Penalty kill is killing Flyers' playoff chances
For the fourth straight season, the Flyers' penalty kill is struggling, and it could cost them a playoff spot.
If the Flyers miss the playoffs for the third time in the last four seasons, the team's ineffective penalty kill will get a brunt of the blame.
Hoping to begin their playoff push, the Flyers have allowed four power-play goals – two in each game – in seven chances since returning from the all-star break. That contributed mightily to a 5-3 loss in Washington and a 4-3 defeat in New Jersey.
Since Jan. 1, the Flyers have allowed 13 power-play goals in 36 chances, a staggeringly low 63.9 success rate.
For the season, they have been successful just 73.9 percent of the time on the penalty kill, placing them in a tie for 29th in the 31-team league.
The Flyers (24-19-8) will try to snap out of their penalty-killing doldrums and end a three-game losing streak when they host lowly Ottawa (16-24-9) on Saturday afternoon. They will face a team that has one of the league's weakest power plays (28th), clicking at just 16 percent.
The Flyers have been sitting back too much on the penalty kill and allowing opponents to get high-percentage shots, which can lead to juicy rebounds. That has been especially the case when Jori Lehtera and Val Filppula have been the penalty-killing forwards.
General manager Ron Hextall does not allow reporters to speak with assistant Ian Laperriere, who coaches the penalty killers. So it was up to Hextall to explain the penalty-killing deficiencies and what can be done to improve it.
"I'm not going to talk about the small things we talk about internally; it seems like on a daily basis," Hextall said after the Flyers had a handful of players on the ice, including goalie Brian Elliott, for an optional practice Friday in Voorhees. "But we have to be better. Whether it's a stick in the lane, an angle, disrupting a breakout, we have to be better all around. When you're where we are at the bottom of the league, there's more than just one little thing that needs to be better."
Hextall was asked if the penalty-killing deficiencies were more because of structure or personnel.
"It's both. It's everything," Hextall said. "Your best penalty killer is your goalie. Our goalies I don't necessarily think have been at fault. Last year, I thought our goaltender on the PK was not very good. This year, I think it's been better, so you eliminate that and you start looking where you're giving up shots and how often."
Based on those who played in at least 20 games, Steve Mason was 45th out of 50 goaltenders last year with an .845 save percentage while the team was shorthanded.
This season, Brian Elliott is 35th out of 37 goalies with an .811 save percentage while shorthanded.
In both seasons, the defensemen have contributed to the penalty-killing problem, failing to clear bodies from in front of the net.
"I just think we need to pressure people at more opportune times," Hextall said, "and read things a little better individually; have sticks in the right lanes. Having a stick in a lane prevents a pass….We clearly have to do a better job collectively."
The Flyers' penalty-killing problems have become a common theme. They were tied for 19th last year (79.8 percent), tied for 20th in 2015-16 (80.5 percent), and 27th in 2014-15 (77.1 percent). They have the NHL's worst four-on-five save percentage (.843) over the last four seasons, but breakdowns by the four skaters have been a big reason for the low number.
After last season, the Flyers lost one of their better penalty killers, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, in the expansion draft to Vegas. On Friday, Hextall didn't rule out the possibility of adding a penalty killer in a trade. He was asked about recalling Matt Read, who has done lots of penalty-killing work for the Flyers, from the Phantoms.
"When you bring a guy back, you have to look at the whole picture," Hextall said. "… You can't bring a player [here] just to kill penalties."
Elliott, who missed the last three games with a lower-body injury, spent some time on the ice Friday and is making progress. Hextall said "hopefully" he can play Tuesday in Carolina. … Tyrell Goulbourne was sent back to the Phantoms. … Jake Voracek entered Friday third in the NHL with 60 points and the leader with 50 assists. … Ottawa's Bobby Ryan, the pride of Cherry Hill, will miss the game with a hand injury.