If you take away the glitz, the picturesque location, and the drones flying overhead to bring incredible footage into your living room Sunday night, this was just another regular-season game that can be best described this way: The Flyers are buying time until their real team appears on your flatscreen.
After three game-time changes caused by issues with the sun, ice, and Zamboni, the Flyers and the Boston Bruins finally met in a made-for-TV outdoor contest held on the 18th hole of a pristine golf course in Lake Tahoe.
The Flyers didn’t birdie the hole, or even par it. Not even close.
They stayed competitive against the East-leading Bruins until late in the second period, when the loss of six key players caught up with them en route to a 7-3 loss.
The good news: The six players who missed the game because of the league’s COVID-19 protocol — Travis Konecny, Claude Giroux, Jake Voracek, Scott Laughton, Oskar Lindblom, and Justin Braun — are expected to be at practice at some point this week. Some might even be able to be in the lineup Wednesday against the New York Rangers, although playing after getting just one full practice under their belts after a long layoff would not be optimal.
Need to play better
So, if all goes right, we probably won’t see the real Flyers until Saturday in Buffalo. When healthy, they still have to show they can play better than they did before COVID-19 struck. They need to spend more time in their opponents’ zone — an identity of last year’s team — and need to change the ridiculous shot-disparity (negative 9.6 per game) that is the worst in the NHL. They also need to show that their pass-happy power play can be more cohesive and productive.
As for Sunday’s game, coach Alain Vigneault downplayed the cancellation of a practice at the outdoor rink and all the time changes. The Flyers arrived in Nevada on Friday but didn’t set their skates on the ice until around 7 p.m. Sunday for the pregame warmup. So much for getting a feel for the surroundings.
“At the end of the day, it’s not really a big deal for us,” Vigneault said before the game, referring to all the inconveniences both teams faced. “As a coach and for the players, you have to adapt and adjust. There are a lot of moving parts and you have to focus on what you can control.”
Vigneault said the Flyers would concentrate on “keeping it simple” and making high-percentage plays.
Like sending the puck off the end boards and looking for a fortuitous bounce that a hustling forward can turn into a goal. Sean Couturier delivered the “pass,” and Joel Farabee outraced everybody for the rebound and put it past Tuukka Rask, knotting the score at 1 with 13 minutes, 19 seconds left in the first period.
That counteracted a two-on-one finish by Flyers-killer David Pastrnak that put the Bruins ahead, 1-0, after just 34 seconds. Pastrnak later gave the Bruins a 3-2 lead early in the second. In the third period, he completed his second hat trick of the season against the Flyers, giving him 10 goals in his last eight games against Philadelphia.
The Bruins, who were shorthanded themselves, scored three goals in 99 seconds late in the second period — Carter Hart will want two of them back — to take a 6-2 lead.
But, again, the result didn’t matter as much as how the Flyers get back in sync when their real team is together. Are the Flyers legitimate Stanley Cup contenders?
We won’t know for a while. The six players on the COVID-19 list — some had the coronavirus, some didn’t — will obviously make them a different team when they return.
“Hopefully, when they come back, it won’t take them long to get back into their stride, back into their rhythm,” Vigneault said.
Speaking of rhythm, the Flyers’ revamped top line — Couturier, James van Riemsdyk, and Farabee — was put together because of the COVID-19 absences, but the trio is playing like it should stay together.
Couturier, the Selke winner who missed 10 games earlier this season because of a rib injury, is looking like his old self. Van Riemsdyk is playing arguably the best hockey of his life, and Farabee, whose first-period tally Sunday gave him as many goals (eight) in 15 games as he had in his entire rookie season, is blossoming into one of the NHL’s top young players.
When the players on the COVID-19 list return and regain their form, this team will not be short on offense. Numerous questions, however, remain on a defense that never really replaced Matt Niskanen, and Hart, 22, still needs to regain the mojo he had last season, especially in the playoffs.
Hart’s up-and-down play is a concern. But to be fair, the Flyers are allowing a lot more quality chances than last year, which is why general manager Chuck Fletcher keeps checking in with Niskanen to see if he is bored with retirement.