The Flyers deserved what they got Monday night. They lost to the Islanders, 4-0, in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, and questions and concerns and they-had-betters will rain down on them until Game 2 on Wednesday afternoon, and they earned all those doubts, all those hedged bets.
From the drop of the puck at a few minutes after 7 p.m. until the end of the first period, they played as if busting out of the Toronto bubble and heading home were more important to them than competing for a Stanley Cup. They were outshot, 15-4. They were outscored by a goal. Those 20 minutes were a tone-setter. The Flyers were wobbled, and though they got their bearings back a bit in the second period, they collapsed for good in the third. They weren’t ready, and there’s no excuse for it, and it’s an open question whether they’ll recover from it.
“In the first period, they were the better team,” Flyers coach Alain Vigneault said. “They had most of the zone time and puck-possession time and the opportunities. In the second period, we had the looks. We weren’t able to find that goal that would have tied up the game. This group has always found a way to respond, and we’ll respond on Wednesday.”
They have to. It might sound panicky to suggest that the Flyers have to win Game 2. It’s not, not after this performance. It’s one thing to lay an egg against the Montreal Canadiens in the first round, against a young and tenacious but inferior team. It’s another thing to sleepwalk through the first period of the first game of a series against an opponent such as the Islanders. This is a team coached by Barry Trotz and constructed by Lou Lamoriello, two of the titans of the sport. This is a team that is solid up and down, can play multiple styles, and will not beat itself. The Flyers aren’t going to get away with anything against the Islanders. They’re certainly not going to get away with treating the franchise’s first conference-semifinal game in eight years like it’s a late December night in Calgary during a 10-day road trip.
Forget losing 4-0. The Flyers were damn fortunate that they weren’t down by four goals after the game’s first 15 minutes. Carter Hart was that good in the first period. He kept his team close for as long as he could.
“The first period was probably the worst period we’ve had since we were in the bubble,” said Claude Giroux, who still has not scored a goal this postseason – all 10 games of this postseason. “The top players have got to play better. I’m obviously one of them. We’ve got to get going here.”
Yes, he does. So does Sean Couturier, who is also goal-less in the playoffs and, on Monday, wandered around the rink like a kid who had lost his mom in a department store, as if he didn’t quite know where to go or what to do. So does Kevin Hayes, who at least is creating point-blank shots and scoring chances but is not converting enough of them into goals – he has one. So does Travis Konecny, who raised his eyes to the rafters three or four times in frustration Monday night, which is three or four more times than he has put the puck in the net. Hayes had a breakaway and let the puck slide off his stick on a backhand move. Konecny fired at an open net, only to have Islanders defenseman Andy Greene deftly block the shot with his skate. No Flyers forward had a shot on goal over the final 11 minutes, 53 seconds of the first period Monday. Not one.
Afterward, Vigneault kept noting that second period, how the Flyers had the first nine shots of the frame but just couldn’t put one past Islanders goaltender Semyon Varlamov. Maybe it was a strategy or a tactic, to accent the positive. There wasn’t all that much to accent.
“If we get the same looks, we’ll be able to put the puck in the net,” Vigneault said. “Our top end guys are good players. The willingness is there. The execution was just a little off tonight. I expect more obviously from Coots and his line. …
“Frustration is not going to help. What you’ve got to do right now is focus on the process, focus on the task. We’ve got a few players right now who can play better with the puck.”