Losing a hockey game in the final two minutes of regulation always hurts.
Losing a hockey game in the final two minutes when your most defensively responsible player commits a turnover that results in the game-winning goal, hurts even more.
Losing a hockey game to a long-time nemesis goalie who made one spectacular save after another after another, pretty much crushes the soul.
But losing a game when you played exactly the way you wanted to play and did all the things correctly that you wanted to improve, well, I’ll let coach Dave Hakstol tell you how that feels:
“We played a hell of a game today and it stinks walking away with nothing to show for it.”
The Flyers lost to the Vegas Golden Knights 1-0 in an entertaining, fast-paced, grind-it-out, flat-out fun hockey game, and although it was eye-candy for those of us whose only job is to be a spectator, it’s easy to understand the frustration that permeated the Flyers’ locker room after such a loss.
The primary reason the Flyers came up empty was Vegas goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who stopped all 26 shots he faced. You could see it from early on; he was dialed in. He made several incredible stops – two particularly on Claude Giroux.
I’m not going to dive in too deeply on Fleury, because Russ caught up with the Golden Knights’ netminder after the game as has all those details for us.
The Flyers, though, should take solace that except for not being able to cash in against Fleury, they played exactly the kind of game that winning hockey teams play. They locked it down defensively in the neutral zone and really played solid team defense. When that defense broke down, Brian Elliott was there to make the needed save… right up until the very end. They played the game with a lot of speed. They created a bevy of scoring chances. They killed penalties with great pressure up ice, not really letting Vegas set up in the offensive zone.
The Flyers should take this as a blueprint for the way they need to play moving forward and carry that banner through the remaining 77 games. Because if they do, more often than not they’ll be earning points in the standings.
“You don’t get moral points for a loss, but we played a hell of a hockey game today,” Hakstol said. “There’s not a much there I would change. One of the things we wanted to do better is have better starts in our building – we did that. We wanted to have better starts at the beginnings of the second and third periods – we did that. We wanted to sustain that and keep our pace of play – stay on our toes, stay aggressive, keep pushing – we did all those things.
“This is one of those nights where, you know what, I tip my hat to Fleury in net and they made a play late in the hockey game and it hurts like hell to walk out of here with nothing.”
Sometimes Hakstol surprises me with a good, firm, honest answer that really lets you in to his real feelings that he tends to keep close to the vest publicly.
But not in this game. This time, he’s absolutely correct. Everything he said is spot on. The Flyers deserved a better fate for the way they played this hockey game. Unfortunately for them, it didn’t turn out that way and they are now 2-3-0 heading into Tuesday’s tilt with Florida.
But, if we’re being honest with each other right now, this was the best the Flyers have played this season.
Yes, they need to find a way to get at least one puck past Fleury, no matter how well he’s playing. Maybe they need to rattle his cage a bit, maybe they need to bump him a little. Get him off his game a little.
Sean Couturier, who ended up being the goat in this game – and that’s in the original use of the word goat and not the modern day moniker bestowed upon the sports elite – admitted that traffic in front of Fleury is the game plan, but they felt they did it anyway – and he’s right… they did. There was a lot of moving parts in front of Fleury – it just wasn’t enough.
But everything else was enough – save the one turnover by Couturier. Here are some observations:
1. Couturier’s gaffe
Coots was a Selke finalist for a reason. The guy is hands down one of the three best defensive forwards in the NHL. He very rarely makes a mistake in his own end.
Saturday was one of those rare occasions. Here’s his explanation:
“I just got handcuffed. The puck was kind of at my feet and I didn’t get a good grip of it. I fanned on it and tried to chip it out. Next thing you know I’m trying to find coverage and there’s a guy open…”
And then this happened:
Cody Eakin makes it 1-0 with 1:25 to go. pic.twitter.com/04cTNuzzLX
— Sons of Penn (@SonsofPenn) October 13, 2018
It was a heartbreaker of a play for the Flyers. Credit to Vegas for capitalizing on the turnover by Couturier, but sometimes this is that fine line in a hockey game that is the difference between two points and no points.
It’s hard to kill Couturier for this play considering he has so much built up in the opposite column, but nevertheless, he’s not the guy you expect to be the cause for a defeat resulting from a bad play.
2. Scott Laughton
You want to see a player who is coming into his own? Watch Scott Laughton play hockey this season. Where he is now from where he was a year ago is night and day. Maybe it’s the fact that the pressure is off of him being a former first round pick and now he can just play the game in a role that’s suited for him among the Flyers top nine forwards.
Or maybe it just took him this long to become the player the Flyers expected him to become.
