Time Bandits: Thoughts After Capitals 3, Flyers 1

NBC Sports Washington

Three games ago, when Claude Giroux led the Flyers to an improbable comeback from a three-goal deficit to beat the Penguins in Pittsburgh, I told you in this very space that it was a seminal moment and it could lead to a run of great success for the Flyers.

After the last two games this weekend, that post sure didn’t age well.

It’s not that the Flyers played poorly in their 4-3 loss to Pittsburgh Saturday or their 3-1 loss to Washington in the first game in front of fans at the Wells Fargo Center in nearly a year.

They just didn’t play well enough to win against two solid opponents.

And while those of you frequently frustrated by the Flyers won’t find any silver lining in that assessment, especially since by losing both of those games the Flyers fell two points out of a playoff spot in the East Division, it’s worth noting there are still a lot of things this Flyers team does well.

You don’t go 49 straight games, spanning nearly 14 months without losing consecutive games in regulation, like this team just did until this weekend if you stink.

So, keep that in mind.

Still, there are some concerns that need to be addressed. So let’s identify them and if the Flyers have the time necessary to make those corrections.

1. Defensive zone coverage

Fans like to point out, and rightfully so, that the Flyers need help on defense. They do. The sudden retirement of Matt Niskanen in the fall caught the Flyers by surprise. There wasn’t an adequate replacement in free agency at the time, and no trade has yet materialized for the Flyers to replace him, however, you can bet that it’s the primary priority of GM Chuck Fletcher as the trade deadline is now just 35 days away and counting.

However, the defensive group, as a collective, is often over-criticized. Sure, they make their share of errors, as most defensive corps do, and hockey is certainly a game of mistakes and opportunities, but it’s not every goal against that the defenseman are failing to do a job.

Let’s look at what was the critical goal of the game against the Caps:

A lost faceoff (which is rare), confusion on coverage of the defenseman (we’ll get into that in a minute) and Carter Hart letting one through the five-hole that wasn’t the easiest of saves because it fluttered a little, but still one that he probably should have had.

Oh, and this happened with 15.8 seconds to go in the second period, breaking the tie and giving Washington all the momentum heading into the final period.

This goal is not a breakdown by the defensemen. Instead it was created by two forwards going to the same place and one of them was wrong:

It’s hard to say for certain who should be out at the point, but by this look, it appears that JVR did the right thing and Farabee got himself caught and tried to recover, but couldn’t, leaving Orlov wide open.

It’s simple plays like these that have been hurting the Flyers. Blown coverages. Bad passes. Flubbed shots.

And, if the forwards don’t skate hard enough to get back and help the defensemen, there are going to be even more mistakes, and a lot of those mistakes will come from tired bodies – never mind those playing in their sixth game in nine nights.

Can the D be better? Yes. Alain Vigneault continues to struggle to find consistent combinations. Guys are juggled in and out of the lineup. Erik Gustafsson returned against Washington after sitting out four-straight games and replaced Robert Hagg, who AV went out of his way to praise pre-game but said because of the brutal schedule he wanted fresh legs in the lineup.

Finding another to-four defenseman would help manage that struggle. We all know AV is hoping for a reinforcement, now we’ll wait and see if Chuck Fletcher can deliver.

2. Forcing the issue in the passing game

That sounds like a headline you’d find in an Eagles post, but the reality here is, the Flyers really struggle to get pucks in deep into the opponent’s zone. When they do, they can truly dominate play. In the third period against Washington, there was one shift by the three musketeers (look at the mustaches coming in on these boys and you’ll see why the swashbuckling trio) that was so dominant puck possession-wise that the exasperated Capitals were forced to take a penalty.

And although that shift by Kevin Hayes, Scott Laughton, and Travis Konecny was one to watch, they are too few and far between overall.

That’s not to say the Flyers can’t have shifts like this on the regular. They sure can. They have the forwards to protect the puck and create the time and space necessary to generate good scoring chances.

The problem is, getting set up in their own zone.

The thing about the Flyers right now that should frustrate fans more than anything, is an inability to make the simple passes necessary to get the offense set up. Too often the Flyers turn the puck over, either in their own end or in the neutral zone, trying to get too cute with a pass or with a play, and it allows the opposition come back at them with speed.

