My 85-year-old mother-in-law is only a casual hockey fan, but she gave a fairly succinct analysis of the Flyers’ 4-0 loss Saturday night to the New York Islanders in a Game 7 that never felt like one.
“It seemed,” she said on Sunday morning, “that the Islanders had more players on the ice than the Flyers.”
Yes it did.
Credit the Islanders’ relentless forecheck, and the way they made it difficult for the Flyers to make quick exits out of their own zone. Odd-man rushes were virtually nonexistent for the Flyers in this series.
Credit Islanders coach Barry Trotz, who was a difference maker in this series, and whose instincts were correct by playing backup goalie Thomas Greiss in Game 7. Before Trotz and general manager Lou Lamoriello arrived two years ago, the Islanders had won one playoff series since 1993-94. In their two years together, the Isles have won four series.
Lamoriello deserves lots of credit. His two before-the-deadline acquisitions, Jean-Gabriel Pageau (three goals in the series) and Andy Greene (two goals, including a game-winner) made a major impact. Conversely, the Flyers’ two trade-deadline pickups, Derek Grant, who was scratched from Game 7, and Nate Thompson, combined for zero points and a minus-3 rating in the series.
But, mostly, credit the Islanders’ core group of players. They thoroughly outplayed the Flyers’ big guns. Those Islanders forwards, led by the irrepressible Mathew Barzal, Brock Nelson, Anders Lee, and Josh Bailey, ran circles around the Flyers and always made it seem like New York was in control, even when the series was knotted at 3-3.
Barzal, Lee, Jordan Eberle, Anthony Beauvillier, Nelson and Bailey – players that compose the Isles’ top six – combined for 12 goals and 34 points in the series. Just as important, they set up camp in the Flyers’ zone for long stretches, draining the life out of the Orange and Black.
The Flyers’ top six forwards combined for eight goals and 22 points – and seemed a step slow in puck battles.
The Isles’ top six outshot their counterparts, 128-87.
Kevin Hayes (three goals, six points), Scott Laughton (two goals, four points) and Michael Raffl were arguably the only Flyers forwards who played to their potential against the Islanders. Travis Konecny, Claude Giroux, and Jake Voracek combined for one goal in the series. One. That explains how the Flyers scored just 13 regulation goals (16 if you include overtime) over seven games.
Despite their offensive struggles – including a power play that was too predictable and went 0 for 13 in the series and a hard-to-fathom 4 for 52 (7.7% ) in the postseason – the Flyers were in position to win Game 7 and advance to the conference finals.
All they needed: 60 minutes of urgency, some bounces going their way, and the forwards to start producing like they did in the regular season.
None of that happened.
And, so, they left a bitter taste on a very good season in which they improved markedly over the previous year, took the top seed in the Eastern Conference round-robin tournament (they peaked too soon), and won their first playoff series since 2012.
All in all, it was a successful run, a season in which they looked like legitimate Stanley Cup contenders at some junctures, a season in which goalie Carter Hart established himself as the real deal. He was superb against Montreal in Round 1, but was just good (a misleading 2.83 GAA and .905 save percentage) against the Isles, a series in which he was hung out to dry by defensive lapses. The Phil Myers-Travis Sanheim pairing was a combined minus-9.
In a way, the Islanders may have done the Flyers a favor. They exposed their lack of speed and lack of a dependable scorer. They showed general manager Chuck Fletcher, who has done a masterful job overall, that his work is far from done.
The flat salary cap will work against the Flyers in the abbreviated offseason, but they will still look different when the new season starts, tentatively on Dec. 1. Unrestricted free agents Grant, Thompson and Justin Braun aren’t expected to return. Shayne Gostisbehere will undoubtedly be dangled and may bring a forward who gets the Flyers closer to lifting the Cup for the first time since Gerald Ford was in the White House.
Or maybe the answer is right here. Maybe Oskar Lindblom, the heroic left winger who was on a 30-goal pace before being diagnosed with a rare bone cancer in December, returns to form. Maybe Nolan Patrick, sidelined all season by a migraine disorder, recovers and has a breakthrough season. (Linus Sandin, Wade Allison, and Tanner Laczynski are right-wing prospects who also might give them help.)
If Lindblom and Patrick are back at 100%, this is how the Flyers’ lines may look next season:
— Sean Couturier centering Lindblom and Konecny
— Hayes centering Giroux and Voracek
— Patrick centering James van Riemsdyk and Joel Farabee
— Morgan Frost centering Laughton and Raffl or Tyler Pitlick (if re-signed).
Nic Aube-Kubel could also fit into the mix.
If van Riemsdyk is dealt for, say, a draft pick – his annual $7 million cap hit, which has three years left, will make it difficult – Laughton would move to the third line, where he belongs.
From here, that lineup still does not look as appetizing as the Islanders’ – unless Patrick has a major breakthrough. It could happen. Remember, he was drafted No. 2 overall in 2017 and many scouts thought he deserved to be No. 1 after a sensational junior career.
The Patrick story will continue to evolve. In the meantime, think of where the Flyers were before Alain Vigneault arrived and it will take some of the sting away from what transpired Saturday.