Is it time to be worried about the Flyers?

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Is it time to be worried about the Flyers?

Maybe it wasn’t their worst effort of the season. It was their worst loss.

There have been some ugly results for the Flyers this year. They fell to Florida in a shootout at home. They dropped a game early to Tampa on the road. They got upended by Toronto -- twice. All of those were bad. But this? As beatings go, this beat them all.

The Flyers were up three goals. They were at home. They were facing their cross-state rival midway through a truncated season. It was a game the coach and the players all agreed they needed to win.

They didn’t win. Penguins 5, Flyers 4 (see game recap).

So, was it the worst loss of the year?

“Yeah,” Claude Giroux allowed. “I mean, when you’re up 4-1, you have to find a way to close a game up. We know they’re a good team offensively. If we give them power plays, they’re going to put it back in our net and that’s what happened.”

The Flyers needed a win on Thursday. They knew it and you knew it. There is no denying the importance or the leftover disappointment after a game like that. Because they had it. It was there for them. Then they gave it away.

There were five goals in the first period alone. The Flyers scored four of them. Jake Voracek registered two by himself, at least one of which was a gross victimization of Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. It was an embarrassing start for Fleury, who looked like he wanted to slink out the side door and bury his head in all the snow that never came this week. In what can only be described as a mercy move by Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma, Fleury was yanked to start the second period -- probably so he could lick his wounds and stitch together what was left of his pride.

It was a great first period. But, as Peter Laviolette later lamented, “the second period was, really, the opposite of the first period.”

The Penguins scored. Then they scored again. Then they tied the game. The Flyers looked like someone had come along and sucker punched them in the gut. Except it wasn’t a sucker punch. They saw it coming and they still couldn’t stop it.

“Before you know it, it’s 4-4,” Scott Hartnell said. “We just can’t do that. It’s embarrassing to the fans, it’s embarrassing to one another, and we let two points slip away.”

By the third period, Ilya Bryzgalov was out and Brian Boucher was in. It didn’t matter. Penguins winger Chris Kunitz scored 18 seconds into the final frame and that was that. Another game. Another upside-down result for the flailing Flyers.

Boucher said they took their “foot off the gas just a little bit,” but it was more like they stomped on the brakes while going full speed and then everyone went flying through the windshield. It was a grotesque crash.

“It was a big letdown,” Scott Hartnell said. Then he added, “If we play like that, it will be a long summer.”

Hartnell was hinting at what you already know: The season just began -- and yet it’s almost over. They are running out of time.

The Flyers (11-13-1) only have 23 games remaining. They are currently on the outside of the Eastern Conference playoff picture, their smudged noses pressed against the glass looking in at all the other teams ahead of them. Beating Pittsburgh could have acted as a catalyst to propel them through the rest of the year. Instead, you wonder if it will slow their progress.

As only Bryzgalov could put it, over the first half of the season, the Flyers were “not good” (see video). Win one. Lose win. Suffer an injury. Repeat. As treading water goes, the Flyers managed to keep their heads right around surface level despite the skates and pads and heavy expectations weighing them down. They can’t keep that up forever. Either they find a way to buoy themselves or they will be dragged under before long.

That’s where the Flyers are at the moment. Despite the harsh reality, Zac Rinaldo tried to play it cool in the locker room after the game.

“We’re not worried,” Zac Rinaldo insisted.

Then he said it again.

“We’re not worried,” Rinaldo repeated.

Given the circumstances, that is hard to believe. If they aren’t worried, they ought to be.

Difficult to see now, but remember: Flyers’ window just starting to open

Difficult to see now, but remember: Flyers’ window just starting to open

They can’t win away from the Wells Fargo Center. They’ve seen a nine-point cushion in the wild-card standings vanish and when they resume play on Saturday, they’ll be out of the playoff picture.

The Flyers are who we thought they were. A fringe playoff team lacking in too many areas to be considered a serious contender, despite the overachievement of last season.

When the Flyers entered their bye week, they sat one point ahead of Carolina for the final wild-card spot and two points ahead of Florida and Ottawa. They are 3-8-3 in 14 games since their 10-game winning streak was snapped, and were blown out in back-to-back games in Boston and Washington by a combined score of 11-3.

Yet, they’re still on the brink of the postseason — for now. Perhaps it’s time for a trade from the front office to send a shockwave through the locker room? Not so fast.

“If we can make our team better, we will,” Flyers general manager Ron Hextall said last week at Flyers Skate Zone in Voorhees, New Jersey. “But we’re staying on course.

“I don’t care if we win every game the rest of the year or lose every game, we’re staying on course. We set out on a course two and a half years ago — we’re not deviating from what we planned. I’m not going to make a trade to send a message.”

It’s easy to get carried away in win streaks and unexpected playoff appearances, especially in Philadelphia, where the four major sports teams are rebuilding. It’s even easier to scream for a team to go for it when it shows a glimpse into its full potential.

That is what makes sports fun. It’s what makes for good sports debate programs and entertaining talking heads. But it’s not how organizations should run their operations.

It’s certainly not how Hextall runs his regime with the Flyers. Hextall has a clear vision, and time and time again has shown no signs of expediting his plan for immediate help. He has made it a purpose to build through the draft. We have to remember that, and realize that the Flyers’ front office is playing the long game here, not the short game.

“Right now, we’re gonna stick with what we’ve got here and move forward,” Hextall said Sunday in Washington. “But on a day-to-day basis, I always look at how we can make our club better, and if there’s something that we think makes our club better, we’ll do it.

“The worst thing you can do is overreact when things aren’t going right and that’s not gonna happen. But if we can find a way to make ourselves better, we will.”

