Meltzer's Musings: Flyers-Caps Wrap, 50th Anniversary, Couturier, Mason
WRAPUP: FLYERS FALL SHORT IN DC, 3-2*********
The Philadelphia Flyers got off to a strong start and put up a competitive battle throughout but, in the end, all they had to show for efforts on Sunday was a 3-2 regulation loss to the NHL-leading Washington Capitals. The Flyers came away from a crucial set of back-to-back games against high-grade competition with just one point when they had three or four within reach.
Michael Del Zotto and Nick Schultz scored in a losing cause for the Flyers, while Shayne Gostisbehere extended his point streak to eight straight games (two goals, nine assists, 11 points) with a slap-pass setup of Del Zotto's goal. Nick Couins recorded his first official NHL point -- he had a shootout goal last season, which does not count in his stats -- with a secondary assist on Del Zotto's goal.
Steve Mason stopped 27 of 30 shots in a losing cause. Washington counterpart Braden Holtby turned back 33 of 35 Philadelphia shots.
Closely spaced goals late in the second period by Alex Ovechkin (30th of the season) and Dmitry Orlov springboarded the Capitals from a 1-0 deficit to a 2-1 lead. After Schultz re-tied the score,
the death knell for the Flyers was tolled on an unassisted solo rush by Washington defenseman Matt Niskanen in which, starting in his defensive zone, the defenseman skated untouched right up the middle of the ice.
Ultimately, the Flyers had one too many breakdowns against a team that can make plays and strike fast in transition. They let too many power play opportunities slip away, including back-to-back opportunities early in the first period, a two-man advantage in the middle frame and a late second-period chance that carried over into the third.
Credit the Capitals fifth-ranked penalty kill (84.1 percent for the season) for doing a stellar job on the kills. Overall, the defense and Holtby combined to keep the trio of Claude Giroux (three shots, minus-two in 23:38 of ice time), Jakub Voracek (three shots, minus-two in 23:17) and Wayne Simmonds (three shots, minus-two in 21:23) not only off the scoreboard but at a deficit.
It was the Flyers' top line and the defense pairing of Del Zotto and Gostisbehere that was on the ice for Niskanen's game winning goal. The middle of the ice was left completely unguarded, which Niskanen recognized immediately. Gaining speed through the neutral zone, he split the defense as he reached the Flyers' zone, then moved to his right on Mason and, from the forehand, the righthanded shooter found enough space under the goalie's arm as he moved to cover the post. The goal, at 5:24 of the third period put Washington ahead 3-2 to stay.
Del Zotto's opening goal, scored at 18:21 of the first period was a blast from inside the left point after he caught Gostisbehere's slap pass, then used a short windup to fire the steadied puck. With traffic in front as Sam Gagner moved into screening position, the puck slightly deflected off Niskanen and into the net.
The lead held until a disastrous span of 1:09 late in the second period. First, Giroux won a right circle faceoff in the defensive zone but the Flyers lost the battle that ensued. The puck was rimme around the wall right to Karl Alzner at the left point as Ovechkin moved in front. The prolific goal-scorer tipped the shot in front, re-directing it into the net at 15:56.
At 17:05, with the Flyers hemmed in their own end, they were guilty of a turnover and scrambled coverage. Capitals defenseman Orlov moved past Schenn, who didn't have a stick, and skated down to the bottom of the left circle -- prime shooting range -- and fired off a perfect shot that beat Mason. Andre Burakovsky and Evgeny Kuznetsov got the helpers.
Not much has gone right for Flyers defenseman Radko Gudas so far since the All-Star break. He has struggled mightily with giveaways, repeated bad penalties and getting himself caught way out of position and causing odd-man rushes by over-aggressively looking for hits. In this game, he unwittingly had a hand on both the Ovechkin and Orlov goal sequences as he turned pucks over in the defensive zone.
The Flyers, who were the better and hungrier team in the first period, showed bounceback ability in the third period despite completing their fifth failed power play of the game. At the 51-second mark of the final frame, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare cleanly won a left circle faceoff back to Schultz. Never known for his offensive ability at the pro level, Schultz nevertheless dialed up a howitzer that flew through the traffic and sailed past Holtby in the blink of an eye. The goal was Schultz's first of the season and the 30th of his 1,010-game NHL career.
Even after the Niskanen fiasco -- one of the most stunning complete breakdowns of the season --- the Flyers kept battling. Mason kept the deficit manageable, Gostibehere made things happen in the offensive zone, Streit had a near-miss golden scoring opportunity where the puck got away at the last instant and Holtby authored several brilliant saves. Ultimately, the Flyers ran out of time to find an equalizer.
Having played four games in six days, having played three times in three different cities in a span of less than 96 hours, the Flyers will take a much-needed complete day off on Monday. They will hold a 10:30 morning skate on Tuesday before hosting the Anaheim Ducks at the Wells Fargo Center. The Anaheim game marks the start of another four-in-six scheduling week, culminating with another weekend back-to-back (hosting New Jersey on Saturday, on the road against the Rangers on Valentine's Day) to end a three-in-four segment.
