Tyrell Goulbourne was sitting in the locker room, taking off his pads and packing them in a bag.
This was an indicator that Goulbourne, unlike the rest of his Flyers teammates, wasn’t getting a chance to go on vacation as the Flyers entered a bye week that mandates a full 120 hours off (five days) before they are required to undergo any team activity (The Flyers next practice isn’t until 4 p.m. on Friday).
And yet, here was Goulbourne, all smiles, willing to talk about his NHL experience and the potential to have it continue as soon as the weekend.
I’ll get into my conversation with Goulbourne in a bit, but it’s rare that you see a guy getting sent back down to the minors in such a good mood.
Ahhh, a winning hockey locker room is a unique atmosphere – especially one where you’ve won a few games in a row, or 11 of 16 after a 10-game losing skid – all of which is the case for the Flyers following a not pretty, yet efficient, 4-1 win over Buffalo yesterday.
There’s the woooing as the player of the game is presented with the Ric Flair robe. There’s loud music. Guys are willing to talk and talk at length. There’s a lot of smiling and playfulness.
There’s even some over the top answers to questions, like:
“The feeling is we are very close to the playoffs right now,” Jake Voracek said. “I was reading somewhere that some people felt this team should get blown up during that 10-game losing streak. We didn’t, and we’re staying patient and we’re in a playoff position right now, so that’s good for us.”
Slow down Jake. Or, as Dave Hakstol likes to say, put it in park.
Look, the team should feel good about itself. They’ve played good hockey over the past three games. They were even, for a brief moment, tied for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot yesterday afternoon before the Penguins jumped back in front of them with an overtime win over Boston.
But, they need to put this whole thing in perspective:
- There’s a long way to go. Forty games in fact. To say you are “feeling” close to the playoffs is a little disingenuous. A lot has to happen for the Flyers to be a playoff team. I’ll explain why after this short list.
- Not sure anyone suggested “blowing the team up” but there were several of us – and my hand is raised here too – who thought a coaching change could be in order. And frankly Jake, even when you guys are winning, there are systemic things that we see watching a game where we have to wonder what the heck is going on? Why do you sit back in your 1-2-2 trap with a one goal lead? If pressuring the puck and creating turnovers is how you got the lead to begin with, why not stick with it? Lineup decisions are troubling. The penalty kill is way too passive. There are myriad reasons to question the process and the implementation of strategy, even in wins.
- The team deserves a lot of credit for “staying patient” or weathering the storm, as it were, and not plummeting into a deep dark place after the 10 game losing streak. But to just dismiss the fact that this team is capable of losing 10 straight games just because it stuck together and has had a decent run since is turning a blind eye to the streakiness and inconsistency that has plagued this team all season.
Look, I don’t want to come off as the curmudgeon providing the buzz kill on the Flyers latest success… I know, too late, right? But, I’d rather be realistic and gladly be proven wrong later, than jump on board a roller coaster while wearing a blind fold now, buying into a sugar rush of excitement only to be let down by the end of the ride.
As I mentioned in No. 1 above, there is a long way to go. The Flyers went 11-4-1 in the past 16 games just to get back within striking distance of the playoffs. They’ll need to duplicate that over the next 16 games just to be in one of those wild card spots heading into trade deadline conversation.
Then, after that, they’ll likely need a similar record over the next 16 games to maintain their position. I don’t want to go off on another tangent about the loser point in hockey, but it so adversely affects playoff races that deficits as small as two or three points take much longer to overcome, even if you are playing well.
So, for the sake of argument, let’s say the Flyers will be battling both New York teams, Pittsburgh and Carolina for the two Wild Card spots in the Eastern Conference. Sure, New Jersey or Columbus could slip back with a bad stretch or Detroit, Florida or Montreal can get white hot and jump into the race from further back, but let’s say two of the bottom five teams in the Metropolitan Division make the playoffs.
The Flyers sit three points behind the Rangers and one point behind the Penguins at the moment.
Ironically, the Penguins, Rangers and Islanders all are on bye this week as well. So the standings won’t fluctuate this week. However a much-improved Carolina team has three games – all tough ones. They play at Tampa Tuesday and then a home-and-home with Washington Thursday and Friday. Being realistic, let’s say they go 1-1-1 in these three games. Just like that, the Flyers would be three points out of both playoff spots again.
Carolina would have lost two-of-three, yet gained separation over an idle team. And yes, the Flyers would have two games in hand, but now those games in hand become must wins, and not – “oh we can get a point in one of them.”
The next 16 games end February 16 for the Flyers. It’s a brutal stretch, with 12 coming against teams with better records than the Flyers and 10 of which on the road. But, for the sake of argument, let’s say the Flyers go 9-5-2. A respectable record. Maybe even an optimistic one considering the competition.
That would make the Flyers 28-20-10 for 66 points through 58 games. To be in a playoff spot on the morning of Feb. 17 among the five teams we discussed, the Flyers would need three of these four things to happen:
New York Rangers (16 games) get fewer than 17 points.
Pittsburgh Penguins (15 games) get fewer than 19 points.
Carolina Hurricanes (18 games) get fewer than 20 points.
New York Islanders (17 games) get fewer than 20 points.
