SUNRISE, Fla.—Earlier in the day, when it was mentioned to Dave Hakstol that his Flyers have struggled mightily on their perennial post-Christmas road trip, the coach sought to compartmentalize that trend as he often does with others.
"Doesn't have any bearing for me,'' the coach said. "… We talked about the two games before Christmas and a little bit about the two after. But that has no connection or bearing whatsoever to past history. That's this team and where we're at and what we need to accomplish.''
The Flyers were 0-9-2 in three previous post-holiday trips, two of which came in Hakstol's tenure. Like their 3-2 loss to Florida on Thursday night, they have been, by and large, awful accountings, and they have included the core players who still do most of this team's scoring.
They play the Lightning, the NHL's best team, Friday night in Tampa before returning for a four-game homestand.
Thursday night's loss included a costly turnover by captain Claude Giroux that resulted in a shorthanded goal; an interference penalty by Shayne Gostisbehere that put them on their heels in the very first minute; and an ugly turnover in their own zone in which no fewer than four players skated through or past a puck along the high boards, resulting in the Panthers' third goal.
It was the second time in the last three games that the Flyers have put together a listless performance against a team they are ahead of in the standings. Against second-worst Buffalo last Friday, the Flyers were grossly outplayed in a 4-2 loss.
"I don't think our passes were crisp enough," said Scott Laughton, whose third-period goal created a glimmer of hope. "We weren't skating. we didn't work hard enough. We didn't win enough battles. There's lots of excuses out there if you look for them."
Last Friday against Buffalo, Hakstol waited until late in the game to jumble his lines in hopes of creating a spark. Thursday night, he did it much earlier, pushing Laughton up to center the second line of Michael Raffl and Jake Voracek.
"Was looking for nine forwards who could meet or match the intensity level that the game was at," he explained. "and try to find a way for us to get back into it."
After surviving a two-man power play in the game's first minutes, the Flyers fell behind on Jared McCann's remarkably easy goal. With three Flyers at or behind their own blue line, McCann beat Wayne Simmonds along the boards, slid across the ice and, with Robert Hagg sagging, fired a wrist shot that seemed to surprise Brian Elliott at 6:43.
It was the Panthers' fifth shot of the period, and from that point they blanketed the Flyers and pinned them consistently, making it seem as if they had played the previous night. When the onslaught ended, the Panthers had outshot the Flyers, 13-5 and the best thing you could say about the Flyers is that they were still in the game.
Elliott had much to do with that, as he has since becoming the Flyers' clear No.1 goaltender. He made big saves throughout that period, especially during the early five-on-three. After averaging fewer than two penalties a game in their previous 11 games, the Flyers took four in the first period.
It didn't start much better for them in the second. Seven minutes into it, they had mustered one shot, taken another stick penalty, and been knocked off the puck by the surging Panthers with relative ease. Even the fortune of a power play off a dubious penalty call blew up on them like an exploding cigar. A failed keep at the left point by Giroux resulted in a two-on-one the other way. Derek MacKenzie tipped a cross-ice pass from Colton Sceviour into the upper corner of the net for his first goal of the season and a 2-0 Panthers lead at 9:19 of the second.
Even a rare fight for Raffl – he lost – and the ensuing power play it produced couldn't get the Flyers going. Shortly after registering two shots on that man advantage, the Flyers again turned the puck over in their own zone. This time Jonathan Huberdeau made them pay, using Radko Gudas as a screen to wrist a shot past Elliott and push the Panthers ahead, 3-0, at 13:52 of the second.
Laughton's wrist shot at 12:28 of the final period, after Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad's broken stick spurred an odd-man rush the other way, gave the Flyers hope. With Elliott pulled, the Flyers made it 3-2 when Sean Couturier tipped in a slapshot from Gostisbehere at 17:58.
It wasn't quite enough.
Which, if the Flyers were putting together their season review right now, would serve as an appropriate title.
"We weren't there tonight," Raffl said. "And we didn't deserve to win."