There are bad losses…. and then there was last night.
The Flyers were as ill-prepared for the start of the playoffs as any team I have ever seen. It was as embarrassing to watch as I’m sure it was to participate.
Sure, it’s easy to say it’s just one game and that the Penguins could win 20-0 or 3-2 and it all counts the same… blah, blah, blah – shove that crap logic right back down your gullet from whence it came.
The fact of the matter was something emphatically pointed out yesterday – the Penguins are a playoff-tested team and the Flyers are not yet ready for prime time.
From the guys dressed in suits to the guys wearing skates, there wasn’t one person prepared for the avalanche that was coming their way.
The Flyers seemed to think this series was going to start a lot more like a boxing match – where the first round is a bit of a feeling out process. Throw a couple jabs, take a couple, and really get a sense of how each team is going to play before it settles in.
Uh, that was an epic misread on their part.
Instead, the Penguins were like, “screw that” and came out of the gates like the thoroughbred team they are, and didn’t stop. And won’t stop.
I know a lot of you younger folks are skeptical when us graybeards tell you that experienced teams and talented teams know how to elevate their game to a whole new level and that young teams often have a hard time matching that.
I know it’s a very old school way of thinking because we live in a world where the younger generations are a bunch of doubting Thomases and need empirical evidence for absolutely everything before they even consider accepting a statement as true, or even mostly true (you ever watch the news with the fact-checkers? They need to qualify something as mostly true or mostly false and can’t just accept true or false with qualifiers anymore… it’s maddening…. OK, back to hockey).
Anyway… when we say players are “red light players” or that they can just “flip the switch” and dominate games because we’ve seen it, we mean it.
And if you want empirical evidence, I give you the Pittsburgh Penguins last night.
That, friends, is what great teams can do. I hate to admit it, because there’s a lot of things I really don’t like about the Penguins…
(For example, and this is not indicative of anything, but just an anecdote I will share – after the game last night, a Philadelphia reporter was chastised by members of the Penguins public relations staff for accidentally stepping on the Penguins logo in their locker room because it’s “bad luck.”
This isn’t the first time this has happened, and to be fair, the Penguins are not alone with this, as other teams have this asinine tradition, too.
And you know what I say to these teams and the members of the logo-protecting Gestapo that they employ? If you don’t want someone stepping on your logo, then don’t put it on the damn floor! And seriously, it’s a freaking piece of carpet, you morons. It’s not like it’s some old heirloom from underneath Sidney Crosby’s dryer that he used to shoot pucks into in Nova Scotia growing up – as if it was some sort of sign from above that he was destined to lead the Penguins to Stanley Cup glory, no… it’s new. It was put in when the building opened a few years back. It has no historical value whatsoever. It’s a rug. Stop being so bleeping self-righteous about it. Damn.)
… but the Penguins are a great team.
Yes, I said on the Snow the Goalie podcast (subscribe/rate/review… thanks!) that they aren’t the same Penguins team that won the last two Stanley Cups. And their depth is good, but not as good as previous years. Their defense is pedestrian and goalie Matt Murray has been shaky all season.
And yet, in Game 1, they looked every bit as dominant as they were the last two seasons.
As is always the case in the playoffs, you can throw all your analysis (old school eye tests and new school analytics, both) out the window because it’s a different game. It’s a different season. And none of that stuff from the regular season really matters.
Great teams know how to win. Especially against not-so-great teams. Sadly for Flyers fans, the local boys in orange and black are the latter.
Everything that has plagued the Flyers for the past three months, three years, hell, three decades, was on display last night.
Here are five of them:
1. Getting the puck out of your own zone
I find this to be a remarkably amazing inability of the Flyers. That’s because it confounds me at just how poor they are at it.
Look, I get that there are levels of success and failure with each part of a hockey game – and the sport is predicated on mistakes – hello, it’s played on ice – so, you learn to accept some mistakes a little more easily than you would in other sports.
But, this is a fundamental part of the game that is consistently, maddeningly, and sometimes hysterically bad.
