On the Brink: What we learned from Islanders 3, Flyers 2

John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

The Stanley Cup playoffs can be a cruel mistress.

They can easily seduce you. Make you believe that there is great reward at the end, when in reality, they are doing the same for 15 others.

They draw you into a trance. They start giving you visions of grandeur, sometimes hallucinatory ones, sometimes ones that are almost tangible, before quickly making everything go dark.

They feed off your emotion. It’s what creates high drama. It’s what creates the ongoing anxiety during a series. It’s what has you sitting on the edge of your couch or arbitrarily shouting things at your television, or popping into our post game press row show to suddenly decry the team you root for after feeling great pride and joy about them earlier this month.

It happens. And you are not alone:

  • 2019, the No. 1 seeds Tampa Bay and Calgary both lost – in the first round (Tampa was swept)
  • 2018 the No. 1 seed Nashville lost in the second round
  • 2017 the No. 1 seed Chicago was swept in the first round, while No. 1 Washington lost in the second round
  • 2016 the No. 1 seeds Washington and Dallas both lost in the second round
  • 2014 the No. 1 seeds Boston and Anaheim both lost in the second round
  • 2012 the No. 1 seed Vancouver lost in the first round
  • 2011 the No. 1 seed Washington lost in the second round
  • 2010 the No. 1 seed Washington lost in the first round

So, in the past decade, 12 of the 20 No.1 seeds in each Conference lost in either the first or second round.

That’s 60 percent of the teams. Were those 12 teams “bad” teams? Did they stink? Did they suck?

No. Of course not.

Were their losses disappointing? Yes. Were their fans sad? Probably. Were their seasons abject failures? No.

But, that’s the tenor of what I’m hearing from Flyers fans since they lost 3-2 in Game 4 and fell behind the New York Islanders 3-1 in the Eastern Conference semifinal – and they haven’t even been eliminated yet!

Don’t get me wrong. That’s not some pie in the sky belief that they are going to win three straight and come back in this series. I, like you, don’t see it.

But, it has happened 13 times since 2000, and that’s enough of a possibility to not close the door just yet.

I do remain skeptical as well. Because here’s what we learned in Game 4:

1. The Flyers played their guts out, and still lost

At least that’s how coach Alain Vigneault described it. He’s not wrong, however. The Flyers payed a very good game overall. Although the ice was tilted by halves of the first period, the Flyers were dominant in the second period, and the game was still tied after two.

New York took advantage of two defensive miscues in the third period to score goals and although the Flyers got one back, there wasn’t time for them to even it up again.

Still, on the whole, the Flyers were good in the third period as well.

Most notably, the top line created a ton of pressure. Sean Couturier finally scored a goal. The line was buzzing all night, but Thomas Greiss was excellent in net and turned aside 34 Flyers shots.

He stoned Claude Giroux twice. Here’s the second one:

He made a big stop on Jake Voracek:

He was good. But this wasn’t just about running into a hot goalie. This was about running into a hot team.

See, the Flyers may have more talent on their team, but the Islanders are playing better hockey right now. Plain and simple.

Through four games the Islanders have been the better team on the ice.

It doesn’t mean the Flyers aren’t trying. It doesn’t mean they have no leadership. Quite simply, the Islanders have put together a system that works against the Flyers and are executing it with great precision.

It happens. They have become a Kryptonite of sorts.

The Flyers have tried different schematics to overcome it. Changes to their breakout. Changes to their forecheck. Changes in goal. Changes to the power play (although, they barely get a chance on the power play in this series). Changes to the lineup.

None of them are working.

The Flyers are throwing the book at the Islanders and they are catching it and speed-reading it.

Sometimes, you have to credit the other team.

Sure, there are times a team loses a game or even a series more than the other team wins it. I look at Game 2 against Montreal for example where the Flyers really didn’t seem to have a level of play necessary to compete in that one – meaning they cost themselves the game.

But they are competing against the Islanders. It just isn’t bearing fruit.

2. Can they come back in this series?

The simple answer is unlikely. Not because the Flyers aren’t talented enough, but rather because New York has not wilted for more than a period of hockey at any point in this series.

The Flyers are going to need the Islanders to start doing things uncharacteristically to make this a real possibility.

But it’s not completely impossible. Here are the situations where it has happened this century (from Wikipedia):

2000 Conference Finals New Jersey Devils Philadelphia Flyers Won the Stanley Cup Finals
2003 First Round Minnesota Wild Colorado Avalanche Overcame 3–1 deficit in the Conference Semifinals
Vancouver Canucks St. Louis Blues
2003 Conference Semifinals Minnesota Wild Vancouver Canucks Both teams overcame 3–1 deficits in the Conference Quarterfinals
2004 First Round Montreal Canadiens Boston Bruins Trailed 2–0 in the series before coming back to win the series
2009 First Round Washington Capitals New York Rangers
2010 First Round Montreal Canadiens Washington Capitals
2010 Conference Semifinals Philadelphia Flyers Boston Bruins Overcame 3–0 deficit
2011 First Round Tampa Bay Lightning Pittsburgh Penguins
2013 Conference Semifinals Chicago Blackhawks Detroit Red Wings Won the Stanley Cup Finals
2014 First Round Los Angeles Kings San Jose Sharks Overcame 3–0 deficit; went on to win the Stanley Cup Finals
2014 Second Round New York Rangers Pittsburgh Penguins
2015 Second Round Washington Capitals
2019 First Round San Jose Sharks Vegas Golden Knights

Notably, AV did it twice with the Rangers – once against Pittsburgh and once against Washington. So, he has the experience there.

Still, the odds are long, but I’m not talking about the offseason until this one is officially over.

3. Interesting notes from Game 4

  • Starting Brian Elliott was a necessity because of the schedule. Elliott played well. He gave the Flyers a chance to win. He’s not to take any blame for this loss.
  • Justin Braun was the best Flyers defenseman in the game. He was really activated offensively and it was his shot that Coots tipped home for his first goal of the playoffs. Nice effort from him.
  • When you are saying Braun was your best D-man, that’s not saying much for the other guys. Ivan Provorov had his worst game of the playoffs – and he scored a goal. Still, he can’t get turned around twice on a 2-on-1. You have to either take away one of those passes or take away a man. He did neither. Meanwhile, Matt Niskanen got caught flat-footed on both of New York’s third period goals and Phil Myers turned the puck over on a missed flip out of the zone in the first Islanders goal. These breakdowns can’t happen when playing a team with an opportunist mindset like the Islanders.
  • Travis Konecny had his best game of the series – and maybe the playoffs – but still didn’t score. That said, his linemates Kevin Hayes and Joel Farabee were below the bar. They need to be better in Game 5. I’m not convinced Farabee would be in the lineup right now if Michael Raffl were healthy.
  • The Flyers got a lot of shots on Greiss, but could have had even more. There were a couple plays where the Flyers passed up shots to try to make high-risk/high-reward passes. Travis Sanheim was guilty of this a couple times. Shoot the puck, young man. (By the way, he does look like Colonel Sanders with his facial hair these playoffs. Twitter is right.)
  • The Oskar Lindblom pre-game skate thing was a real feel-good moment for everyone. Shame the Flyers couldn’t capitalize on that energy right away.
  • One final thought – and this wasn’t something learned in Game 4 but, I wanted to throw it out there – Carter Hart has the kind of mental makeup that can lead to him stealing a game or two and making this thing interesting. Just saying.
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