Is that possible? Yes. Is it likely that three of the four teams will play around .500 or worse? Not really. The Penguins are the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions after all and they are just beginning to hit their stride. The Rangers are the Rangers – it’s the same story with them every year, and they’ve been much better after a dreadfully slow start to the season. And Carolina is the analytics darling – a team that is improving exponentially because of their embracing of advanced hockey data.
But again, let’s say this happens. Let’s say the Flyers move into a playoff spot by a point or two ahead of the others on Feb. 17. What has to happen in the next 16 games?
You guessed it, it has to happen all over again. In other words, a team that is wildly inconsistent, has to suddenly flip a switch, through a very difficult portion of their schedule no less, and has to suddenly become incredibly consistent for a long, long stretch of games.
Now, ask yourself, is that likely? Are you happy the Flyers persevered?
This is why the 10-game losing skid can’t just be forgotten, or thrown out because the Flyers have negated it with an 11-4-1 record since.
It’s really hard to make the playoffs in the NHL, despite the fallacy that it’s easy to get in. It was at one time, it’s not anymore. In fact, I can argue that it’s harder to make the playoffs now in hockey than any other sport.
Simply put, the format used to allow fourth place teams in a five-team division to make the playoffs. It’s how a team like the Minnesota North Stars finished 27-39-14 for 68 points, made the playoffs in 1991, and made an improbable run to the Stanley Cup Final.
Nowadays, you need to be at 90 points just to be in the conversation and there have been seasons where the No. 8 seed had 95 points.
In the NFL, 8-8 and 9-7 have gotten into the playoffs plenty. Heck, even a couple sub-.500 teams have gotten in the playoffs in recent seasons.
In the NBA, .500 or sub-500 gets in frequently. Especially in the East.
And since the addition of the fifth wild card team, in baseball, now you only have to be around .500 to be in contention in September.
No more in the NHL.
Does that mean we should just cancel the rest of the Flyers season? No. There’s a lot of good that can still happen. Claude Giroux, Voracek and Sean Couturier are all going to be in contention for end-of-the season accolades. Shayne Gostisbehere could become the first Flyers defenseman to lead the NHL in defensive scoring. The young players will continue to develop (if they play… *cough* Travis Sanheim *cough*) and this team just might make it interesting and make a playoff push, which could be great.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves right now. There’s a long way to go. Just six days ago the Flyers were so upset with their own performance they called up Tyrell Goulbourne to play five minutes a night and start hitting people. And of the three wins, one came against an Islanders team that has allowed at least four goals in 10 of it’s last 13 games (1-9 in those 10) while another came against the worst team in hockey – Buffalo yesterday. Even the St. Louis win, which was a good win, came against a good Blues team that admitted after the game they weren’t prepared to play. So, there’s that too.
Not a full-time NHLer yet, Goulbourne didn’t get the luxury of a few days off like the rest of the Flyers. He was sent back to the Phantoms. He’ll continue to practice this week with the Phantoms and play for them in a home game Friday night.
Goulbourne said his first two games have been an amazing experience and that he hopes to be back with the Flyers for their game Saturday in New Jersey.
Goulbourne had two plays of note in his two games. Of course, there was his first shift where an open ice hit against St. Louis captain Alex Pietrangelo forced a turnover that let to a Scott Laughton goal on Saturday. Then yesterday, he chased down a loose puck for a breakaway:
Goulbourne turns on the jets but couldn't get it on net. pic.twitter.com/zGVHYpwIpi
— Sons of Penn (@SonsofPenn) January 7, 2018
Here was our conversation:
ASF: Hey Gilly (that’s his nickname), nice wheels on that breakaway.
TG: Thanks, but that shot though… I don’t know what happened.
ASF: It was a little wild.
TG: No, I mean, I really don’t know what happened. Was the puck on edge?
ASF: (looking at the replay on my phone) It’s hard to tell. It doesn’t look like it. But it may have been wobbling a bit.
TG: OK, because truth be told, I can’t lift a backhander if my life depended on it. And that was waaaaay over the net.
ASF: Yeah, it looks like it just took off.
TG: It was so bad that when I got back to the bench, I looked at Lappy (Assistant coach Ian Laperriere) and just went like this [He throws his arms straight into the air like a referee confirming a good field goal.]
ASF: (seeing him pack up) I guess you don’t get the same break as the rest of these guys, huh?
TG: Nah. I gotta pay my dues first. It’s good though. This experience has been awesome. I can’t wait to come back.
ASF: When do you think that might be.
TG: We’ll see. Maybe Saturday.
He’s a really great guy. I think he’ll offer more than, say, Zac Rinaldo did, but I’m not quite so sure he’s as talented as Ron Hextall makes him out to be. Flyers fans should root for him to be an impact fourth line, glue-type player. He’s quite likable.
Not that this has anything to do with the current team, but Timonen told me yesterday he will be doing color commentary for Finnish TV for the the ice hockey portion of the Winter Olympics in South Korea.
“I just got my flight booked today,” he said. “First I have to go to Atlanta. And then from there it’s a direct flight.”
When I asked how long that flight is Timonen said, “Only 16 hours. It’s a short trip.”
Timonen said he has done television a couple times here and there since retiring but this is the first time he’s actually going to be calling games from a booth.
I asked him if this is something he always wanted to do and he said, “Not really.”
The guy’s deadpan humor has always been one of the best in the building.
He did say he is looking forward to it though because without NHL players, it is going to be a very competitive tournament with a lot of teams having a realistic chance at a gold medal this year.