Excuse the Flyers if they weren’t too celebratory about their win over the New York Rangers last night.
Yes, it was a big win. Yes, it was probably the win that in a couple weeks we will look back on and say was the one that ultimately secured them a playoff berth.
With another mini-stretch of tough games on the horizon, and the teams behind them making up most of their games in hand in the next week, it was a win of absolute necessity.
But it wasn’t pretty.
It took a strong effort from goalie Alex Lyon to keep them from losing a second straight game to a non-playoff team. It took some more next-level speed and agility from their budding star winger Travis Konecny to spark the offense – despite the fact that he was curiously missing from the ice for most of the third period. It took another three-point night from the captain, Claude Giroux, who might well be the most important player to his team in the entire NHL this season.
Beyond that, though, you pretty much held your nose to avoid the odor and also to hold your breath that an unwanted, in-game collapse wouldn’t take place.
OK, Ok… the second line was decent on the whole – Jake Voracek scored a goal on a great individual effort and Oskar Lindblom did register his second NHL goal cleaning up the rebound of a good shot by Nolan Patrick, but really, on the whole, the Flyers were out-skated by the Rangers. They were out out-worked by the Rangers. And the Rangers have nothing to play for while the Flyers definitely do.
It’s hard to be critical after a win. The Flyers did what they had to do and earned two very big points in the standings. They gave themselves a comfortable cushion again, and reduce their magic number over New Jersey to 13 points (either earned by the Flyers or lost by the Devils) and 14 points over Florida.
That may seem like a lot, with seven games to go, but it could be reduced to nine and 12 respectively by the time the Flyers take the ice again in Pittsburgh on Sunday – and they only need to finish ahead of one of those teams to make the playoffs.
Not only that, the Flyers have again climbed within a point of second place Pittsburgh and could well head north in the standings if they can get their act together.
It’s as if they’re fighting a war on two fronts. They are simultaneously in a battle with Pittsburgh and Columbus for second place in the Metropolitan Division as they are with New Jersey and Florida for the two Eastern Conference Wild Card spots, with one team going to end up on the outside looking in (my forecast has New Jersey missing the playoffs at this point).
And yet, despite all of this, the focus after the game wasn’t really on the positive (except for Lyon, who continues to be a solid relief pitcher of sorts for the Flyers, playing his best games when he has to put out fires).
No, instead, everyone talked about how uneven the team played. How there are still too many mistakes happening. How they still need to play better.
And, of course, there was always the questioning of the coach’s rationale for the in-game decisions he makes – although this time he gave a very direct and fair answer to questions about his in-game choices – even if I still don’t agree with it.
It’s a lot to tackle, so let’s do it one at a time.
Let’s get this out of the way right off the bat – Alex Lyon is not ready to be a go-to goalie. He’s not a guy who you can honestly expect to be able to carry you in a seven-game series. He has weaknesses that teams will exploit playing against him consistently every night.
But, he is still young. He will get better. And right now, he wins on guile, competitiveness, and a drive to never quit on a play.
It’s more than the other guy was giving you and sometimes, that’s enough.
Lyon was given the Ric Flair robe by his teammates as the star of the game. He made 33 saves. Some were easily of the 10-bell variety.
A diving, shoulder save and a pad save by Lyon keeps the Flyers up! pic.twitter.com/4vSJ6S0DzO
— Sons of Penn (@SonsofPenn) March 23, 2018
Again, I don’t think Lyon is ready for a heavy workload – or to be a guy you can count on against Pittsburgh, or Washington, or Tampa, or Toronto – gifted offensive teams very well could feast off him.
It’s why with the exception of his start in Boston (which he played well, but the Flyers lost agonizingly in regulation) Lyon is starting against fringe or non-playoff teams – New Jersey, Montreal, Carolina, and the Rangers last night.
Lyon, who is a downright pleasure to talk to and gives you an honest assessment to everything you ask without much in the way of the trained cliche answers these players are instructed to give the media, even admitted to some of his shortcomings last night – in a game he won and was voted player of the game by his teammates.
“If I’m being totally honest, I don’t feel really good about that save (in the video above),” he said. “I’d like to make it a little more cleanly. I was already down and I just had a clear vision of the puck and got my shoulder on it. I felt like there were other saves that I was much happier with, just because you always want to make the save the right way.
“That was one of those games where it didn’t feel like I was quite as crisp as I wanted to be. I was still seeing it well, some days you just have to adjust and keep the puck out of the net.”
He’s posted a solid 2.49 goals against average so far and a .914 save percentage and is 4-2-1 in 10 appearances.
