You Have to Look a Little Deeper for the Flyers' Problem
Someday, the Flyers will be deep enough to win a series even with Claude Giroux and Jake Voracek playing like they are now.
Granted, the Penguins have an advantage over everybody, not just the Flyers, with two of the top five forwards in the NHL on one team, how Pittsburgh has won three Stanley Cups in the Sidney Crosby-Evgeni Malkin era. Essentially, that explains how the Penguins lead Philadelphia 2-1 in this opening round. But you can go through the four series won by the champion in any spring and find ample examples of where a team’s best player was picked up by his teammates during a period of struggle.
So when Giroux is sitting in the box for his slash on Crosby’s stick when the Penguins are going ahead 2-0, is being embarrassed by No, 87 on a center ice faceoff and then getting beat back to the defensive zone on another goal, plus missing the net on a good chance that could have cut the Pittsburgh lead to 4-2, who was going to pick up the Flyer captain on a bad day?
Voracek, who followed Giroux’s penalty with his own that Pittsburgh cashed for a three-goal lead? Travis Konecny, who is 21 years old? Nolan Patrick, who is 19? Val Filppula, who can’t play anymore? Wayne Simmonds, who had just 15 points in his final 31 regular season games, has been taken off the first power play unit, and, like Konecny, has been saddled on the other side of a line with Filppula?
All that first-period energy swirled the drain with eight largely stupid minors on Sunday, exposing the Flyers again as an often-brainless team for more reasons than just having six players in their first NHL post-season. Giroux, who took that penalty, Voracek, who took two, and Simmonds, who committed two in Game Two, don’t always set good examples. And when they lose their heads it leaves Sean Couturier, Andrew MacDonald and Ivan Provorov–the latter one of those six kids–keeping lonely duty on the kinds of things you have to do to win in the playoffs.
With so many promising young players in the lineup and more coming, the Flyers are on their way to becoming an elite team. But the cavalry won’t arrive by Game Four Wednesday night, when their best players are going to have to do a lot better than they have so far to keep this series from becoming a perfunctory Pittsburgh victory.
The Flyers have three reliable defensemen on the back end, and one of them, Shayne Gostisbehere, came apart in the second period Sunday, like almost everyone else did. When this team runs thin on patience, it just looks thin, period, with one kid defenseman, Travis Sanheim, getting a playoff baptism; another, Robert Hagg, sitting in the press box, and other first and second-year players floundering in their rite of passage first playoff series.
All of the above leaves the Flyers even more reliant on their power play than is supposed to be Pittsburgh. The third line has Filppula and the fourth line that was the sole source of energy in Game One, doesn’t contribute offensively.
To help get Giroux going, Dave Hakstol's apparent plan, judging from the lines he deployed at practice, was to move Voracek up to the first line, looking for some of the old magic between them in Game Four Wednesday night. That was before Couturier had to be helped off following a mind-boggling collison with Radko Gudas, If Couturier is a mid-series casualty for the second time in the last two occasions the Flyers have made the post-season, the thin get even thinner, no matter how Hakstol shakes a rapidly-depleting shaker.
This puts all the more pressure on Giroux, the NHL's second-leading scorer this season, and on
Voracek, its third-leading assist maker, whose two helpers and plus one so far flatter the way he has anchored the second line with Patrick and Oskar Lindblom. Giroux has managed one point and is minus-four in the three games.
Meanwhile, Crosby, with four goals and three assists for a plus six, scored on the Penguins’ one good chance as they were getting dominated in period one on Sunday. That’s what Crosby does and what the Penguins have done to win consecutive Cups.
“I thought Sid was a big reason that our team settled down,” Coach Mike Sullivan said. “That first goal he got, for example.
“He has an ability to stay in the moment. When the stakes are high, if we're in an away building, Sid tends to play his best.
“He doesn't get fazed by any of the adversity or anything that a high-stakes environment might present to other players.”
Giroux is no choker. His 63 points in 66 playoff games represent a per-game percentage better than recorded by Brett Hull, Steve Yzerman. Maurice Richard, Cam Neely, Stan Mikita and Jaromir Jagr. The Flyer captain totaled 21 points in 23 games when his team went to the 2010 finals and had eight goals, nine assists in 10 playoff games in 2012, when he outplayed Crosby to finish off the Penguins in Game Six. But the Flyers were a deeper, more veteran-laden team then, causing more matchup problems for the opposing coach, and lifting some of the burden from one guy.
At the cost of one more first-round pick–rest assured Flyer fans and dynasty-haters everywhere, the bill inevitably will come due–Penguin GM Jim Rutherford replenished what was lost at center last summer. “You have to be strong down the middle,” said Sullivan Sunday. “Jim made a subtle move with Riley Sheahan and then we picked up Derick Brassard at the trade deadline.
“They make our team so much better behind Crosby and Malkin; are critically important to the way we want to play”
Strength up the middle is critical any way you want to play. The second playoff around for Patrick, and Morgan Frost or German Rubtsov replacing Filppula will help free up Giroux, but in the meantime, the Flyers are paying him $8.275 million a year to come up larger than he has so far. Having memorably called together the Flyers travelling beat guys after an overtime win in February in Carolina to tell them he had to play better, the captain assuredly knows he must respond as he did then, scoring eight points in the next eight games. Same as with the Penguins’ Phil Kessel, we will be surprised if Giroux continues to struggle.
We will also be stunned if the Flyers go out meekly. They bounced back strongly from the Game Two clunker with a much better effort, just as they did to still earn five important points during that 10-game November winless streak. Repeatedly this season, bad never turned to worse, a win in Tampa the night following a sluggish loss in Florida springing to mind as an example of this team’s ability to pick itself up. But becoming a consistent winner is about so much more than that.
The three Penguin victories at the Wells Fargo Center this season—two regular season, one playoff–contained Pittsburgh flurries of three goals in 2:17, three goals in 9:56 and Sunday’s three in 4:05. The champions can blow up a close game like no other team in the league. Nevertheless, those spurts were surrendered by a club that suffers too many giveaways, coverage breakdowns and takes ill-timed penalties.
One cannot overcome bad periods against playoff-level teams, especially ones like Pittsburgh that have learned survival skills, have a depth of experience, and just plain more depth of personnel than the Flyers have right now.