The Flyers then have to expend all the energy of the shift working to get the puck back and either ice the puck, or get it to the red line, chip it in and then change up as, you guessed it, the opponent has the puck again.

This leads to the Flyers trying long stretch passes, or switch to a dump and chase style, which is not ideal when playing so many games in such a short period of time because the legs needed to chase just might not be there.

I asked AV about this after the game. Here’s what he said:

“For me, I definitely think that the will was there tonight. Our guys came out and competed against a team like that, especially against their top line. Their first goal, all we got to do is get that puck in at their blue line and we don’t. We can’t make the change and put Coots’ line out there. They tie it up on a great play from their part. The second one, some people will question if that should have been an icing or not. At the end of the day, we had an assignment to make after that lost draw and we didn’t do it. They took the lead. That to me was probably the goal that made a big difference in this game.”

We already looked at the second goal, and there was a 50/50 icing call right before the faceoff that could have gone the Flyers way and didn’t. Regardless, Farabee misses his assignment and we already know the result.

But let’s look at the first goal:

As you can see, the fourth line is out on the ice against Washington’s top line. AV wanted Couturier out there, but because the Flyers missed a pass in the neutral zone that would have resulted in a chip and change, the fourth line had to stay out there. Connor Bunnaman ends up on his knees after a nice move by T.J. Oshie, and that discombobulates the entire defensive setup, leaving both Zdeno Chara and Alex Ovechkin open on the far side of the ice.

Travis Sanheim tries to get back, but once Ovi has the puck, he kinda knows what to do with it.

That was his 714th career goal. Does that make him the Babe Ruth of hockey?

Either way, it’s these kinds of mistakes that haunt the Flyers.

3. Not so special teams

There’s no knock on the penalty kill against Washington for the Flyers. It gets a one-game reprieve because the Flyers only had to kill one penalty. They did allow two goals to the Penguins though Saturday and currently rank 28th in the NHL killing at only 72.2%.

No, on Sunday it was the power play that let the Flyers down. The power play was 0-for-5 in the game and is now just 6-for-47 (12.8%) since Feb.1.

“Those power plays, we need to get at least one to get that two-goal lead,” Couturier said. “When you don’t, it’s tough. They get one and then two. Next thing you know, you are behind. Overall, it was a hard-fought game. We just need to find a way to capitalize on our chances. We’re getting some. We’re just not finishing.

“We need to score one (on the power play) eventually and get the killer instinct of taking over the game. Power play can win games and penalty kill can lose them. Right now, we’re losing that kind of battle, that facet of the game, that part of the game. We got to figure it out and I think we’ll be alright. 5-on-5, I think we’re pretty good. We just got to dial in and find a way to get our special teams better.”

Overall, the power play has cashed in on 18 percent of it’s chances, which isn’t great. It ranks 22nd in the NHL. The difference is, only a few more goals, and it’s back in the acceptable range. It isn’t far gone and they do get chances. The power play looks more fluid, and that’s because the coaches have split up the group to make both power play units more efficient. Claude Giroux and Jake Voracek are on the second unit while JVR and Farabee are staying on the first unit. Ivan Provorov and Shayne Gostisbehere have flip-flopped roles and Coots, TK and Nolan Patrick seem to alternate where they fit in on those two units.

But, the fact is, they need to start scoring more regularly.

Maybe the solution is to get the best players back together again and see what happens. Even if it makes one unit good and the second unit not-so-good, it might boost production. Either way, it’s something that has to be figured out, and soon.

4. Is there time?

Well, yes. The Flyers may have fallen two points out of a playoff spot, but they have games in hand on every team ahead of them except Boston, and there are still 34 games to go in the season, so time isn’t really an issue yet in terms of games.

However, where time is an issue is practice time. That’s the only way to really start working on things and making a difference. There’s only so much you can do on video.

There’s very little practice time available for them. They don’t have two days off in a row again until April. With 13 games crammed into the next 22 days, it’s likely the Flyers will only get three, maybe four practices in the rest of the month.

Which means, they may have to start treating morning skates like a special teams practice. This isn’t ideal, but it might be the only solution in this COVID-19-warped season.

The Flyers are back at it Tuesday when they host Buffalo. They should get right against the woeful Sabres, but then it’s back-to-back against the Caps later this week. Those games will be huge for the Flyers before a four game road-trip next week.

The time is there. But will it be used wisely?

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   

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