And while he may not be a go-to guy, Lyon is at least proving he’ll give you all he’s got and as a result, he won’t embarrass you if you put him in there.
It’s the best the Flyers could hope for right now.
2. Claude for Hart
I’ve mentioned this before and I’ll mention it again and I’ll keep mentioning it until it doesn’t happen (which it probably won’t), but Claude Giroux should be a Hart Trophy finalist this season.
It’s a plausible argument that he has been more valuable to the Flyers this season than any other player in the league has been to their team.
He added three more assists last night and now has 90 points for just the second time in his career. He needs four more points to set a career high. He has an outside shot at becoming the Flyers’ first 100-point scorer in a generation.
He currently ranks fifth in the NHL in points and first in assists.
And if you look around him among scoring leaders, no one – I repeat NO ONE – has a greater impact on his team’s success.
Among the Top 10 scorers in the league:
Take Nikita Kucherov off Tampa Bay – and it would hurt, but they’re still a pretty darn good team. Plus, Tampa has Steven Stamkos – who is probably more valuable than Kucherov (and also among the top 10 scorers. Tampa missed the playoffs last season, missing Stamkos for a huge chunk of the season. But these two are a tandem and neither individually carries as much weight as Giroux does for the Flyers).
Nathan McKinnon is having a phenomenal year for Colorado, and should be in the conversation with Giroux. However, if the Avs miss the playoffs (they are in a Wild Card spot right now with a three-point cushion over St. Louis, but the Blues have a game in hand) it’s tough to consider him for MVP.
It’s for that reason that Connor McDavid, who is having another outstanding season for Edmonton, and South Jersey’s Johnny Gaudreau, who is having his best season in Calgary, aren’t real contenders for the Hart this season despite being among the league’s best scorers.
Anze Kopitar is in the same boat as McKinnon. He is carrying the Kings right now. But if LA misses the playoffs (they’re only one point better than Colorado) he has to come out of the conversation too. But if the Kings do make the playoffs, I’d put Kopitar in the mix with Giroux and McKinnon for sure. The Kings wouldn’t be sniffing the playoffs without him. However, he’s likely your Selke Trophy front-runner (I believe the three finalists will be Kopitar, Patrice Bergeron in Boston and Sean Couturier), which will keep him out of the Hart conversation.
That leaves Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel in Pittsburgh. Both are in the top 10, but like the Kucherov/Stamkos situation, the Penguins would still be a good team even without one of them (Not to mention a guy named Sidney Crosby lurks just outside the Top 10 in scoring).
Blake Wheeler in Winnipeg is the last candidate, and he has been a spark plug for the upstart Jets, who may have the best team Winnipeg’s ever seen this year. But, it is because of that – they are a strong team all the way through their lineup – that as good as Wheeler is, he’s not more valuable to them than Giroux is to the Flyers.
Seriously. Take Giroux out of the lineup and where are the Flyers? Even give us last year’s version of Giroux this year, and are the Flyers even a topic of conversation? No. They’d be dead in the water and floating near the bottom of the standings.
Quite simply, Giroux means more to his team than anyone else this season. It’s why he needs to be a Hart Trophy finalist in my mind. You can argue that one or two guys are more deserving of the award, but you can’t find three. So, fellow writers, do the right thing – and vote for Claude.
3. The Curious Case of Travis Konecny
I might end up writing all day about this situation.
Because even though Dave Hakstol doesn’t think so, and even though Konecny himself doesn’t think so (at least not outwardly to those of us asking him questions), the way he is treated for his play is a travesty.
Last night was an incredible microcosm of this point.
Let’s do this chronologically shall we:
Konecny controls the puck in traffic, takes the shot, and scores! pic.twitter.com/GCNxXJ5DSz
— Sons of Penn (@SonsofPenn) March 22, 2018
That’s Konecny scoring his 21st goal of the season in the first period, giving the Flyers a 1-0 lead.
It was a nifty little move and Konecny said he was originally considering passing the puck before shooting at the last possible second.
Then in the second period:
— Sons of Penn (@SonsofPenn) March 23, 2018
For a shifty little guy, he’s fearless and has no problem getting to the “dirty areas” of the ice where most goals are scored. It’s a great deflection for his 22nd goal of the season – and his third two-goal game of the season.
And then there was the third period:
That’s right. TK wasn’t around for much of the third period. No, he didn’t get hurt. No, he wasn’t serving some sort of misconduct penalty.
Nope. He was rooted to the bench right in front of Hakstol for most of the period.