Because the Flyers have become masters at not just failing to shoot the puck out of the zone or carry the puck out of the zone, but finding ways to get so agonizingly close to the blue line and still not getting it out of the zone – and not just having it happen once. But twice. Three times:
Carl Hagelin takes advantage of the Flyers' failure to clear the puck and deflects it by Elliott. pic.twitter.com/he5ST8ZlE9
— Sons of Penn (@SonsofPenn) April 11, 2018
You only see Couturier’s failure here – and it’s bad. But there were two right before this, one that hit a glove on the ice and one that was a failed clear along the far wall.
I was watching the game at Crossing Broad’s awesome live event and watch party at 6Ft Under at 7th and Walnut (get the roast pork sandwich and thank me later) sponsored by I Do, I Will, so I didn’t have the advantage of great replays of longer segments of the game or being able to watch it live where you can identify the errors more clearly.
And every replay I found when I got home looking for this sequence started at about the same spot as the video above, but I believe one failed clear was Michael Raffl and the other was Shayne Gostisbehere (which hit a rogue glove on the ice and stayed in the zone, so that was bad luck), but I could be wrong on the identifications there, so I won’t assess individual blame.
However, collectively, that’s poor. How you can’t repeatedly get the puck out of the zone is crazy to me. It’s got to be systemic. These guys are not bad players who keep making these mistakes. Couturier is arguably the best two-way player in hockey for Pete’s sake. The obsession with possession (I like how that sounds) is what is hurting them.
A little chip into the neutral zone gets it out of danger, and then you can go hunt the puck and get it back in a safer area.
But no, let’s keep dilly-dallying with carrying the puck, despite pressure, or rushing a clear and hitting a teammate with the puck, or a loose glove, or a broken stick, or make a weak rim from behind the net in hopes it makes it past the blue line.
It’s a terrible approach to the fundamental process of the game.
It’s been chronic with this team, so much so that it’s expected now. And that’s a bad expectation to have.
It’s a rite of Spring for the Flyers to have turmoil in goal in the playoffs. No team in the NHL has experienced this quite like the Flyers.
Brian Elliott started and was pulled after allowing five goals on 19 shots. Peter Mrazek replaced him and allowed two more.
Elliott is not 100 percent yet. I know this from talking to someone in the organization who would know. Coming back from hernia surgery (call it core muscle, call it groin tear, call it sports hernia… it’s a freaking hernia and it’s damn painful) in seven weeks, especially for a goalie, is admirable – but it may not lead to the best results.
And Elliott hasn’t looked good.
He struggled in his first game back against Carolina. He was hardly tested by the New York Rangers in the final game of the regular season and he was assaulted by the Penguins.
On three of the five goals allowed, he had no prayer. However, the first goal by Brian Rust… he’s got to get that rebound to the corner, and not back into the slot:
Bryan Rust collects a rebound and fires it off the post and in. pic.twitter.com/kgfTmVVoYe
— Sons of Penn (@SonsofPenn) April 11, 2018
And Evgeny Malkin’s goal, while it had several breakdowns on the way into the zone, is a shot that most goalies should stop:
Evgeni Malkin backhands the puck by Elliott. pic.twitter.com/UFhdv1Xyq1
— Sons of Penn (@SonsofPenn) April 11, 2018
Those two are on Elliott.
I get that he’s sore, and for lack of a better phrase is “gutting it out,” but if that’s the case, the Flyers have no prayer at all to win even one game in this series.
Dave Hakstol, who doesn’t usually share lineup information in advance, broke from his norm and all but declared Elliott will be a go in Game 2 as well.
And I get it. He really has very little choice.
Petr Mrazek is completely unreliable as a starter. Michal Neuvirth is still hurt for the 472nd time since joining the Flyers, Alex Lyon is playing for the Phantoms in the playoffs – and that’s where he belongs (sorry Lyon fans), and Dustin Tokarski is only the emergency guy.
Hakstol has nowhere else to turn.
It’s probably the Flyers best option, even if it seems woefully inadequate.
Well… there is this guy, too:
— bryzgoalie30 (@bryzgoalie30) April 12, 2018
I love that Bryz, who is getting paid more than $1 million a year by the Flyers for the next nine years to NOT play hockey, is trolling the team paying him that money. It’s ballsy. It’s comical.