Either way, the guy is playing at a higher level through the first five games.
He’s generating offense. He’s playing his tail off on the penalty kill, and he’s definitely a noticeable player in the defensive zone as well.
He’s been rewarded for his efforts with three goals already and almost had a fourth today were it not for Fleury:
Laughton needed help getting to the locker room after going into the boards in a bad position. pic.twitter.com/zXOITHRASh
— Sons of Penn (@SonsofPenn) October 13, 2018
Yes, Laughton went into the boards hard there and definitely hurt… something. He came back onto the bench very early in the third period and after discussions with team trainer Jim McCrossin and Hakstol, he was able to give the Flyers a few strong shifts in the final stanza – including another fine performance on the penalty kill.
He earned big praise from Hakstol after the game for the way he’s playing – and deservedly so. He’s been a bright spot for the Flyers so far this season.
3. So has Michael Raffl…
Yeah. Raffl has been as good as Laughton on the penalty kill, if not better. He’s wreaking havoc up ice and giving teams a real hard time getting the puck up ice and set up into the zone.
He also gives great shifts on the fourth line, often being incredibly difficult to knock off the puck. He too was feted by Hakstol after the game. Again, deservedly so.
And speaking of that fourth line….
4. Jori Lehtera and Dale Weise are filling their roles just fine, thank you
I know the criticism of these two forwards is always at the top of the things for Flyers fans to bitch about list. Probably right behind Andrew MacDonald and probably just ahead of Dave Hakstol.
But the reality is, they have been very good in the roles they are being asked to play so far this season.
Yes, the season is five games old, and things can change over the course of a long season. But, as fourth line forwards and penalty killers exclusively, and being deployed a the right times, these guys are doing the job.
Lehtera is still slow as molasses in January (anyone else remember that saying, or was that just germane to my West Philly neighborhood in the 1980s?) but he has been reliable and, dare I say, noticeably strong in the offensive end.
Weise came into the lineup against Ottawa and had his first multi-point game in more than a year. He obviously didn’t put any points on the board against Vegas (no Flyer did), but he had a good bite in the game too. Again on the PK – and also retaliating on Brayden McNabb after a dirty hit on Oskar Lindblom:
Dale Weise doin' work. pic.twitter.com/unHXDnNnql
— Broad Street Hockey (@BroadStHockey) October 13, 2018
5. Robert Hagg
You want to know why he’s playing second pair minutes ahead of Travis Sanheim? Because the guy is really good on the wall and in the corners. He doesn’t shy away from contact, but it’s not just that. He takes good angles toward puck carriers and really has an impact when he arrives.
I know hits are a stat that most advanced guys think are unnecessary, but I’ll tell you they are not. Can they be overblown? Sure. But, at the same time, playing defense requires physical contact sometimes, and Hagg gives the Flyers the right amount.
On top of that, he’s much more active offensively than he was last season. It’s surprised a lot of observers, including yours truly.
But, this is the way he played in Sweden for Modo, and is finding some early success playing this way for the Flyers as well.
That’s not to say Sanheim is playing poorly. He’s not. He’s just been less even than Hagg. Sanheim is starting to show some signs of having a breakthrough offensively. You can see him getting more and more confident with the puck up ice, but Hagg is ahead of him – for now – on the defensive side of the game.
6. Hakstol shines in a loss
Give credit where it’s due. Dave Hakstol has come up with an excellent game plan twice now against a team that was in the Stanley Cup Finals last season and had one of the best records in hockey.
He’s devised a way to really slow up a speedy team, and although the game did open up a little in the second half of the contest, the Flyers were prepared to skate with the Knights.
Yeah, Vegas is off to a slow start (2-4-0), but they had to play five of their first six game son the road, and the stop in Philly was the end of the five-game road trip.
They’re still a good team and a hard team to play against. I had a brief conversation with general manager George McPhee about their start and he wasn’t thrilled with it, but he did note how tough the Flyers played them.
That’s a feather in the cap for Hakstol.
Yes, the Flyers have been inconsistent, and yes, I’ve not been a Hakstol believer through the first three-plus seasons he’s been at the helm. But I do have to admit, I’m seeing a different Hakstol so far this season. It may not be translating through the media or on television or even his press conferences, but trust me when I tell you there’s a different vibe with the guy.
I think it’s a positive one. I don’t want to jump to conclusions because it’s still way early in the season, but I think it’s definitely something to keep an eye on. There might be more up his sleeve that he hasn’t shown us yet as he waits for his team to mature into what it needs to be first.
Just a thought….