Players and coaches will never say it aloud: that this NHL season’s starts and stops caused by COVID-19 have made it difficult to get into a rhythm, difficult for teams to build cohesion.
That, of course, would come across as being self-centered at a time when there are more than 460,000 coronavirus deaths in the United States.
But strictly from a hockey sense, the season has been difficult for those connected with the NHL, and the numerous postponements make you wonder if the regular season will be completed and a Stanley Cup will be awarded — and if points percentage will determine the playoff qualifiers because some teams may not be able to play 56 games.
It also makes you wonder if the NHL should have played games in a designated “bubble” city for each division, especially since that worked in last year’s postseason, when more than 33,000 coronavirus tests produced zero positive cases among teams and their staffs over 65 days.
The Flyers have had three games postponed by COVID-19 this week, including Tuesday night’s in Washington. The two other postponements were home games against New Jersey, which has had 19 players on the COVID-19 protocol list and has had six games postponed.
The Flyers’ lost week comes just as their season was starting to gain momentum. They had played five straight games against top-notch competition: two matchups against the Islanders, a conference finalist last year after beating the Flyers in Game 7 of the semifinals; two against Boston, which had the NHL’s best regular-season record in 2019-20; and one against Washington, an Alex Ovechkin-driven team that has had injury and illness problems but is capable of winning its second Stanley Cup in four years.
Give the Flyers props for coming out of that stretch with a 3-1-1 record, including Sunday’s 7-4 win over shorthanded Washington at Capital One Arena.
Finding ways to win
The Flyers showed they can play with the heavyweights, even though they were missing their top player, Sean Couturier, for four of the five games. Second-pairing defensemen Travis Sanheim and Phil Myers were also sidelined for one game during that stretch.
The Flyers, who had been scheduled to reach the quarter pole on the (hopefully) 56-game season Tuesday, were far from perfect in the five-game stretch. They committed too many penalties, allowed too many shots, and were outscored, 5-2, on special teams.
But as general manager Chuck Fletcher said recently: “What I respect about this group is we find a way, and the will to win is high.”
Getting seven out of a possible 10 points was a positive when you consider there’s lots of room for improvement:
The defense has been out of sync because of injuries and the COVID-19 protocol. The pairings have been in constant flux, making it difficult for the defensemen to develop a chemistry. Example: Ivan Provorov, who was paired with Matt Niskanen for virtually the entire season last year, has had four partners in 13 games: Justin Braun, Sanheim, Shayne Gostisbehere, and Myers.
Carter Hart (3.49 GAA, .897 save percentage) has yet to get on a certified roll, and young forwards Nolan Patrick and Oskar Lindblom are understandably still trying to regain their form after scary medical battles in 2019-20.
On the flip side, James van Riemsdyk looks headed toward a career season, Joel Farabee (six goals, six assists, plus-6) is flourishing in his second season, and Scott Laughton continues to blossom and make a case to be protected in the expansion draft. Oh, and other veterans like Kevin Hayes, Jake Voracek, Claude Giroux, and Provorov are doing their part.
Not flawless, but ...
Yes, the Flyers, like all teams, have flaws. But they are 8-3-2, and as Bill Parcells once said, “You are what your record says you are.”
“It almost feels sometimes that the team has a .500 record based on some of the fan chatter,” Chris Therien, a former Flyers analyst, said on SiriusXM’s NHL Network on Tuesday morning. “… If I look at this team and where they are, the one concern I would have from the outside is that right now they are outscoring a lot of their problems. We saw this happen with Toronto two or three years ago. The core in Toronto was phenomenal, but I just don’ think they were strong enough in their own zone.”
Niskanen’s stunning retirement last season has left the Flyers with a huge hole, Therien added.
”It’s pushed everybody up one rung on the defensive scale, and that’s forced guys to play some minutes that maybe they’re not yet accustomed to playing,” Therien said. “But my thing with the Flyers is they have some very good defensive forwards — Coots [Couturier], Kevin Hayes, Scotty Laughton. I’m just concerned if I’m Chuck Fletcher that they are outscoring a lot of deficits in their own zone, and I think that has to get fixed somehow.”
Let’s hope Fletcher gets a chance to fix it. Let’s hope the 56-game season is completed. Let’s hope the general manager’s “we find a way” pronouncement can get carried into the Stanley Cup playoffs.
We all need the diversion.