THE COUTURIER EFFECT
Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the presence or absence of one player -- Hall of Fame defenseman Mark Howe -- in the Flyers lineup made a huge annual difference in their record. When he was able to play (sadly, an increasingly infrequent occurance after 1987), the team was competitive and posted annual winning records in the games he played. When he was out, the team was in big trouble and their record reflected just how much his two-way presence, poise and calming effect on the team was missed.
A similar thing has happened to the 2015-16 Flyers. They are a different team when Sean Couturier is there to provide desperately needed offensive depth beyond the top line/ top power play unit attack and especially for his strong defensive play and forechecking work. Portions of Saturday and Sunday's game once again showed why the Flyers are in major trouble without him when there's a need to stop the bleeding as they try to protect a lead and need relief from being pinned in their own end by a rallying opponent.
Of course, no one player makes all the difference in wins or losses but some players' roles are more vital than others and require multiple players to step up simultaneously to adequately overcome his absence. Here's the bottom-line, and it's no coincidence. The Flyers are 23-19-9 overall. With Couturier in the lineup, they are 21-13-7. Without him, they are now 2-6-2.
Unfortunately, the big center is going to be out for the rest of this month and into early March. The reality is that the Flyers' playoff hopes took a severe blow when they lost Couturier on Thursday night in Nashville. As the Flyers showed this past weekend, they will compete and still have enough to give a tough game to even a team of the Caps' caliber on a given night but it's going to be tough to sustain that level over 60 minutes.
Even if Couturier was there, maybe the Flyers' still would have coughed up a late tying goal to the Rangers. Maybe they still would have fallen short in regulation against the Capitals. We'll never know. But what is for certain is the shift-to-shift attrition becomes a lot more noticeable over the course of a game when there is even less margin for error.
MASON BITES THE BULLET FOR TEAM
After a summer of hard work and an outstanding training camp and preseason, Flyers goaltender Steve Mason has been through a hellish season -- emotionally, injury-wise and otherwise -- since October. He's handled it with nothing but class and professionalism. Over this past week, despite being on a daily maintenance plan for the rest of the season to play through a lower-body injury, Mason stepped up by necessity to play four strong games in a row in a span of less than six nights.
While I don't know what Mason's injury is, it is noticeable sometimes that some of his pop-ups and lateral movement seem more labored at times than they did when he was healthy in camp and after his return from arthroscopic knee surgery last year. If you recall, he tried to play though knee issues last year -- and played well -- but kept having "lockups" that forced him out of games and eventually to need in-season minor surgery. At least so far this year, he has not been forced to leave any games so perhaps the issue is not as severe (circumstantially assuming that it is, in fact, once again a knee issue).
The current Flyers are very much a work in progress toward a brighter future. That is the biggest reason why Mason's record has been so-so the last two seasons. Now, are there areas where he can get better? Sure.
There are times where he can track pucks better through traffic, especially on penalty kills. There are times where he can better use his size on the short side. Early this season, he had some five-hole hiccups (but those have been largely cleaned up). He's generally been among the NHL's top puckhandling goalies in his career, but I don't think he's had his best year in that department. Shootouts are what they are. As with any player, Mason is not above criticism when things don't go well for the team. There's usually something or other they could have done a little better or more cleantly.
Some of the other criticisms thrown at him, however, are garbage. His typical rebound control the last couple years has been among the best -- not the worst -- of any Flyers starter in a long time. Go through every goal he's yielded this season and find how many were the result of "bad" rebounds. Not very many. When other teams flurry, he's also been good at fighting for second and third saves.
Fact: Since his arrival on the Flyers late in the lockout-shortened 2013 season, Mason boasts the NHL's second highest five-on-five save percentage. He's done it behind a mediocre-to-average team defense and, in the last two years, has been sorely lacking on goal support.
Another fact: Goaltending, whether it's Mason or Michal Neuvirth, remains among the areas that the team is least concerned except where keeping their goalies healthy is concerned. In terms of play in most games. it's a team strength; though you'd never know it from the Mike Milbury types or the "angry fan on Facebook/Twitter" crowd.
I watch a lot of hockey; throughout the NHL, and in other leagues. I see enough to know that there really aren't very many goalies around who woud do significantly better than Mason if they were suddenly transplanted onto the Flyers. Philadelphia loves to eat its goalies and defensemen alive for imagined flaws as well as real ones.
Put Jonathan Quick or Pekka Rinne or Corey Crawford or Antti Niemi -- all Stanley Cup winners except multi-time Vezina finalist Rinne -- and see how they would fare and how Flyers fans would treat them after the honeymoon period and the overhype died down. Hell, Ilya Bryzgalov was a former Vezina finalist for the Coyotes.
Goaltenders get way too much blame and also sometimes too much credit in this sport. Yes, there are times when incredible goaltending is the great equalizer but so-so team defense will eventually drag the goalie down them just as repeatedly leaky goaltending will drain the defense. I saw a lot of both factors last season with the Dallas Stars, which was why the high-powered offensive team missed the playoffs and ranked near the bottom of the league in GAA. There was significant improvement in the early months this season, but the same problems have cropped up again since the calendar flipped to 2016.
