The Flyers’ penalty kill looks lost without injured center Sean Couturier. Their franchise goalie, Carter Hart, isn’t exactly showing that his road struggles last season were a fluke. Oh, and their porous defense is probably making general manager Chuck Fletcher wish he had been more aggressive and added a suitable replacement for Matt Niskanen in the offseason.
Why all the doom and gloom after a 3-2-1 start that, on paper, looks somewhat respectable?
Because the Flyers have been outplayed in five of the six games, including two of their wins.
Because, like in last year’s playoffs, they have shown less physicality and hunger than their opponents, and their forecheck, which was relentless and one of their trademarks last season, has been weak and misses Couturier (obviously) and Tyler Pitlick, a free agent who signed with Arizona.
Because they are getting outshot by a ridiculously large margin and making life miserable for their goalies.
The frustration level got to the usually composed Hart as the final horn sounded in the Flyers’ 6-1 loss Saturday night in Boston. He whacked at his net several times, splintered his stick before heaving it, and stormed off the ice. A short time later, Hart apologized for the outburst, saying it was “unprofessional” and done in “the heat of the moment.”
The apology wasn’t necessary. Hart probably did what most Flyers TV viewers felt like doing.
Was the 22-year-old goaltender mad at himself after equaling the most goals he had ever surrendered in a game in his young career? Mad at his teammates for, as center Kevin Hayes said, “leaving him hung out to dry?” Mad that the Flyers continued to get badly outshot and out-chanced?
Or maybe, just maybe, he was trying to wake up a sleepy-looking team.
‘It’s with our whole group’
“It’s good to show emotion, but frustration right now won’t help our situation,” said coach Alain Vigneault, whose team visits the New Jersey Devils on Tuesday and Thursday. “We’ve got to get back to focus, we’ve got to get back to work, and that’s not just with Carter. It’s with our whole group. We need to play better as a team in front of him.”
Yes, the Flyers have suffered key injuries (Couturier, Phil Myers, Morgan Frost) and have had another player, Shayne Gostisbehere, sidelined by the coronavirus.
But their opponents have been missing important players as well, and, besides, they have been fortunate to have forwards Nolan Patrick and Oskar Lindblom back at 100% — a development that was unknown when the abbreviated training camp started.
They need to straighten things out quickly because in a shortened season — they’ve only played six games, but that is about 11% of their 56-game schedule — a slow or mediocre start might be the difference between being in the playoffs or being on the golf course in the spring.
“It’s on everyone on this team – players, myself – to find solutions to the way we’re playing right now,” Vigneault said. “We’re not playing that north-south game that I think we’re capable of playing. It’s up to me as a head coach to put the right players in the right situations so they can have success.
“It starts with me to get this group to play up to its potential.”
Adding a defensive-minded defenseman would help. This team could use someone who plays with some snarl in front of Hart or Brian Elliott. Samuel Morin might fit that description, but he was curiously moved to left wing in camp, and, after being injured and able to play just 28 professional games over the last three-plus seasons, he could use some minor-league action to get his game in order. The Phantoms open their AHL season Feb. 6.
Tape and glue
So the Flyers will use tape and glue to hold the defense together until Myers returns and hope the almost-ready Gostisbehere, a player known more for his offense, can give them better minutes than, say, Erik Gustafsson.
The good news: By playing division-only games this season, a winning streak can make it easier to shoot up the standings.
The opposite, of course, is true if you get into a losing streak, and that’s why it’s important that the Flyers regroup against the Devils this week.
“We have to look at ourselves in the mirror when we get home,” said Hart, whose team will practice in Voorhees on Monday. “We have to reevaluate things. We need to get back to playing hard and competing, and I need to get back to playing my own game.”
Hayes defended Hart, saying Saturday “probably wasn’t his best showing, but he’s an unbelievable goalie. We have all the faith in the world in him. He’s young, but he’s the backbone of our team and we all have his back, obviously. He’s a great kid, he’s a great competitor. I’m sure he’ll be lights-out the next time he’s in the net.”
But even that doesn’t guarantee much if the rest of the team is stuck in neutral. Hart’s teammates also need to find another gear, and, in an abbreviated season, they need to find it quickly.