"We have played pretty good hockey the last 20 games,'' Dave Hakstol said last Wednesday, before a two-game road trip against one of the NHL's worst teams and one of its best produced the same kind of confusing results that have marked his tenure as the Flyers head coach.
"Ten losses in a row would have us out of this thing,'' the coach continued after the Flyers had beaten the Detroit Red Wings, 4-3 – their only win over the last four games.
There was, of course, a six-game winning streak prior to that, which followed a 10-game winless streak.
"We got points during that 10-game streak,'' the coach said that night. "I am not trying to say we are happy with it in any shape or form. Like I just said, we have to find ways to keep yourself in position to push for a win as you go through 60 minutes. We didn't do a good enough job of that during that 10-game streak. But there is not a huge difference in our play. There were three or four games during these last 20 games that simply, we weren't at the level that we expected ourselves to be at. Other than that, we have been at a pretty consistent level. When you get a little bit of momentum, that's a big difference maker. I think that's what we have been able to push toward in this last stretch. It is a very slight difference but it makes all the difference in the world."
Liked the effort. Wasn't happy with the results. If there is one consistency about the Flyers over the last two seasons, it is that mantra about their inconsistency, so often proffered by the coach, so often echoed by the general manager who hired him to create an identifiable culture around this proud franchise.
Nine months and one season beyond the death of its founder and owner Ed Snider, the Flyers remain that proud franchise. Without its passionate archangel, however, and with an increasingly younger and increasingly impatient fan base to answer to, that pride has seemed misplaced, if not delusional. Snider often reminded us of the Flyers' eight Stanley Cup Finals appearances, still more than any team not among the Original 6. Unlike the Phillies, and the Sixers, "rebuild'' is a franchise vocabulary taboo, and so the streaks that have marked this team are viewed by the faithful not as steps to a process, but rather a wayward approach.
As for that culture, well the very words of both coach and GM indicate none has surfaced yet. The Flyers who played hard for a point against Columbus Saturday night were not the Flyers who tried to beat the Sabres with three minutes of inspired play the night before. Hakstol is justified in praising the effort during much of that losing streak, but his final words before departing on the road trip are telling.
Momentum, he said, "is a very slight difference, but it makes all the difference in the world."
It shouldn't, of course. Not all the difference in the world, not if you're good. A playoff-worthy team should be able to hold momentum as well as change it, and that momentum. During that 10-game skein, the Flyers were shut out twice by Minnesota and then lost five of six games by a one-goal margin. In each of those games, they held a two-goal lead halfway through or beyond. They lost the lead three times to Calgary, twice blew a two-goal lead in a home game against the Islanders.
Hakstol deserves credit for righting the ship following that lifeless 3-0 home loss to Boston, and not enough can be made of the rescue work Brian Elliott has done since Michal Neuvirth pulled up lame (again) the night their modest streak began in Calgary. But 36 games into the schedule, they have a middle-of-the-road power play and are among the worst on the penalty kill. We can talk all we want about their improved five-on-five play, but anyone who has watched this league even a little over the last decade will attest that most games are won and lost via special teams — i.e., the margins.
Which leads to three possible conclusions. One, the coach has not done as well molding a young team as we hoped. Two, the young team is not nearly as talented as we hoped or were led to believe by the general manager. Three, this is a rebuilding franchise, with some of its keys to the future, like Nolan Patrick and Travis Konecny, trying to find their footing here, and others, Oscar Lindblom and Samuel Morin, doing it up the turnpike in Allentown.
I'm going with "three," holding out hope that Konecny connects the dots and Patrick continues to trend upward and that Morin and Lindblom — who is pouring in points lately — give us a clearer glimpse of a bright future before this uneven season is through.
A Christmas wish for sure.