Getting back to the Flyers, you can see pieces to build around; and enough in place already to be a bubble team among a very crowded field of playofff bubble teams. If anything, though, I think the Flyers have been over-achieving a bit since the latter part of November.
The blueline is still underwhelming. The Flyers are wading through the pre-NHL development of their top blueline prospects with a group largely consisting of role players and foot soldiers. No
offense to Michael Del Zotto, who is generally an effective player, but the fact that he's the team's default number one two-way defenseman and minutes eater speaks volumes about the lack of top-end two-way talent. For all the impact Shayne Gostisbehere has had -- and is likely to continue to have -- with the puck on his stick, and in triggering transitional plays he is not a player who is ever likely to much more than average defensively. That's really all he has to be at his size and skill set: not a liability.
Beyond those two, they have a seemingly declining Mark Streit, still trying to battle his way all the way back from a serious early season injury. They have Radko Gudas as their physical presence, which he certainly provides in spades, but not always under control or without some drawbacks when he has the puck on his stick. Nick Schultz is strictly a defensive defenseman. Evgeny Medvedev is wildly inconsistent -- sometimes splendid, sometimes awful. At the NHL level, Brandon Manning is a keep-it-simple role player.
As stated in previous blogs, the Flyers really do not have a bonafide third line (instead they have two fourth lines) and the offensive depth beyond the top line gets mighty thin in a hurry with Sean Couturier sidelined. The Flyers rank 25th offensively in the NHL this season and were 21st last year.
These are the overarching issues with the team and ones that will have be sorted out by general manager Ron Hextall as the club gradually moves toward the next phases of its retooling and assset replenishment process. The GM wants to avoid quick-fix trades of draft picks for rental players or young players for older veterans. That should pay off in the long term -- especially as cap space opens on expiring contracts to better appropriate the money to a couple veteran free agents who can fill specific voids on the roster; perhaps even an added core piece or a proven veteran leader to add to the leadership group while still having enough in the tank to also make an on-ice impact.
These are more pressing issues that have zero to do with the team's goaltending. Nevertheless, Mason appears to turnning to more and more of a convenient scapegoat from the "slash-and-burn" social media/ call-in show crowd that couldn't tell a wrist shot from a wrist watch but loves to proudly put their ignorance on display after any loss and even some wins.
Luckily, Ron Hextall and Dave Hakstol couldn't give two flips about what the media thinks or internet fan base writes. Neither could the other players in the dressing room who know full well what Mason has been through in the last four-plus month and appreciate the level he's actually played at far more often than not while dealing with all of it. The way he's stepped up over the past week with Neuvirth out to play well and never point a public finger when he's been hung out to dry several times increases the respect he holds within their realm up another peg, and it was already pretty high.
If there's one thing I've learned in the last 15 years, it's that the players' internal realm is one that none of the rest of us are part of or welcomed into -- myself and other media members included -- nor do most outsiders even remotely understand.
50TH ANNIVERSARY: PHILADELPHIA GETS NHL EXPANSION TEAM
This week marks a major anniversary in the history of the National Hockey League and of the Philadelphia Flyers: 50 years ago this week, at the culmination of three days of meetings (Feb. 7-9) at the St. Regis Hotel in New York, the NHL expansion committee made its final selections for the expansion of the league from six to 12 teams.
One of the six new teams was the as-yet-unnamed franchise from Philadelphia. Fifty years ago tomorrow, on Feb. 9, 1966, a young executive named Ed Snider received a phone call in Philadelphia from NHL expansion committee chairman Bill Jennings (the owner of the New York Rangers). Two magical words later -- "you're in" -- forever changed Snider's life and forever changed the history of team sports in Philadelphia.
The franchise approval, however, was a conditional one, hinged on the successful construction and completion of a suitable arena in time for the 1967-68 NHL season. The facility that came to be known as the Philadelphia Spectrum had yet to break ground at this point and finalizing the land deal and private funding for the arena and NHL franchise fees was an epic and contentious battle both with cutting through massive red tape and solving a crisis that emerged within the group calling itself Philadelphia Hockey Club, Inc.
The remarkable story of how the team that was named the Flyers later in 1966 came into being is told in full detail in Jay Greenberg's landmark Full Spectrum. In many ways, it was a small miracle that the Philadelphia-based bid -- which started out as something of a dark horse in the race for a new team, in part because the one previous NHL team in Philadelphia was a disaster and multiple minor-league teams had folded -- ended up being one of the six the league approved. However, the biggest fights were yet to come behind the scenes before the first puck was ever dropped in a Philadelphia Flyers hockey game.
There may not have been a GM hired yet (although Bud Poile already had the inside track). There was no coach. There were no players under contract. There was no arena yet, nor was there a team name. But there was aleady a burgeoning identity of a scrappy underdog that never stopped battling and found ways to overachieve. Ultimately, Snider and Joe Scott became the driving managerial forces in the franchise and the massive financial risk paid off.
As the Flyers organization and the Flyers Alumni Association get ready to celebrate the upcoming 50th season of Flyers hockey, it seems an appropriate time to look back at the key milestones, major anniversary dates, great moments and stories about the people who have shaped the franchise and its history both on and off the ice.