Postmortem – What We Learned From Islanders 4, Flyers 0

John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

I waited ’til Sunday morning. I had to. Emotions were too raw Saturday night among the Flyers’ fan base.

Writing anything that could potentially strike a nerve and set off a new wave of “blow up the core” tweets or “AV is an overrated coach” DMs or even more bad takes like Russ had on the Press Row Show last night saying the Flyers had no effort (which is a lot different from energy, and I don’t care if you consider that semantics. In our business, we should be accountable for the words we choose).

So, I slept on it. I waited for the words to formulate in my head. How could I adequately sum up the debacle that was a 4-0 loss to the New York Islanders in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals? How could I perfectly word what this game was?

Then I got a text.

I won’t say from who, but someone I respect very much who has a finger on the pulse of this city and of this organization.

And the text was the perfect lede to this story. I was given permission to steal it, but wanted no credit. I’ll leave it anonymous, but these are not my words, though I wish they were.

Here it is, in it’s gleaming precision:

The Flyers traded in their big boy pants last night for a pair of faded jeans. The kind that are tattered, torn, and the zipper keeps getting stuck.

It takes a few bends at the knee to get adjusted. By the time the Flyers had their pants feeling O.K., they were in a 2-0 hole. A hole, just below the left front pocket big enough for your wallet to slip through without you even noticing. 

It’s the perfect image. It linked the best visual of this series to a disappointing finish. It’s like they trusted the old pants a little too much to carry them through another game.

Alain Vigneault knew as far back as the Montreal series that his team was not clicking like it was when the season hit pause during the COVID-19 outbreak.

The first sign was the embarrassing Game 5 loss to the Canadiens, when the next day at practice, Oskar Lindblom was brought out with the team for the first time at the bubble.

They needed a jolt, and Lindblom had provided it all season. His story being one of the greatest in sports – to overcome a rare form of cancer with a scary survival rate and not only beat it in seven months, but be fighting back to play one of the toughest, most physical sports at the professional level six weeks later is an inspiration to humanity, let alone a hockey team.

Vigneault went down that path again following a Game 3 loss to the Islanders, having Lindblom take part in the pre-game skate prior to Game 4. He inserted him into the lineup in Game 6 after the Flyers lost Sean Couturier to a sprained MCL and Joel Farabee to a yet-to-be disclosed injury, but likely was one of the upper-body-like variety after taking a brutal check to the jaw by Adam Pelech in Game 5.

The young forward did all he could to inspire his team – and so did Vigneault, challenging all his players publicly, but specifically Claude Giroux and James van Riemsdyk prior to Game 5, only to have them respond with goals in that win, the Flyers’ best game as a team in the entire series – but one that still required overtime heroics from Scott Laughton to advance.

The last bit of juice left in the pitcher was getting Couturier dressed to play Game 7, despite the MCL injury – the same injury that although didn’t impede him in the games he played against Pittsburgh in the 2018 playoffs – took him some time to overcome in the beginning of the 2018-19 season following offseason surgery.

But that was never going to be enough.

It’s almost as if the faded jeans mentioned above were worn on many sweet romantic teenage nights (as Billy Joel once said) and then mom found them under the bed, washed them and they never again created a new memory, they just kept bringing up the old ones – and nobody is in the mood for reminiscing at this time.

That’s because we learned a few things about the Flyers and Game 7:

1. The New York Islanders play a better team game

Plain and simple. It was evident before the series even began. The way they dismantled Florida. The way they ran roughshod over a good Washington team. The Islanders were legit, and if that wasn’t enough to prove it, this seven game series against the Flyers should have.

I know you don’t want to hear from a Pittsburgh writer, but he summed it up best in a tweet:

It was. Completely lopsided. It’s why I lost it on Russ (who was my unwitting target twice this series on the Press Row Show) as a representative of fans who only want to find blame and never consider the opponent.

And the argument that this was a No. 1 seed vs. a No. 6 seed and the No. 1 seed lost because they didn’t want it enough is hogwash.

First of all, we know that the seeding for this tournament, while fair considering the circumstances of playing the playoffs four months late inside a bubble, were not accurate.

Secondly, it’s easy to dismiss the five-month layoff, but one shouldn’t. It allowed every team to start from a level playing field. It allowed players to get healthy. It allowed teams that were flailing in March – like the Islanders – the time that was needed to fix what was wrong and get back to playing the right way.

While Vegas and Tampa were expected to be in this Final Four pre-pause, who had Dallas and the Islanders joining them? I sure didn’t. I don’t think anyone saw either team coming. Yeah, Dallas was a top-four seed, but they were the clear No. 4 out West when the pause happened. Vegas and Colorado were beasts and St. Louis was playing again like the team that won the cup the season before.

But hockey is such a different sport than any other. The margin between being a playoff team and a non-playoff team is quite slim. That margin is almost invisible between good and great teams. It’s why upsets happen in the Stanley Cup playoffs every year.

Throw into the mix the time for all teams to get healthy and re-employ systems and strategies and having to play all games at neutral sites in front of no fans and having no physical contact with friends or family for the better part of three months – and it’s easy to see why this year is the toughest of all to win the Stanley Cup.

All that said, the Islanders are good. They limited the Flyers to just 16 shots in a Game 7. Think about that. And it wasn’t backup goalie Thomas Greiss who pitched that shutout. It was the defense the team was playing in front of him. It was disciplined. It was clinical. It was the way you have to play to survive in the playoffs.

There’s a reason Vigneault has been praising his opponent throughout this series – because they deserve it – and he did it again after the game last night.

