The air in the Flyers locker room was thick with something after last night’s 5-2 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
It’s not that easy to describe its aura, but I’m pretty certain it’s the same one that pervades all locker rooms and club houses of Cinderella story teams who come up just short.
This is what it must have been like when Gordon Hayward’s half court heave came tantalizingly close, but ultimately missed, as Butler fell in the National Championship to perennial powerhouse Duke a few years back.
Or when Jameer Nelson’s jumper from the foul line went off the rim and Oklahoma State, not St. Joe’s, danced into the Final Four in 2004.
Or probably most akin to Loyola Marymount, riding the emotional wave of playing in the tournament following the death of their star player (and Philly native) Hank Gathers on the court in the West Coast Conference tournament and going on to make a dramatic and unexpected run to the Elite Eight, only to get snowed under by the best team in college hoops – UNLV – missing on their own miracle run to the Final Four in 1990 – which happened to be the last time the Lions made the tournament.
Yes, that’s three college basketball references in a row to start a hockey story. But hey, it’s March after all, and the madness of this month does work its way into other sports sometimes.
And the Flyers are a perfect case. They’re an up and coming team, no doubt. They have two elite superstars in Claude Giroux and Jake Voracek. Sean Couturier may have stepped across that star threshold this season. There are several young players to be really excited about – a few who are significant contributors already – like Travis Konecny, Ivan Provorov, and Shayne Gostisbehere.
And led by that sextet, the Flyers became a real fun story in December, January and especially February. They rocketed from last place to first place in the Metropolitan Division. They amassed the third-best record in the NHL over a 37-game stretch – which is a good portion of a season (45%). They put the NHL on notice that this scrappy roster full of no-quit players was going to be a hard opponent to play against night in and night out.
They overcame a 10-game losing streak. They built a 12-game point streak of their own. There was – and still is – a lot to like about the Flyers. It was a darling of a story.
But, lost in the feel-good vibe the team was emanating for so long, was the fact that there were still concerns, still issues that could, at any time, once again rear their ugly heads and rain on the orange an black parade.
Enter the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The most-hated rival. The two-time defending Stanley Cup Champions. Captained by the most hated heel in the history of Philadelphia hockey – Sidney Crosby.
A berth for first place in the division was on the line. Surely, this would be a game where the focus was precise, the execution near flawless, the pace breakneck and the emotions running white hot.
And for much of the first two periods, the Flyers were right there with arguably the best team in the sport. In fact, for a while at the beginning of the second period, the Flyers were actually taking it to the Penguins.
But then, in what seemed like an instant, but was really half a period, it all went south. Pittsburgh thwarted two Flyers power plays, and then scored quick goals after each and added a third tally off a neutral zone mistake, and that was pretty much all she wrote.
The third period was fruitless. Pittsburgh added an empty-netter and beat the Flyers for the third time in three tries this season, scoring five goals in each game.
And the players were left to try to explain what went wrong. It wasn’t a poor effort. It just wasn’t good enough against a superior team.
It left players mad. Frustrated. It led to Giroux saying the Flyers power play was “shit,” after going 0-for-5 and running their performance over the past six games to a paltry 1-for-19.
You can sense they all knew what the real issue was, but were all too prideful to say it out loud.
That is, until Voracek faced the media circle (circus?).
Jake is nothing but blunt and honest. He truly may be the best interview in the locker room. He tells it like it is. And from his perspective, he spit what was really the truth that so may others don’t want to face:
“I don’t know what you guys saw up there (in the Press box),” he said. “But… we’re playing good teams right now that are on top of the standings, with a lot of experience so sometimes it shows that we are not there yet.”
And that’s OK. Really, it is.
The Flyers are not the Pittsburgh Penguins. Not even close. They’re not the Boston Bruins, who they play tonight. They’re not the Tampa Bay Lightning, who beat them last Saturday in a wild shootout. They aren’t the Winnipeg Jets or Vegas Knights, the next two teams they play at home.
The Flyers are on the come… just not yet.
Here’s the thing; when you don’t have unrealistic expectations, and you just let the team be what it is, you can see the fruits of the labor that Ron Hextall has done to slowly put this team together.
Sure there are frustrations that still exist. There are veterans taking up roster spots for an entire season that would have been better served by having a younger prospect with more long-term benefit to the team playing instead.
But that ship sailed already this season. Now the Flyers are trying to make a playoff push to prevent missing the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time since the early 1990s.
Now, you have to go with what got you here.
And what got the Flyers here was the group of guys on the ice last night. It had them playing a game on national television for first place in the division in March. If I told you at the beginning of the season that would be the case, you’d be thrilled. Admit it.
But now that they lost the game – and have dropped four straight – the fourth streak this year with at least three losses in a row (10, 3, 4, 4) – even though first place is still a possibility, last night’s game was evidence that it’s not, nor was it really ever a realistic goal.
Pittsburgh is too good. The rest of the division is mediocre, so coming in second is not out of the question – and neither is missing the playoffs entirely.
Woah. Hold up Ant. What the hell are you saying? Miss the playoffs entirely? Are you smoking some of that same stuff A.I. was in Charlotte the other night?
I get it. It can be viewed as an overreaction to another loss. And I’m not saying they are going to miss the playoffs. I believed it earlier this year. I said it repeatedly in this space that the Flyers were just a .500 team and likely not going to make the playoffs (which, by the way, they’ve played 67 games and won 34 and lost 33. That’s pretty close to .500 wouldn’t you say? And that’s for those of you out there who were mocking me for calling them a .500 team a couple weeks ago.)
But now I’m on board. This team is going to make the playoffs. I don’t think an epic collapse is hiding in the weeds here.
There is cause for concern though. There is a potential to feel a little tightening in the general area of the sphincter. They are eight points ahead of Florida, who is the first team outside of the playoffs, and that’s usually a pretty solid cushion with just 15 games to go, but the Panthers have three games in hand. There’s no guarantee they will win all three, but for the sake of argument, let’s say they do – well then the cushion is all but gone and a very tough schedule still remains, which could make for some hand-wringing and the talk of a collapse even more deafening.
But, I think the Flyers are good enough to play .500 hockey the rest of the way, and if they do, and finish with 94 points, that should get them in the postseason. Whether it’s for a first round series against Washington or as a wild card playing either Pittsburgh or Tampa Bay, the Flyers will be there.
But, this team is not ready to make that Cinderella run that we are wont to see this time of year. No. They could beat Washington – maybe. But they would be toast against Tampa or Pittsburgh. You could see why last night.
Now, I can highlight the mistakes from last night, but why bother? It’s the same things that plague them every game. Their defense lacks speed and when they attack five strong and turn the puck over in the offensive end, there are usually odd-man rushes created against them. They get themselves in trouble with the puck by either holding on to it too long or making an ill-advised pass attempt. Their second pair defense is truly a third pair being forced into second pair minutes and the guys playing third pair are really just seventh defensemen. Their goaltending is not up to snuff. The penalty kill is not good. If the power play struggles – as it is right now – they don’t score enough because they don’t have good scoring depth. The coach makes curious matchup decisions that seem to blow up in his face (Val Filppula against Crosby? Really?)
They stay in games – and win a lot of games – because they have character, grit and determination – and that’s why you should like these guys – even the veterans who get a lot of crap from Flyers Twitter – but they aren’t anything more than what they are.
Listen to Jake. He’s on the team. He knows.
They’re getting there. The process is moving along slower than you wanted it to, but they’re getting there. It’s baby steps. Make the playoffs this year – maybe be more of a contender next year – really make the push in 2020-21.
Just not now. Just not this year. And all it took was one more game against the Penguins to show everyone that for certain.