And it’s so Flyers.
3. Shot Selection
Would you believe the Flyers actually attempted more shots than the Penguins last night? (Yay, Corsi!)
The problem is, their shots aren’t getting on goal. Most of the Flyers shots are coming from defensemen, and while they do get in close from time to time, most of those shots are coming from a distance, which is low percentage and have a better chance of being blocked or missing the net entirely.
Again, this reeks of system. I get the sense from watching this team that they are told to shoot and shoot often. Sometimes, you’ll get the shots through, or something flukey will happen and it goes in or it bounces off of somebody to another teammate in a better scoring area and they can put the puck in the net.
Yes, it makes sense and it’s why Corsi was the mother of all hockey fancy stats.
But, there needs to be a sense of selectivity too. Yes, shoot and shot often, but make sure your shots have a better percentage chance of getting on goal.
The Flyers had 59 shot attempts. From those, 24 made it on goal (40.7%).
The Penguins had 52 shot attempts. From those, 33 made it on goal (63.5%).
See a difference?
When you are a little more selective, and find better shots to take, you’ll get a greater percentage on goal.
Conversely, shots that don’t get through, or that miss the net entirely, are more likely to create rushes the other way – which is why the Flyers frequently get caught in odd man situations.
They need better shot control. Plain and simple.
4. The Power(less) play
The Flyers had four power plays against the Penguins. Know how many shots made it on goal? Zero.
That’s right. Kyle had more shots of bourbon at our Crossing Broad watch party last night than the Flyers’ power play.
The power play has been in a funk for quite some time. Nearly 30 games at this point. Again, it’s becoming epidemic.
Again, it’s systemic – because teams have figured it out.
Claude Giroux took full responsibility, blaming himself for the power play’s failure, but it’s not all on him. He called it the worst game he’s ever been a part of. He’s probably not wrong.
But again, this all comes down to one very important thing:
Since we’re talking about shots, Mike Sullivan coached Dave Hakstol under the table last night.
Sullivan had a great gameplan. He had Crosby on the ice against Sean Couturier’s line, and they slaughtered the Flyers’ top unit. Crosby scored a natural hat trick (we don’t need to show his goals) and it was Couturier’s worst defensive game in eons.
Hakstol couldn’t find a way to mix and match enough to get them separated. Conversely, Raffl on the top line only helps when you have puck possession, because he’s strong with the puck on his stick. If you are chasing Sid around all night – it’s not a benefit to have him there.
In conjunction with that, Travis Konecny on the third line is such a waste of his talent. Val Filppula can’t unwrap the offensive gifts that Konecny provides and Wayne Simmonds is a shell of himself right now – the heart and desire are there but the body just isn’t responding.
Hakstol HAS to go back to Konecny on the top line. He HAS to. He has to make somebody worry that Giroux is going to use his elite vision to get Konecny the puck with speed in space. It will force the Penguins to pump the breaks with Giroux and Konecny on the ice together. They can’t just pedal to the metal it with a slower skater like Raffl out there who doesn’t pose that same home run threat that Konecny does.
The fact that the coach can’t see that is alarming. Very alarming.
And, not that it was even a consideration last night, but Hakstol has to shorten the bench a bit in this series. He’s got to rely on his horses for more.
Yes, the line of Scott Laughton, Jori Lehtera and Matt Read had a good bite to their game last night, but they’re a fourth line for a reason. Put them out there in spurts or favorable situations, and they’ll give you good shifts.
Put them out there against Crosby or Malkin, and they’re going to be on their heels a lot.
And, I got to say, for a team to be so ill-prepared for what was going to come at them by the Penguins falls squarely on his shoulders as well.
How can you not have your team ready for that? How can you endure the worst loss in a Game 1 of a playoff series in franchise history?
Yes, players deserve a lot of the blame too. They are not blameless here, but the coach has to have the right gameplan in place – and there was nothing about the Flyers game plan that looked or felt right last night.
They have one chance to really redeem themselves – and that’s Friday. They’ve got to be competitive. They have to find a way to limit Pittsburgh’s chances.
Because if they get their doors blown off again, this could be historically ugly.