“First of all, you’ve got to give credit where credit is due. The Islanders played real strong game tonight in all areas. Puck battles, making plays with the puck, defending when it’s time to defend. Give them full marks.”

Claude Giroux said it too:

“I think they’re a really responsible team. The way they play the game, they are really strict in their system.”

So did Sean Couturier:

 “I think they’re a pretty well-structured team. They don’t give up a whole lot. You got to work for your chances.”

These guys aren’t making excuses. They were one win from the Conference Finals, somewhere they haven’t been in a decade. They wanted it. To get that close and come up one game short is a tough pill to swallow. Players are always critical of themselves first. Hockey players are trained to never make excuses. So to hear these guys tell you about how good their opponent is first is a sign of respect and secondly, is the truth.

That being said –

2. The Flyers have obvious flaws that the Isles were able to continually exploit

What made the Flyers so much fun to watch for a few months earlier this year was their compete level. There was no doubt that the Flyers weren’t uber-talented, but they had figured out a way to take a team full of good players, centered around an aging superstar (and yes, 32 is “aging” in hockey, especially when your first game in the league came at age 20) with a lot of up-and-coming youth and parlay that into a prolonged hot streak that suddenly had them in the conversation among the best teams in the game.

It was likely a year sooner than they expected to arrive, but arrive they did and it got the town “Flyered Up” again.

The expectations went from run of the mill playoff team to Stanley Cup contender too quickly. There needs to be at least a step in between, and we’re learning now, that this is that step.

The 2020-21 Flyers will look different than the 2019-20 Flyers did, because GM Chuck Fletcher will be tasked in filling the gaps of what ultimately was the downfall of this team that the Islanders exploited.

The Flyers are missing:

  1. A sniper that needs to be marked whenever he is on the ice.
  2. A true net-front presence on the power play
  3. Players who are able to withstand relentless pressure and create a breakout on both the strong side and the weak side of the ice.

The Flyers also need to improve:

  1. Their conditioning, because that was clearly an issue in Game 7 (Game 6 too, if we’re being honest).
  2. Their zone entries.
  3. Their propensity to take lazy penalties.
  4. The power play structure (not necessarily the personnel, although as mentioned above, a tweak there wouldn’t hurt).
  5. Their decision-making with the puck, especially on their side of the red line.
  6. Carter Hart’s puck playing skills behind the net.

The Islanders were like tacticians, strategically attacking each of these weaknesses in every game. The Flyers never could cover them. They did for small stretches, employing different tactics to mask their vulnerabilities, but once the Islanders figured out what the Flyers were doing, they adjusted and the Flyers were left floundering again.

It was a chess match between the two coaches, and it was a good one, except the Islanders seemed to be playing with a few extra back row pieces while the Flyers had a few-too-many pawns.

3. Where does it go from here?

I know no one wants to hear this right now, because you’re still frustrated, but to me, this feels a lot like 1995 and 2008. Yeah, I know neither of those seasons ultimately led to a Cup with those groups, but, it was the start of a good run after some previous frustration.

Yeah, both of those teams reached the Conference Final, which the Flyers didn’t do this year – but they both peaked earlier than expected. In 1995 the team was coming off a five-season playoff drought. In 2007-2008 they were coming off the worst season in franchise history.

Both of those seasons led to eventual cup final appearances in 1997 and 2010. That’s not to say this Flyers team has to wait until 2022 for that run – it can happen as soon as next season, but considering the offseason is going to be so short and the salary cap is going to stagnate for a couple seasons because of the pandemic, most of what you see in place now is still going to be here when hockey returns in December.

GM Chuck Fletcher is going to try to move some contracts – namely Shayne Gostisbehere and James van Riemsdyk – and may even dangle a prospect or a future high draft pick to get someone to bite as he tries to create cap space.

Even so, the free agent market is slim pickings in the way of difference-making talent outside of Taylor Hall and Alex Pietrangelo – which means, look for traditional “hockey trades” where teams trade NHL players for NHL players to be on the rise.

The Flyers have some decisions to make regarding free agents.

I’m pretty sure they’ll look to re-up Tyler Pitlick. They like his game as a bottom six forward. I even think they’ll try to bring back Brian Elliott as Carter Hart’s backup.

As for the other unrestricted free agents – I don’t think we’ll see Nate Thompson, Derek Grant or Justin Braun back in orange and black.

Phil Myers, Robert Hagg and Nick Aube-Kubel are all restricted free agents who the Flyers will certainly bring back. Nolan Patrick is their other RFA. His situation is a real wild card, although from what I hear I get the sense they’re ready to move on from Patrick, so it’ll be interesting to see how that plays out.

But, everyone else should be here. The Flyers will also promote from within. I expect Yegor Zamula to see time with the big club on the blue line next season. Players like Wade Allison, Tanner Laczynski and Linus Sandin also could earn spots in the lineup.

Considering the cap situation, a lot is going to come from within the organization with maybe only a player or two coming in via trade/free agency.

This group will get one more chance together before next summer when there will be an expansion draft for the new Seattle Kraken – and deservedly so.

But with that comes increased expectations for the team as well. Doing what they did this season will no longer be good enough – and they know that.

We should too.

Appreciate this season for what it was and how they brought back that feeling of a team that has a chance to win the whole thing. They never were good enough to do that, we know that now, but they are back on that path.

It’s now OK, moving forward, to let them know if they divert from it. That should be the gift from Flyers fans to their team – a new pair of jeans. Those faded ones should never be seen again.

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