He was credited with four shifts totaling 2:28 in the third period. He saw the ice for 30 seconds in the final 13 minutes of the game.
So a guy who has been an offensive catalyst for the first 40 minutes of a must-win game suddenly can’t get on the ice in the third period?
And it’s not like the Flyers were offensive dynamos in the third period. No. They were having the game taken to them.
“We got it done,” Giroux said. “We’re happy about it, but at the same time I think we can play a little bit better… At the end we sat back a little too much, but we got it done.”
Even Hakstol admitted the third period was not to his liking.
“We were just sporadic today,” He said. “The first 3-4 minutes of the game we weren’t sharp and crisp and then we finished the first period, the last 15-16 minutes, really well. And then from there we were sporadic through the next 20-25 minutes and honestly we got back on our heels in the last part of the third period. Obviously there’s things that we have to clean up and do a little bit better, but the bottom line is the two points at the end of the night and we move on.”
Which begs the question, why isn’t Konecny on the ice? He’s never back on his heels. His mistakes are often mistakes of being up on his toes too much – since we’re going with feet-based metaphors here.
In other words, if TK is making a mistake, it’s from trying to make a play or being too aggressive on a puck. Not from sitting back.
But Hakstol still feels the need to use TK as a whipping boy for accountability, something no other player has to deal with so punitively.
Hakstol admitted to benching Konecny in the third period:
“He wasn’t taking care of the puck very well,” Hakstol said. “Defensively, some of the things in the D-zone. Individuals got to be better at this time of the year and how we manage the puck and how we take care of it and the mentality that we’re gonna do things with.”
It was a pretty direct response from Hakstol. One that I, for one, appreciate. I don’t agree with the punishment – especially when a guy like Voracek is known to be a similar type of player as Konecny, an offensive dynamo but not the best player in the defensive zone – and he is often double shifted in the third period and was even on the ice with two minutes to play and the team protecting a one-goal lead.
So much for the good for the goose, good for the gander thing….
But Hakstol’s comments sent off a wave of questions (including one from yours truly) that Hakstol had to answer – after a win no less:
Was that play, where he tried to pick off that pass, was that one of the plays?
“No, that’s actually, that’s not one of them. He was trying to make a play there. I want players to try to make plays. He was trying to make a play so that wasn’t one of them for me.”
(Here’s that play for your viewing displeasure):
Zibanejad takes the puck from Konecny's reach, speeds around Gudas, and beats Lyon. pic.twitter.com/il7qWbV7jd
— Sons of Penn (@SonsofPenn) March 22, 2018
Prior to that his energy, you said you guys were sporadic in the first. He scores that goal, cutting through the slot, and he gets to the net whether that goal sticks with him or it’s Gudas’s goal or whatever. The fact that he is able to do those things and inject some life on the offensive side of it, is that just the maturation of him as a player?
“There is never a lack of that and we love that. I love that about TK. On most nights, he’s working hard to do the right things on both sides of the puck. There’s been very few nights where he hasn’t given us that injection of energy and that punch offensively. He’s been a real consistent player on that side of things.”
There’s scorers the NHL, there’s fast guys in the NHL, there’s guys who love to get dirty and bang around. That’s not a usual collection of a skill set like he’s got.
“He did it tonight, right? He got one from the outside and he got one from that net front. You love those things about him. There’s certain nights where, a night like tonight, where with the puck and for this time of the year depending on the situation and time of the game, you need him to do a better job and he knows that. But that’s part of the growing process here and he’s done a hell of a job for our team. Again tonight, he was an impact player and on a night like tonight where some of the decisions aren’t what we want them to be, we’ve got guys that can go in there at the right time of game and do the job.”
Do you tell him that or do you just show him that with less time and things like that?
“Those are little things you talk about during the game on the bench and wherever. Absolutely, we have to address those things during the game.”
How difficult is it to make that decision though, Dave, when he gives you that offense he gives you in the first two periods?
“It’s a balance. It’s not difficult, it’s a balance. You take the information that’s there and make the decision.”
But the balance you are looking for, you don’t get. Because when you take TK off the ice in favor of Matt Read, who is certainly a more reliable defensive player, you take your foot off the gas pedal.
You force your team to sit back and play a more defensive style.
Your very decision is WHY the team is caught back on their heels.
And it wasn’t just TK. Jori Lehtera was getting ice time in place of Jordan Weal in the third period as well as Hakstol shortened his bench.
Weal isn’t as much of a game-changer as Konecny, so that one gets glossed over, but Hakstol is making decisions that, for most of a period, are stunting the offense. I’m not sure that’s the best way to go.
