For as wild as the Canadiens’ 5-3 victory was Wednesday night, for all the tempers and testiness spilling out in the closing seconds and after the final whistle, the Flyers, if they’re going to win this series, have to answer for the absences of two important players who weren’t even on the ice.
With the Flyers down a goal, with a faceoff coming in the Montreal zone with 41.8 seconds left in regulation, Travis Konecny, the team’s leading goal scorer, sat on the bench. James van Riemsdyk, still with three years remaining on a contract that pays him $7 million annually, for the second straight game watched from somewhere else in the comfort of the Toronto bubble.
It might seem strange to say, with the Flyers still in control of this matchup, leading three games to two with a chance to finish off the Canadiens on Friday night, but the top seed in this unique Eastern Conference tournament is fortunate to have the hold on this series that it does.
Montreal is the scariest kind of NHL-playoff team – the underdog that has nothing to lose and is playing like it – and it will take more than some sloppy defensive play and a soft goal allowed by Carter Hart for the Flyers to finish off the Canadiens. It might take something that they haven’t received yet in this postseason: any offensive production from their most productive offensive players.
The Flyers had five players who scored 19 goals or more during the regular season: Konecny (24), Kevin Hayes (23), Sean Couturier (22), Claude Giroux (21), and van Riemsdyk (19). None of those five has scored in any of the team’s eight playoff games – the three in the round robin, the five against Montreal.
Somehow, the Flyers are 6-2 in those games. That record and the opportunity they have to advance to the next round are a testament to their other strengths and the general weirdness of this series. But they won’t last long if either coach Alain Vigneault can’t figure out how to get more from these high-end players or the players themselves can’t figure out how to deliver more offense.
“Obviously, we need production five-on-five from guys [who were] driving the bus most of the year,” Vigneault said. “But everyone’s working extremely hard right now. I’m confident that we’ll be ready for the next game and that those guys will find a way to contribute.”
They have to. The Flyers have eight goals in this series, and six have come from two players: Jake Voracek and Joel Farabee.
If you’re inclined to take the bright-side view here, you could note that the Flyers have enough depth and talent among their forwards that Vigneault could afford to bench van Riemsdyk for Games 4 and 5. Farabee has been excellent in van Riemsdyk’s place.
The team’s power play units, which scored one goal in its first 28 attempts of the postseason, were responsible for all three goals Wednesday. And if Hart plays as he has for most of this series and his teammates return to the airtight checking that shut down Montreal in Games 3 and 4, the Flyers should be fine. Really, they should be fine.
No, the Flyers may not need those top five scorers to beat the team that ranked 24th in the NHL’s 32-team standings during the regular season. But they will need them to beat the next team, a better team.
Hayes created one scoring chance after another Wednesday night, only to have Carey Price stop him each time, and Giroux appeared more confident and assertive than he had been at any previous point in the series.
But Couturier has failed to capitalize on a few teed-up opportunities. Konecny has generally been a non-factor. And it remains perhaps the most underplayed story of the Flyers’ postseason that van Riemsdyk, their major free-agent signing of the summer of 2018, has suited up just five times, that for this series’ most important games, Vigneault would prefer to have the rookie Farabee in the lineup.
“My approach is going to stay the same: try to be the best player I can be and maximize every day,” van Riemsdyk said earlier this month, after he was scratched for the Flyers’ second round-robin game, against the Washington Capitals. “That’s always how I approach things, no matter what. I love the game. We have a great team and a great shot this year. My motivation and my approach remain consistent day in and day out, no matter if you have a day that doesn’t go your way.”
Wednesday was one of those for the Flyers. They had an opportunity and squandered it, and now they have to do it all over again Friday. They might get by in Game 6 without the players who are supposed to be carrying them. They’d be better off not taking that chance.