In his team’s most important game of the season, Flyers coach Alain Vigneault rolled the dice Sunday night by giving backup goalie Brian Elliott his first start since Aug. 6.
The gamble, as it turned out, didn’t have as much to do with the result as the Flyers’ inability to produce goals.
Brock Nelson scored a pair of goals as the New York Islanders defeated the Flyers, 3-2, in Toronto and took an imposing three-games-to-one lead in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
The Flyers have scored a combined three goals in their three losses in the series, which could end Tuesday night.
“We busted a gut out there,” said Vigneault, whose top-seeded team outshot the sixth-seeded Islanders, 38-33, and had a 31-15 advantage over the last two periods. “We weren’t perfect, but Brian gave us a great chance. We had some good zone time, we had some good looks.”
But not enough good finishes.
Less than a minute after Thomas Greiss stopped Claude Giroux on a rebound, Jean-Gabriel Pageau scored on a breakaway to give the Isles a 2-1 lead with 12 minutes, 42 seconds left in regulation. Pageau, who scored his seventh goal of this year’s postseason, had gotten behind defenseman Matt Niskanen.
Niskanen was later caught up ice as Nelson made it 3-1 with 8:48 remaining, finishing off a pretty two-on-one with Josh Bailey.
“In the third period, we made a couple mistakes that they made us pay for,” Vigneault said.
“I thought everything they got, we kind of gave them,” Elliott said.
With Elliott pulled, Ivan Provorov cut the deficit to 3-2 with 65 seconds left. No matter.
When losing three of the first four playoff games, the Flyers are 1-17 in those series.
“It’s not over until it’s over,” Provorov said after the Flyers lost back-to-back games for the first time since early January. “We have a great team. We know how to battle with adversity.”
The Flyers lost despite the Islanders playing, in the words of coach Barry Trotz, their “worst game to this point in the playoffs.”
Sean Couturier deftly redirected Justin Braun’s long wrist shot past backup goalie Thomas Greiss with 4:41 left in the second to tie the score, 1-1. Greiss (36 saves) made his first postseason since 2016.
It was a strong bounce-back period by the Flyers, who played with desperation and urgency, outshooting the Isles, 17-3, in the stanza, including the last 12 shots.
The Flyers nearly snapped the 1-1 tie, but Greiss made a glove save on Giroux’s ticketed blast from the left circle with 2:35 to go in the second. Giroux, goal-less in the Flyers’ 13 postseason games, put his hands on his head and hit the glass with his stick as he skated behind the net.
In the waning seconds of the second, Greiss stopped James van Riemsdyk from the doorstep and Jake Voracek on the rebound.
The Islanders capitalized on a Flyers mistake to take a 1-0 lead earlier in the period.
Defenseman Phil Myers, from behind his own goal line, tried to flip a pass out to the neutral zone, but it was intercepted by Bailey and he set up Nelson for the game’s first goal. From deep inside the right circle, Nelson ripped a perfect shot to Elliott’s stick side, high into the left corner with 13:08 remaining in the second.
The Flyers were outplayed by the Islanders in most of the series’ first three games, frustrated by the Islanders’ speed and their energetic forecheck.
“It’s a matter of executing better,” Vigneault said before the game. “At the same time that I say that, the Islanders are making it very hard on us. They’re a good team. They are a four-line team. Heavy team that is hard on the forecheck. They make it challenging for the defense and the goaltender to set up pucks for forwards to help our D. Give them a lot of credit.”
New York continued its dominance in Sunday’s opening period, and only Elliott’s strong goaltending enabled the Flyers to be in a scoreless tie after the opening 20 minutes.
The Flyers, perhaps inspired by having Oskar Lindblom in their pregame skate -- he did not play -- had a handful of good scoring chances early in the first, but Greiss stood tall.
After getting the game’s first five shots, the Flyers were outshot by an 18-2 margin the rest of the first period.
Elliott (30 saves) was superb in the first, especially on a power play in which the Islanders fired nine shots.
The Flyers have just one win in seven games against the Isles, including the regular season.
“They’re one of the best teams we’ve played against so far this year,” Vigneault said before the opening faceoff. “It’s a tough series.”
It’s been even more difficult because Travis Konecny and Giroux haven’t been able to turn on the red light. They combined for 45 regular-season goals, but have zero in their first 13 postseason games this summer.
Giroux did just about everything but score. He hustled after loose pucks, had five shots, helped set up a goal, and played strong defense.
But he now has one goal in his last 26 postseason games. One.
“It doesn’t matter how hard you work, you have to find a way,” he said.
In the first four games of the series, the Islanders have outscored the Flyers, 8-1, in the third period.
“They’re a pretty well-structured team and they don’t give up a whole lot,” Couturier said. “They play the right way. It’s never easy playing against them, but like I said, we got some good looks and we just have to capitalize on our chances.”
Provorov was asked about the Isles’ third-period domination.