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For Flyers fans, the dream of a 10-game winning streak vaulting their favorite hockey team into first place by themselves for the first time this late in the season in nine years was squashed Tuesday by one guy – Tuukka Rask.
The Boston Bruins goalie, a former Vezina Trophy winner, a one-time Stanley Cup winner, a two-time All-Star and now just the 30th goalie in NHL history to record 50 career shutouts, did just that.
Undaunted by the Flyers’ nine-game winning streak or their impeccable record at the Wells Fargo Center, Rask was not going to be beaten – even once – and not even if the game played for several more hours. He made 36 saves to blank the Flyers 2-0, keeping Philadelphia one tantalizing point behind the Washington Capitals for first place in the Metropolitan Division with just 13 games to play.
There’s no doubt that Washington has the easier schedule than the Flyers, with five of their remaining 13 games coming against Detroit, Buffalo, Ottawa and Chicago, while the Flyers have 10 of their final 13 games coming against teams currently in a playoff spot or within three points of one, and all three of their remaining games against non-playoff contenders are taking place on the road.
So, it’ll be a daunting task to not only overcome the Capitals but to hold on to the top spot – if they get it.
Still, that’s the Flyers goal. It remains the target, a shutout loss at home be damned (although of the four losses the Flyers have on home ice in 2020, three of them have been shutouts).
And to their credit, they played a pretty strong game against a Bruins team that is the best in the NHL based on the standings.
In fact, the Flyers were the better team through the first two periods and even had the Bruins on their heels for a stretch. However, Rask was flawless. Despite the Flyers momentum, he continued to deny every chance the Flyers had:
— Hockey Daily 365 (@HockeyDaily365) March 11, 2020
This was an ok save…. pic.twitter.com/FaUWNQ03At
— CapeBruiner (@CapeBruiner) March 11, 2020
Oh, did I mention it was Rask’s birthday too?
Dude was flat out impenetrable. The Center for Disease Control should consider using his game against the Flyers to fight Covid-19.
Nevertheless there was some benefit from this for the Flyers. They aren’t perfect. They weren’t going to win every game the rest of the way. They need a test of adversity – and this is it. How they respond will go a long way toward determining if this is a team destined for a lengthy postseason run or if this was just another tease in a long line of regular season teases by the Flyers.
My instinct tells me it’s the former, not the latter, because even when they’ve lost games this year they’ve always bounced back the very next time they were on the ice.
Since that magical date of Jan. 8 , the Flyers are 19-6-1. Here’s how they responded to each of the previous six losses prior to Tuesday:
- vs. Boston: W 6-5
- vs. Los Angeles: W 4-1
- vs. Colorado: W 6-3
- at Washington: W 7-2
- at Florida: W 6-2
- vs. Columbus: W 5-1
That’s a 34-14 goal disparity. That’s four goals or more in each of the six games. And with the exception of the Kings, that’s against some serious competition.
In short, the Flyers have made their next opponent pay following a loss.
This time, that opponent will be a Tampa Bay Lightning team that has had the Flyers’ number so far this season – and the Flyers will have to go to Southwestern Florida to beat them, where Amalie Arena has been a house of horrors in recent years, but this Flyers team has a different mindset these days.
Just ask Matt Niskanen:
“I think we’ve grown a little bit between the ears since our last blunder of our trip our west, so I think we are tougher now,” he said. “We are a little more confident in how we play and how we want to play and our abilities. We recognize we played a pretty good game; we didn’t win but get ready now for the next one.”
The Lightning might not know what’s coming on Thursday.
The momentum swing
It’s funny in hockey how the worm turns so quickly. The Flyers were excellent in the first two periods. Even when they were shorthanded, they were aggressive and generating chances.
And yet, the game switched in a flash because the Flyers, despite their aggressive nature, got a little too unselfish at one point:
Laughton absolutely has to shoot the puck there. Charlie Coyle breaks up the unnecessary pass and a few seconds later the Bruins are set up on the power play, Laughton and Kevin Hayes are tired. The Bruins move the puck with precision and then the bomb from the point from Matt Grzelcyk is the difference in the game.
“I tried to make a play and it obviously went the other way and changed the momentum of the game,” Laughton said. “I’d like to have that one back.”
It’s hard to fault Laughton considering how good he’s been this year, especially lately, but sometimes you do have to be a bit greedy in a game that preaches that unselfishness leads to success.
Shayne Gostisbehere was back in the lineup for the Flyers, and he’s poised to be a fixture again after it was learned that Phil Myers fractured his patella blocking a shot in the game against Buffalo Saturday.
Myers will be sidelined for four weeks – or basically the rest of the regular season – meaning Gostisbehere will be given a chance to play again.
He was pretty solid in his return – mostly because he played with energy and desire. Yes, there were still a couple of moments where you felt he might be trying a bit too hard to impress, but he didn’t put the Flyers in a bad spot at any point and he seemed to be creative and focused on getting the game moving in the Flyers favor.
“It definitely felt good, Gostisbehere said. “On a personal level, I felt like I had my legs under me… I tried to have that [aggressive] mentality from puck drop. I was feeling good out there. If I play tentative, I don’t play my game. For me, just go out there and play the puck and play good.”
Even his coach agreed.
“I think he played real well,” Alain Vigneault said. “That’s a real tough position to put somebody in, he hasn’t played in a while, I thought his energy level, I though his execution, his battle level was real good. With Phil being out until the end of the year, he’s going to get an opportunity to continue to play and I’m sure we’re going to get the same effort on his part.”
Gostisbehere even had the line of the night to boot.
Mike Sielski of the Inquirer was writing a piece on Covid-19 and the potential impact of the pandemic on the Flyers and the sport of hockey when this exchange happened with Carter Hart and Gostisbehere after the game. (Keep in mind, the media is not allowed in the locker room because of coronavirus concerns, so all interviews for the near future are taking place press conference style):
Sielski: What did you think of the environment with Coronavirus concerns and games getting cancelled? Did it surprise you at all with all the fans that came out?
Hart: I don’t think we really care about the Coronavirus. It’s more other people do.
Gostisbehere: (Interrupting with a slight bit of attitude) It’s Philly, bro.
It was classic in it’s succinct nature and it’s accuracy.
That’s because despite recommendations all over the country about avoiding large gatherings of people to prevent the spread of Covid-19, there was a jam-packed sellout crowd of orange-and-black-clad fans in attendance for the game.
Flyers fans obviously aren’t going to let a global pandemic get in the way of enjoying the fact that their hockey team is relevant again for the first time in nearly a decade.
Good for them. And good for Ghost to say so, too.
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