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After the Flyers beat the St. Louis Blues Wednesday, toppling the third top team in the league in less than a week, the common phrase in the locker room is “We can play with anybody.”
The Flyers proved that again on Thursday, stooping to the level of the free-falling Montreal Canadiens, losers of nine of 11 coming into the game, dropping a sloppy 4-1 decision on home ice.
Yep, they can play with anyone – at any level – and let their game slip considerably in this loss.
It was a classic trap game too. Coming off of four high-energy, high-intensity games against Washington, Tampa Bay, Boston, and St. Louis – arguably the four best teams in the sport – and having won three of them, the Flyers were ripe to be toppled coming home after playing the night before, starting an AHL goalie in Alex Lyon and still having some issues on the blue line and with the power play, it set up perfectly for a let down game.
And it was. There was no doubt about that.
Now, the optimist in me will tell you these kinds of games happen to NHL teams all the time. So, there’s no reason to go nuclear with a take about the team’s inconsistent play.
I say that too knowing coach Alain Vigneault was pissed off at his team for the way it played.
Take for example his response when he was told a lot of players said it was tough not to have a letdown after playing so many good teams in a row.
“You know that word that starts with b? [Read: Bullshit] These are big games. There is nothing separating teams. And tonight, it was a few plays. I understand it emotionally, but the points are the same. This game is worth two. Last game was worth two. You have to get up for it. You have to get yourself ready. It is going to be a battle.”
I love the fact that Vigneault won’t mince words. He won’t accept excuses. He will hold every player accountable. It’s what makes him such a good, no-nonsense coach.
And really, there’s not a lot to break down about this game. Joel Farabee scored in his return to the lineup – that was a highlight. The play was created by a nice poke check by Mark Friedman, who continues to play solid hockey in his call-up and is deserving of a much longer look in my eyes.
But, there was a backbreaking goal that tied it for Montreal on another defensive zone breakdown by Phil Myers and Travis Sanheim, who have been absolutely brutal together (Justin Braun can’t get back fast enough for this team).
From there, it was all downhill. The Flyers put up a lot of shots, but not dangerous ones. They made Carey Price’s night too easy, which is amazingly hard to do when you force a goalie to make 40 saves, but somehow, the Flyers did that. There was no traffic. There were very few second and third chance opportunities. The offense was abysmal.
So, the team moves on and looks ahead to Los Angeles coming in Saturday and Pittsburgh on Tuesday before it gets a nine-day break for a league-mandated bye week and the All-Star break, which bump up against one another.
But there is one thing I wanted to discuss here today, because it’s starting to become a thing, I think…
Have we reached a point in the season where we have to start asking is there something wrong with Claude Giroux?
Maybe not yet. He has always been a great second half player and just because he had a sub-par first half (by his loftier standards) he’s still on pace for a 55-point season, which a lot of guys in the NHL would still kill for.
But, let’s be honest – a 55-point season is not Claude Giroux. Even in his worst season – which was 2016-17, he finished with 58 points. He hasn’t been at 55 points (or lower) since (not counting the lockout-shortened season) since 2009-10, his first full season in the NHL, when he posted 47 points.
So, yes, this is a bit concerning.
We have seen Giroux go on a late-season tear before. He followed up that down 2016-17 season with a 102-point campaign in 2017-18, when he was a Hart Trophy finalist, but a good chunk of that production came late that season, as he put up 47 points in his final 35 games.
It’s possible that Giroux can flip that switch and take over games for the Flyers again. He is that good a player. I have these arguments with fans on Twitter all the time. He’s a Hall of Fame player and he does so many little things well that he doesn’t get a lot of credit for because the focus is always on him from a production standpoint.
Like, he’s the best Faceoff guy in the NHL this season. He’s been a key cog on the resurgent Flyers penalty kill. And he remains a max effort guy on every shift.
But there’s something not right.
Is Giroux playing through an injury? It’s possible. The reason I ask is not because it looks like he’s laboring, but rather that he doesn’t have that burst that he usually has. That next level that has always allowed him to take over a shift, a period, a game, heck, a string of games.
He doesn’t look slow mind you. He is still skating at the pace of the game, but we are used to seeing him skate at another level, and it’s just not there.
He did just turn 32, and he has been in the league full-time for more than a decade and hasn’t missed very many games in that span as he is a durable player, so maybe the mileage is catching up to him, but I have to think it’s more than that.
Because I also think there is a little bit of frustration setting in for him. And it’s an amalgam of things.
He’s the only real right-handed faceoff guy the Flyers have since Nolan Patrick hasn’t played this year, meaning he is being leaned on heavily for starts in his own end of the ice. It’s no secret that it’s harder to score goals and register points when shifts start in your own end as opposed to the other end of the ice, or even the neutral zone.
So, Giroux has often had to work even harder to just get in to the position to make something happen offensively.
Secondly, the Flyers have made a real commitment to playing better defensively this season, so the game isn’t as wide open as it’s been in previous seasons for Giroux. He’s supporting more and creating less – which is also having an impact on his production.
Then, on the power play, he has mostly been taken out of his comfort zone, which is setting up shop on the left wing half-wall. Sure, he still gets there from time-to-time, but the Flyers have made a point to throw a variety of looks at the opposition on the power play to try and get them off their game defensively, and it’s only had limited success.
Giroux is the victim of being moved around and not really having a reliable net-front presence out there with him on the power play. Giroux made a living off of setting up guys for goals down low on the PP – like Wayne Simmonds for years, and even James van Riemsdyk for a bit. But, JVR has not provided that answer on the power play and without another big body there who has the combination of strength and agility with the hands to score from in close, Giroux’s not going to get as many helpers. In addition, without big-bodied screens, Giroux’s shots aren’t getting through as well either.
Couple all of this with a revolving door of linemates and the general frustration that sets in for an individual who is not producing as well as he is used to, having the mental part of the game creep into your play, more defensive zone starts and the potential for something physical to be limiting him and what you have is your captain and best player not performing like himself.
Vigneault thinks it’s still in there and it can be done. He didn’t address Giroux directly, but did say that his line (centered by Kevin Hayes) needs to be better than they’ve been:
“I expect more,’ Vigneault said of Giroux’s line. “I think that line has a lot of potential. You have playmaking ability, you have a centerman with size, you have two guys who can make plays and create offensive opportunities. They have gotten some looks, but I expect those guys to be better. Coots’ line is playing really well, I don’t on intend breaking that up, so I need Hayes’ line with G and TK to be a force out there. They will have a chance to reset, re-energize and bounce back next game.”
As I said, he can turn this around. He’s got that in him – as we’ve seen in the not too distant past – but if he can’t, then the Flyers odds of getting to the postseason and finally winning a series for the first time in eight years have just gotten longer.
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