo finds himself in a position where he must demand more from his active players, especially some of his less-experienced ones, without crushing their confidence.
“There’s times where there’s players, you almost could say something every time they come off the ice,” Yeo said. “That’s the balancing act. That’s the juggling act we have to have as coaches. But at the same time, we have to make sure that there’s an understanding of what’s expected and they have to make sure that they play through that.”
With their loss to the Sabres, the Flyers fell to the bottom of the Metropolitan Division with a .415 points percentage and a minus-39 goal differential, fourth-worst in the NHL. They’re 16 points plus a tiebreaker disadvantage behind Boston for the second Eastern Conference wild-card slot and 21 points behind the Pittsburgh Penguins, the third-place team in the Metro.
As their playoff aspirations become more dream and less reality, the Flyers haven’t found a way to dig themselves out of their unlucky breaks and self-inflicted woes.
“It’s embarrassing,” winger Scott Laughton said. “It’s tough right now. And we need to find a way. And the only guys that are going to get us out of this are the players.”