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Flyers’ goalie-go-round impedes team from taking next step in growth

As the injured Brian Elliott tries again to get back in net, Dave Hakstol's reality is a tandem of waiver-wire pickup Cal Pickard and undrafted free agent Alex Lyon.

Cal Pickard has an opportunity with the Flyers' top two goalies sidelined.
Cal Pickard has an opportunity with the Flyers' top two goalies sidelined.Read moreMatt Slocum / AP

The Flyers have played 20 games and employed four goaltenders this season, a little fact sometimes overlooked when tracing the roots of their maddening inconsistencies. Like the team, the goaltending has been up and down, but there was a beam of light there earlier this month when the team grabbed nine of a possible 10 points on a West Coast swing and Brian Elliott looked like the same guy who had triggered their resurrection of a year ago.

You remember last year, right? The Flyers were amid a 10-game winless stretch during this very time period, surrendering 39 shots to the Islanders in a 5-4 overtime loss on this very date, following that by allowing a 52-shot barrage to Pittsburgh in yet another 5-4 overtime loss.

It wasn't the stuff of Vezina, but Elliott, whose start as a Flyer two seasons ago was the antithesis of smooth, was establishing a reputation with his new team during those free-for-alls, a reputation Flyers coach Dave Hakstol alluded to the other day when asked if having the same guy between the pipes on a nightly basis allows a team to be more consistent in its play.

"Yeah,'' he said. "Having that guy between the pipes — and it's not always just about the saves. Moose gives us that. I've talked about that a bit, about the competitive nature that he has and what he brings to the table. Yet in saying that, he's not the only guy capable. And injuries are a part of it.''

For the Flyers, goaltending injuries are as common as a Gritty pratfall. Indeed, before Elliott earned Hakstol's undying respect playing back-to-backs, or playing four games in seven nights, it seemed the coach may have even preferred to have Michal Neuvirth back there.

Not now. He might prefer Gritty at this point to Neuvirth, whose injury updates have become an exercise in dark humor. Hakstol's reality as Elliott tries again to get back in net — this time shaking off an injury to his twice-operated-on lower body — is a tandem of waiver-wire pickup Cal Pickard and 25-year-old undrafted free agent Alex Lyon, whose surprising performances late last season earned him a two-year deal this offseason, and a role in the Flyers' Whack-A-Mole approach to goaltending.

Against Buffalo on Wednesday, Lyon became the fourth goalie to man the pipes already for the Flyers this season, and the fifth since Elliott's troubles with hips and core muscles derailed his outstanding season and greatly compromised the Flyers' hopes of advancing past the first round of the playoffs last spring.

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Lyon's return to the big boy league is more evidence of the No. 1 problem haunting the Flyers' rebuilding project —  there is no No. 1. By selecting a posse of goaltenders over the first three drafts, Flyers general manager Ron Hextall showed that he clearly gets this. But his plan to enter yet another season with the unendingly injured Neuvirth and the surgically repaired Elliott belied his carefully measured approach in other aspects of his job. And impedes his team's growth.

Simply put, it makes it almost impossible to develop chemistry, personality, the intangibles so evident during the Flyers' second half of last season. Hakstol and players are loath to say it, because it implies a lack of confidence in the replacements. But at least one of those replacements, Lyon, readily admits its reality.

"I spent three years with the exact same defensemen at school," said the Yale grad. "We knew what each other was going to do, it was so smooth. It was a quarterback/receiver thing almost.

"I'm also a big believer that certain goalies thrive in certain systems just like certain quarterbacks thrive in certain systems. You look at Tim Thomas during Boston's Cup run. He was phenomenal, but realistically is he able to achieve that with another team? I don't know. Can Henrik Lundqvist play on a team where he gets 25 shots a night and he's not The Man? I mean, Corey Crawford is just built so ideally for that Chicago system. Don't get me wrong, they're all superb goalies. But I truly believe it's opportunity.''

That's what Lyon is banking on, a big reason he re-upped. He has seen goalies like Thomas bounce around before landing in a good spot and making the most of it. He has read enough names on the Stanley Cup to know it's not always as much about talent as it is durability and dependability.

"Injuries happen throughout the year,'' Hakstol said. "On good teams you have a player who steps in and does the job. And everybody else rallies around it. Especially the goaltending position. I believe we have two guys who are capable of doing it. And as an entire group, we also have to rally around them a little bit and give them their opportunity to really gain some momentum and gain that presence in net. And do their job. So it's a two-way street.''