The Flyers’ star players are in the midst of a playoff famine not seen in these parts since 2002, when many of the top guys then (Jeremy Roenick, Simon Gagne, John LeClair and Keith Primeau) also were not seen in a dreadful first-round loss to Ottawa. The entire team scored two goals in the series. Now that was bad.
While the Flyers feel like they’re bound to turn a corner any second now, skepticism is reasonable and deserved. What was up with the last 20 seconds of Game 4 when New York’s Scott Mayfield virtually stood on the puck, daring the Flyers to take it from him? That was discouraging.
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Defenseman Matt Niskanen is widely respected in the Flyers locker room for what he’s done in his 13-year NHL career. He’s the only player in there to kiss the Stanley Cup, and might be the only player ever who can call Mike Modano, Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin former teammates.
For all of the glory Niskanen has seen, he has known just as much heartbreak.
In the search for a glimmer of hope in the wake of the hefty series deficit their team faces, Flyers fans can point to coach Alain Vigneault, who twice overcame 3-1 series deficits to win series.
Vigneault is one of five coaches who’ve pulled their teams back from 3-1 multiple times. A list that also includes Joel Quenneville, Pat Quinn, Jacques Lemaire and Brian Murray. Lemaire did so in back-to-back series for Minnesota in 2003.
Both times Vigneault’s clubs climbed out of the hole, Niskanen was on the opposing team. When the 2014 Rangers did so against Pittsburgh, they scored the winner midway through the second period on a power-play goal by Brad Richards. It was Niskanen who sat in the Penguins’ penalty box. Talk about lonely.
Crosby was criticized heavily after that series for scoring just one goal in 13 playoff games in 2014. Pittsburgh went from being up 3-1 on May 7 to scoring three goals in three games and elimination on May 13.
“I think bounces are a bigger deal in hockey than other sports. Just ice conditions. The puck’s not perfectly round,” Niskanen said. “I think momentum. Hockey is such a feel sport. It’s amazing when as a team or individually, when you are feeling it, you score goals where maybe you shouldn’t. You see the ice better. You play freer.”
Twenty-seven NHL teams have stormed back from 3-1 deficits, more than Major League Baseball (13) and NBA (11) combined. It’s been done eight times since 2010 alone. (Five in the other sports.) In addition to 2014, Vigneault’s Rangers also pulled off a comeback the following year against Washington when Barry Trotz was the Capitals coach — and Niskanen was a free-agent signee.
“The game’s easier when you’re feeling it,” Niskanen said. “If you’re fighting it, it’s an uphill climb to get back to playing well, making plays with the puck, your scoring touch or making a save, in all aspects. The beauty of the playoffs is it can flip quick.”
It hasn’t happened yet in the NHL under these unique, crowd-less circumstances, but Niskanen is telling the boys in the Flyers locker room that a funky bounce is coming. When you wear a ring, unbridled optimism holds a little more value. We’ll see, starting tonight.
“I think we’re close to busting through,” the defenseman said. “I believe in our group that we can do that. We got to have something go right for us in Game 5, and we can start flipping the series.”
Vigneault declined to call Cal Clutterbuck’s hit on Travis Sanheim in Game 4 a dirty play, though it was dangerous.
“It’s a physical series. Both teams are making sure that when they have an opportunity to finish, they finish,” the veteran coach said. “There was no doubt that was knee-on-knee. Clutterbuck, he’s a hard player. He plays hard. Walks that fine line between what’s legal and not legal. When he crosses the line, hopefully the referees can see it. It’s not easy.”
Clutterbuck was not penalized on the play, and Sanheim was not injured. It’s the second series in a row Sanheim has been pasted. Jesperi Kotkaniemi drilled him in Game 5 of the Montreal series and was kicked out of the game.
“There’s a lot of things going on out there,” Vigneault concluded. “Hopefully, they can see it and pick it up.”
Tonight: Game 5, at Flyers, 7 p.m. (NBCSN)
*Thursday, Sept. 3: Game 6, at Islanders, time/TV TBD
*Saturday, Sept. 5: Game 7, at Flyers, time/TV TBD
*-If necessary. ... All games in Toronto. ... Listed home teams have last line change during stoppages. ... NBC playoff schedule here.
Question: Which, if any, of the Flyers’ pending UFAs do they re-sign? Especially given the depth if Oskar Lindblom & Nolan Patrick can play next season and likely having to keep JvR, due to his contract.— from @jsaquella via Twitter
Answer: First of all, here are their unrestricted guys and their salary cap numbers for 2019-20: Justin Braun ($3.8 million), Brian Elliott ($2 million), Derek Grant ($700,000), Tyler Pitlick ($1 million) and Nate Thompson ($1 million).
Obviously, there will be some salary demands and cap gymnastics for general manager Chuck Fletcher to iron out, but I’d like to see Elliott and Pitlick back. Don’t think they’d pay nearly $4 million for a third-pairing veteran such as Braun if they feel as good about their young defensemen as they say they do. Maybe Grant or Thompson will be back, but not both.
Robert Hagg, Phil Myers and Nic Aube-Kubel are the restricted free agents who should be back. Patrick, the former No. 2 overall pick, is another interesting story. Will a team be interested in poaching a player who missed the entire season with a migraine disorder? I wouldn’t make decisions, say on Grant or Thompson, hoping Patrick can play.
Another factor is next summer’s expansion draft. The way this series is going, Fletcher and his staff will be able to get Kraken on many of these topics very soon (sad trombone).