Usually, I try to play these postgame recaps down the middle, presenting the good and the bad. I did that after the Flyers dropped a 5-4 result via shootout to the Boston Bruins on Thursday. I admittedly buried the lede in that post, highlighting positives over the negatives that reared their ugly head once again. That simply cannot be done after the Flyers were embarrassed 6-1 on Saturday night.
Let’s get into where it all went wrong for the Flyers in Beantown:
Wanted: Competent Defensemen
The Flyers defensive corps is comprised of Ivan Provorov, an up-and-down Travis Sanheim, a half-a-step-slower-than-last-season Justin Braun, and a hodgepodge of poorly matched men on skates masquerading as professional hockey players.
The inability to generate takeaways in the defensive zone and send play the other way continues to kill the team. Simply put, the team’s inability to exit the zone against Montreal and New York in the postseason has continued through six games with no end in sight.
At the start of the season, it was death by a thousand cuts. At this point, it’s taking a spear through the Hart.
Boston’s second goal is emblematic of the failed team defense that’s been exploited in numerous games this season:
Craig Smith scores his first goal as a Bruin.
2-1 Boston. pic.twitter.com/Z9BEkIodqe
— Conor Ryan (@ConorRyan_93) January 24, 2021
Ivan Provorov and Travis Sanheim both meet Charlie Coyle as he approaches the slot, with Provorov peeling off to stick with his man, while Travis Sanheim -who’s been pulled to the same side of the ice across the face of goal- remains behind to attempt to block Craig Smith’s shot. After a fracas in front of Carter Hart, Smith crashes near the back post looking for a pass across the face of goal or a rebound, beats Sanheim to the back post, and deposits the game-winning goal (with four additional Boston tallies to come) past Hart, who was late in locating the puck.
Not Replacing Matt Niskanen Was a Mistake
I openly questioned the decision to not replace Matt Niskanen on multiple occasions since he opted to retire after the Flyers were eliminated by the Islanders. I said it on our show. I asked players about it. I asked Alain Vigneault about it. I’m at least 40% sure I asked Chuck Fletcher about it.
Everyone said the same thing: Niskanen taught a lot of the young guys how to be a professional on and off the ice. He instilled in guys the importance of staying calmer, playing smarter. Justin Braun said during training camp that he hadn’t stepped into the role, because the other guys were growing into it.
We’re six games into the season. Shayne Gostisbehere’s inclusion on the COVID list to start the season threw the initial wrench into the defensive pairings we saw in an abbreviated camp. Justin Braun was called on to fill Niskanen’s boots on the top pairing. That failed. Phil Myers went out with a rib injury, forcing Vigneault to give Travis Sanheim a look on the top pairing. He hasn’t exactly risen to meet the moment.
So who’s left to try? Robert Hägg? Certainly not. Erik Gustafsson? Also a no. Mark Friedman? Let’s be real here. So how do Alain Vigneault and/or Chuck Fletcher fix this mess? There’s not a clear option. Injuries to Sean Couturier and Morgan Frost limit the likelihood of parting with a forward as part of a trade for a vet. Gostisbehere should be back soon. Myers is week-to-week, though that timeline is a question mark. The Flyers could look to add some much-needed physicality into the lineup with Sam Morin, who’s been in a taxi as much as Baby Kermit. Then again, he was so far from cracking the lineup at his natural position that the organization encouraged an unconventional move to left wing.
Ultimately, though, this is an indictment on roster construction. The loss of a second pair defenseman (Myers) and a guy who was in and out of your bottom pairing a season ago (Gostisbehere) should not throw the team into a downward spiral. Yet it has. If only the team had signed a veteran defenseman this offseason. Oh wait.
Erik Gustafsson = Persona Non Grata
I said at some point in the past week that I couldn’t think of a player whose stock rose so high and burned out so quickly as that of Erik Gustafsson. The lone free agent signing quieted the doubters when the regular season began, racking up two power play assists in the season opener against Pittsburgh. He appeared to be every bit the threat from the point with the man advantage as Shayne Gostisbehere.
Someone should’ve given Gustafsson a copy of Blade Runner. Dr. Eldon Tyrell once explained, “The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long – and you have burned so very, very brightly…”
Gustafsson’s fall is akin to a Type II supernova. He was a supermassive star against Pittsburgh who’s since run out of fuel, leaving behind an even-strength pulsar that practically shines a flashing light wherever he goes -or doesn’t- at even strength.