Let’s take a step back and make some sense of the Flyers’ current state. They are seventh in the Eastern Conference with 50 points as of Tuesday morning. They are 8-12-3 on the road, with nine straight defeats away from South Philadelphia. They are a top-10 scoring team, with 127 goals, but have allowed a league-high 144 goals against.

Steve Mason’s confidence is completely shook. Michal Neuvirth hasn’t been much better, if at all. Claude Giroux hasn’t scored a goal in 11 games and has just one marker in his last 17 games. (To be fair, he does have seven assists in his last eight games.)

Shayne Gostisbehere has been a healthy scratch twice this season, with his latest coming last Saturday in Boston. He’s struggled with his gap defense, among other areas, and is enduring growing pains in his second NHL season — as expected.

While the Flyers’ defense has scored 102 points, second most in the NHL, it struggles with gaps, turnovers and has too many breakdowns. Ivan Provorov, 20, has been the lone bright spot among the group of eight defensemen.

Head coach Dave Hakstol has juggled his lines and defensive pairs in attempts to find something that works. Some of the moves have worked, others have not. Questioning some of Hakstol’s lineup decisions is fair, but there’s no question his systems work.

There is only so much Hakstol can do with what he has to work with. Part of the blame can be placed on Hextall because this team, as currently constructed, is not there yet. It is, however, unfair to put every decision Hakstol makes under a microscope.

“Hak has tried a lot of things,” Hextall said. “In the end, it’s a group and we win together, we lose together. We have to react as a group better when something doesn’t go our way. That’s bottom line. … Line changes, different D combinations, flipping Mase, Neuvy. Everything that’s there, Hak has tried. In the end it comes down to our whole group just being better and not reacting the way we do when something negative happens.”

One of the reasons Hextall opted to hire Hakstol, who came directly from college with no prior NHL coaching experience, is development. Growth takes time, and there is rhyme or reason behind each Hakstol benching, whether we see it or not.

The Flyers’ play the last few weeks has been dumbfounding because a lot of the same mistakes that plagued the team in the beginning of the season — lax team defensive coverage, bad decisions with the puck, letting opponents enter the zone too easily, among others — are reappearing and that’s a fair criticism on the current coaching staff.

But, when we put things in perspective, there are positives. Provorov has proven he’s the real deal before he turned 20 last Friday. Travis Konecny is here, and while he’s been the victim of a Hakstol benching, he’s shown glimpses of what’s to come. Jakub Voracek (41 points) has bounced back, Wayne Simmonds is an All-Star and added penalty kill to his résumé. Brayden Schenn leads the NHL in power-play goals with 11, though his 5-on-5 scoring could improve. And there’s a lot of upside on the farm system, with the potential of seeing an influx of kids joining the Flyers as early as next season. 

“The window is actually starting to open, the way I see it,” Hextall said last week. “The kids we have on our team. The kids we have coming. There’s things happening here that are good. We’re going to get better here. We’re not going to get worse.”

And Hextall is right — the window is just opening and will only open wider. Patience remains key here, and don’t trust the process with the Flyers. Just enjoy the course.

Best of NHL: Penguins halt Capitals 9-game streak with wild 8-7 OT win

Best of NHL: Penguins halt Capitals 9-game streak with wild 8-7 OT win

PITTSBURGH -- Conor Sheary scored 34 seconds into overtime and the Pittsburgh Penguins ended the Washington Capitals' nine-game winning streak with a wild 8-7 victory Monday night that included nine second-period goals.

Sheary had two goals and an assist for the Penguins, who snapped a three-game losing streak. Evgeni Malkin picked up his 11th career hat trick during a frenetic second period, and Sidney Crosby collected his NHL-leading 27th goal to go with two assists. Bryan Rust and Nick Bonino also scored for Pittsburgh, and Matt Murray got the win despite allowing seven goals on 28 shots.

The Penguins trailed 3-0 before scoring six goals in less than 11 minutes in the second period, more goals than the Capitals had allowed in a game all season. Pittsburgh led 6-5 after 40 minutes.

Lars Eller scored twice for Washington, and T.J. Oshie, Brett Connolly, Nicklas Backstrom, Justin Williams and Andre Burakovsky also found the net. Philipp Grubauer made eight saves after coming on in relief of Braden Holtby, who was pulled during Pittsburgh's second-period deluge (see full recap).

Eichel scores twice to give Sabres' 4-1 win over Stars
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Jack Eichel scored two goals and the Buffalo Sabres defeated the Dallas Stars 4-1 on Monday.

Tyler Ennis scored 19 seconds into the first period. Ennis returned after missing 30 games with a groin injury that required surgery.

Jake McCabe also had a goal and Robin Lehner made 31 saves after missing the past three games with an illness.

The Sabres snapped a two-game losing streak and beat the Stars for the first time in four matchups.

Radek Faksa scored for the Stars in the opener of a three-game road trip. Kari Lehtonen stopped 25 shots. Dallas has lost two in a row and six of eight (see full recap).

Bishop anchors Lightning to 2-1 win over Kings
LOS ANGELES -- Brian Boyle scored the go-ahead goal late in the second period, and the Tampa Bay Lightning opened a six-game road trip with a 2-1 victory over the Los Angeles Kings on Monday.

Ben Bishop made an early mistake that led to Kyle Clifford's goal for the Kings, but bounced back to make 31 saves in his second start back from a three-week absence with a lower-body injury.

Tyler Johnson scored in the first period for the Lightning, who won for just the second time in seven games.

Peter Budaj stopped 27 shots for the Kings.

Both teams played without stars due to illness. Kings captain Anze Kopitar missed his first game since Nov. 20, and All-Star defenseman Victor Hedman missed his first game of the season for Tampa Bay (see full recap).