Early into this season, the Flyers' depth seemed a revelation. Their fourth line was churning momentum and popping an occasional goal. Wayne Simmonds was almost single-handedly turning his second line into a 1-B line, and the first line … well, Whoa, Nelly.
Here's some numbers: In the 12 games prior to Saturday night's 1-0 loss to the Minnesota Wild at the Wells Fargo Center, that first line had accounted for 21 of the team's 37 goals. Simmonds, who has not scored in nine games and has not seemed right since injuring his groin, had zero shots on goal.
"We've got a lot of guys who are playing pretty well,'' Flyers coach Dave Hakstol had insisted before the game. "At some point in time, yeah, we need everybody to chip in with some goals. The biggest thing is you've got to keep playing well. Obviously we've made a shift or two in those two lines looking for the right combination. But right now everybody's got to go out and do their job. If they can help out by chipping in and scoring a little bit, that obviously is going to help our team.''
It raised the question. Until then, what happens when that first line has an off night? What happens when Claude Giroux's legs just don't show up, when Jake Voracek takes a good 30 minutes to find his, when Sean Couturier's propensity to not finish, so nagging in his previous six seasons prior to this breakout one, revisits for the night? When that first line accounts for all three of the penalties called against the Flyers?
Here's what happens: Thirty-two mostly benign shots, three fruitless and nearly chanceless power plays, zero goals for the Flyers and another loss to a team they have owned in this building, a team they should beat even on an off night. The Flyers lost this one when Jason Zucker corralled the carom of a wide shot from the point and banked it off Flyers starter Brian Elliott from the opposite side at 1 minute, 8 seconds of the third period – shortly after the Wild killed off a Flyers power play.
"It's a really boring game," said Flyers defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere. "They play just a sit-back system. They bring the puck up and chip it in, we have to break out. It's just back and forth. But those are the type of teams you're going to run into. You have to adjust and make plays in a different way."
How? In a quirk of the schedule, the Flyers will play in Minnesota on Tuesday night.
"Maybe we could have put a little more traffic in front," said Couturier, who finished with six of the 32 shots. "Obviously when there's over 30 shots and you don't score there's something you can do better. But they play tough in front and it's hard to get there. The shooting lanes are hard to find so you have to first create that lane and then go to the net. It was a battle."
Should the Flyers be left out of the playoffs again in April, these are the games they should rue the most: home matchups against teams with resumes similar to theirs or worse, and in which they are unable to take advantage of a supportive Saturday night crowd. Minnesota began last night at the bottom of the Central Division, the same spot you will find the Arizona Coyotes, who won their first game of the season here back on Oct.30.
The Flyers have now lost four of their last five and five of their last seven games at home.
This time, Elliott was the goaltender who played well but lacked support. He made just five saves in the first period, but two were goal-savers. After Giroux rather sloppily turned over the puck inside his own blue line while on the power play, Wild captain Mikko Koivu swooped in on Elliott, got him down as he crossed the crease, and attempted to lift the puck into the net along the left side. Elliott extended the forehand of his stick to deny it.
Later, in the first period's final seconds, Elliott extended through a scrum to poke a loose puck away from two Wild players and back up the ice.
He made nine saves in the second period, his stick again his most effective weapon. Meanwhile, the Flyers peppered Wild goaltender Devan Dubyk with shots, especially over the last few minutes, but they rarely greased the crease with multiple bodies or sustained pressure until the final 30 desperate seconds.