Sometimes we need to remind ourselves that professional athletes are human beings, too. Every player and every team has nights where they just aren't at their best for whatever reason. They are not immune from fatigue. Those are games where a team has to claw out ugly wins.
Last night, the Flyers were in action for the second time in less than 24 hours, the third time in four nights and for the sixth time in a span of 210 hours. Four of the six games have been on the road. So it was understandable that there might be some tired legs out there on the (horrendous) ice in Tampa Bay.
Understandable, yes. An excuse for the pathetic effort the Flyers put forth in last night's 5-1 loss to the Lightning, absolutely not. Tiredness is not an excuse for not hustling and not communicating. Fatiguewise, every NHL team is more or less in the same boat, with a grueling schedule following a six-day training camp.
Beyond that, in each of the two previous games, the Flyers had rolled four lines and three defense pairings with a generous amount of ice time for the supporting cast players. That should have kept the Flyers' core players a little fresher than they looked last night.
This was the second time within a week -- the other being Tuesday's 3-0 loss in New Jersey -- that the Flyers reached a "quit on the game" point in which they stopped competing by the midway mark.
The Flyers took undisciplined penalties all night long (and lead the entire NHL in both minors taken and total penalty minutes). Wayne Simmonds was the worst culprit last night but far from the only one. To compound the issue, the penalty killing problems of the first three games returned with a vengeance.
Meanwhile, Philly's power play was every bit as hideous as the PK. They barely generated scoring chances, much less put pucks in the net.
Offensively, if not for an early gift from Tampa goaltender Anders Lindbäck -- who allowed Sean Couturier's flat angle shot out of the corner to somehow sneak through -- the Flyers would have been shut out. There were a handful of good scoring chances over the mid to late stages of the first period, but Lindbäck settled in after the soft goal. The attackers were unable to elevate pucks over the big Swede's long limbs that took away everything along the ice.
Defensively, the Flyers were awful. They were too often flat footed and got picked apart by Tampa's passing. Actually, the damage easily could have been worse. The Flyers caught a few breaks when pucks hopped away from open shooters on the mushy ice surface.
Two of the goals the Flyers yielded were power play goals. It would nearly three power play tallies for Tampa, but a penalty had just expired a moment before Steven Stamkos tricked a puck through Michael Leighton's legs for the Bolts' fifth goal.
Perhaps the most galling goal of all was the Lightning's fourth goal, scored early in the third period. Philly entered the period needing at all costs to prevent falling any further behind than 3-1. Instead, they give up a 3-on-2 rush in the opening minute of the period. Both Braydon Coburn and Bruno Gervais did a good job tying Tampa players up in front of the net, but Leighton gave up a big fat rebound on Adam Hall's initial shot and a wide open Victor Hedman slam-dunked the puck into the net.
On this sequence, Flyers captain Claude Giroux failed to hustle on the back check, floating casually about 20 feet behind the play rather than going all out to catch up to Hedman. That was a flat out unacceptable effort, and was worthy of a seat on the bench for the rest of the game. Everyone needs to backcheck. There can't be any exceptions. Buy-in for team defense has to be exampled by the captain and there also needs to be accountability for every player, including the team's best player.
Is there any guarantee that if Giroux has gone all out to backcheck that Hedman wouldn't have scored anyway? Of course not. But maybe Hedman would "hear footsteps" and tick one off the post. Maybe he wouldn't have come up with the puck cleanly in the first place, and a hustling backchecker could have tied him up before he collected it. Maybe Giroux would have had to take a "good penalty" to save a goal. We'll never know.
By not making any effort to get back on the put-away goal, the captain did the equivalent of waving the surrender flag. I don't care how tired a player or team feels, that should never, ever happen.
Giroux does not typically cut corners defensively. But he did last night, on top of making a variety of low-percentage plays in the offensive zone. When you are pressing offensively -- with the Flyers struggling to score, Giroux is trying to force plays in the offensive end -- that is all the more reason to pay a little extra attention to the defensive side of the puck. That is part of the responsibility that goes along with the captaincy of a team that considers itself a contender.
As for the goaltending, what can I say? Leighton did not look like an NHL goaltender last night. His reaction times were too slow, the angles weren't sufficiently covered, the rebounds went directly into the slot. In his defense, it should be added that there were a couple deflections and numerous coverage breakdowns in front of him.
The Flyers weren't going to win regardless of the goaltending because they were outplayed in every facet of the game. But Leighton did very little to give the team a chance to regain its equilibrium. Even his saves looked awkward and off-balance; hardly something to inspire confidence in his teammates that he could erase defensive mistakes.
In fairness to Leighton, the conditions going into the game were far from ideal for him. He was going to need his fair share of help, especially in the early going of the game. Last night was his first game action of any kind since his final AHL start (April 14, 2012) of last season, first NHL game since a disastrous appearance in Game 6 of the 2011 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against Buffalo and first NHL regular season game since Dec. 20, 2010 (a 7-4 win over Los Angeles).
The Flyers have scored two or fewer goals in five of their six games this season. Saturday's 7-1 romp over an injury-riddled Panthers team was the oasis in the offensive desert they've crawled through in the first nine days of the regular season. So it's not just the defensive side of the puck that needs a lot of improvement. The Flyers need to get people scoring with regularity.
On Tuesday, the Flyers head to Madison Square Garden to take on the Rangers. There won't be any formal practice today, as the game represents Philly's third game in four nights and fourth game in four different cities over a six-day span. In other words, the schedule isn't getting easier any time soon, and it is something the team simply must deal with if it is to be successful.
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