It worked last night, so it’s difficult to argue, but the Flyers really were just hanging on last night rather than continuing to dictate the tempo of the game themselves. Sometimes the team just plays badly and there’s nothing a coach can do about it.
But when you take the game’s best player over the first 40 minutes and basically take him out of the lineup in favor of a defense-first forward (Read ended up playing more minutes than Konecny in the game last night) you are definitely changing the tenor of the game yourself. Period.
To his credit, Konecny said in the media scrum that he’s comfortable with the decision because it’s good for the team:
“It’s all about getting the two points,” Konecny said. “Defensively we are going to make sure we are taking care of pucks and little things like that. It’s all about doing what’s right for the team. I have no problem with it because it’s all about getting the two points. If that’s the way we have to win, I’ll do it every time.”
After the scrum was over, I furthered the conversation with Konecny one-on-one:
Do you think your teammates notice you aren’t out there and as such figure they have to focus on defense-first hockey now because they don’t want to be too aggressive and end up in the same spot on the bench?
“I don’t think so. I don’t know what everyone else is thinking, but I know the way we play and we’re not trying to sit back like that. Look, it was a coaching decision at the end of the game. I want to take this with some pride and make sure I’m a little bit better toward the end of games and hopefully one day be able to stay out there, but right now this is part of it – since we’re winning games.”
But you can see why I’m asking you this right? It’s hard not to sit upstairs and watch and see how well you are playing offensively and wonder – why you would want to stop having that threat on the ice?
“Yeah, but I did make some mistakes tonight. It’s all good.”
But hockey’s a game of mistakes, right?
“Yeah, I know.”
I mean, if it’s at the very end of the game, or a key defensive zone draw that’s one thing. But when it’s almost the whole period, that’s another thing, right? And that’s me saying it, not you saying it, but I’m not wrong with this.
“I hear you. I’m just… We got the win. That’s all that matters.”
He’s right. It is all that matters ultimately. But what happens when this is the strategy and the Flyers don’t win? Is there a right time and a wrong time for teaching lessons? I argue there is. And I would say when your team is scratching and clawing and fighting for every point necessary in the final eight games of the season as you are trying to make the playoffs is not the right time.
4. Other stuff
I knew I’d go on too long with that one. Sorry. It just burns me up when these things happen. The whole “we know better than you” mentality. Look, more often than not, coaches and general managers do know better than the rest of us. But, we aren’t always wrong to question those decisions either.
Hakstol goes all Andy Reid on us sometimes and it eats away at me.
OK, moving on…
I’ve probably written enough today but there are some final bullet points I want to touch on:
- Voracek’s goal was a thing of beauty:
Jake the Snake slithering his way into the goal column. pic.twitter.com/jTXbHovl7s
— Sons of Penn (@SonsofPenn) March 23, 2018
He really went 1-on-3 and came away victorious. It was a hell of an effort goal. Jake decided not to talk about it after the game. Some of the members of the media were bothered by this – apparently this is the third time this season Voracek has declined to speak to the media after a game (yes, there are bean counters for that sort of thing, sad, I know).
I don’t get the complaint. I think Jake talks plenty. He always has something good to say. He’s a good quote and a good dude with the writers. If the guy wants a night off (or three) from our stupid questions over the course of seven months, fine. It’s not like there was something he absolutely had to answer for from this game. He wasn’t ducking anything. He’s just mentally tired. Give him a break. I, for one, have no problem with it Jake.
- I have a little concern for Ivan Provorov. He has had a few below bar games in a row now. (Admittedly his bar is far higher than everyone else on the defensive side of things.) He looks exhausted to be honest. He’s missing that extra life in his legs that we have grown so accustomed to seeing. Hakstol is smartly giving the Flyers a day off today. They need the rest, and no one more than Provorov. The Flyers are going to need him at his best if they want to make any postseason noise at all.
- Brandon Manning was back in the lineup last night… and while he didn’t make any egregious mistakes that cost the Flyers, there was still a lot of “Oh, Brandon” moments. Whether it was being caught out of position, colliding with teammates behind the net, or stumbling to the ice on his own, Manning continues to be what he is – a No. 7 defenseman. I don’t buy that he’s a better matchup for specific teams than Robert Hagg at the moment, as Hakstol indicated. Instead, I can tell you there is a very real belief that Hagg is still injured, and that despite trying to play through it in recent games, Hagg isn’t quite 100 percent – which is why Manning was back in the lineup against New York.