Boston’s fourth goal is a masterclass in what not to do:
— Boston Bruins (@NHLBruins) January 24, 2021
Gustafsson fails to close down on Marchand with enough urgency to alter the shot, which Marchand luckily misses. He takes a moment to coast across to see where the puck would carom off the boards, which is fine as his partner Justin Braun is there. However, Gustafsson gets pulled too far to Hart’s left, fails to check his shoulder for incoming threats, gets out-hustled to a puck he should’ve had and cleared by Patrice Bergeron, and watches Marchand deposit another goal past Hart on the back post.
Gustafsson seems like a nice guy, he really does. But being a nice guy doesn’t make up for what’s become an incredibly alarming trend in his play at 5-on-5.
If Alain Vigneault’s justification for keeping him in the lineup is for his power play prowess, he’s going to have to get creative or consider another lineup change. We saw Shayne Gostisbehere fail in a role alongside Justin Braun a season ago. We’re seeing it again this time with Gustafsson.
Maybe Chuck Fletcher's primary objective this offseason was to rally the Flyers fanbase behind Shayne Gostisbehere. Erik Gustafsson is doing just that.
— Russ Joy (@JoyOnBroad) January 24, 2021
A Broken Hart
The team defense as a whole stinks out loud. The defensive corps isn’t good enough right now. The team hasn’t been able to come remotely close to replacing Sean Couturier’s contributions on either end of the ice. But that’s not all.
People don’t want to hear it, but Carter Hart isn’t helping himself, either. Sure, there are highlight saves like this one on Patrice Bergeron, which led to the Flyers going the other way and finding the back of the net for their only goal:
What a sequence in Boston! Carter Hart with huge save on Patrice Bergeron and then Kevin Hayes scores! Jakub Voracek with another primary assist. It's his sixth primary assist (first in the NHL). pic.twitter.com/GbI56scbaQ
— Andy & Rono 📊 (@HockeyStatsCZ) January 24, 2021
But positive moments were few and far between. Instead, Hart allowed at least two goals he probably wants back. Patrice Bergeron’s tally here comes as Hart gets low, can’t cover, the puck pops out, Hart tries to slide back and doesn’t get the pad down, allowing this one to trickle in.
— Boston Bruins (@NHLBruins) January 24, 2021
This goal by Charlie Coyle is part luck, part indecisiveness:
— Boston Bruins on CLNS (@BruinsCLNS) January 24, 2021
Hart puts the stick out, but Coyle’s charging in with urgency and deflects it top shelf.
The sixth goal of the game was a combination of a rebound, what amounted to a pick on Travis Sanheim, and Hart’s inability to locate the puck on the far post:
Bruins cash in with their third power-play goal of the evening.
Bergeron's second goal of the game makes it 6-1 Bruins. pic.twitter.com/3wY5z1GPQF
— Conor Ryan (@ConorRyan_93) January 24, 2021
That one’s as much on the PK unit for failing to identify a dangerous Bergeron breaking for the back post as anything.
If you’ve been wondering how much the defensive lapses in front of him have gotten to the young netminder, look no further than what happened after the final horn:
Carter Hart shows his frustration after Flyers fall 6-1 to the Bruins pic.twitter.com/Qex6dmtJTu
— Brady Trettenero (@BradyTrett) January 24, 2021
Carter Hart’s teammates have lauded his ability to stay emotionally neutral. His highs are never too high. His lows are never too low. He called out the team’s effort following a 5-4 shootout loss, saying they knew the Bruins would come out strong in the third, but the Flyers didn’t match their intensity.
Hart wasn’t great in this one. He’s not the reason they lost. That said, it’s fair to point out the fact that Hart has allowed at least one soft goal in nearly every start this season. His decision-making behind his net has been mediocre. He’s still young, and he’ll continue to grow, but he’s not the darkhorse Vezina candidate so many had hoped he would be.
A Positive Trend
Jakub Voracek remains hot setting up his teammates:
We're not going to let the fact that the Bruins just took the lead again ruin how nice of a goal this was from Kevin Hayes!!!! pic.twitter.com/R0OTJAF5g2
— NBC Sports Philadelphia (@NBCSPhilly) January 24, 2021
That legitimately might be the only positive takeaway on an embarrassing night of hockey from the Orange & Black.
The Flyers are off until Tuesday, when they’ll play the first of two games in three nights against the Devils in New Jersey. Both games are at 7:00PM.
For more Flyers coverage, follow Snow The Goalie on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Also be sure to tune into The Press Row Show as Anthony SanFilippo and Russ Joy provide pregame and intermission coverage of every Flyers home game from press row of the Wells Fargo Center via the Crossing Broad Facebook page, YouTube Live, and Twitter, and their Twitter accounts Follow @SnowTheGoalie Follow @AntSanPhilly Follow @JoyOnBroad
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