Flyers-Avalanche: 5 things you need to know

flyers-avalanche-gamenotes.jpg

Flyers-Avalanche: 5 things you need to know

Flyers at Avalanche
9 p.m. on Comcast SportsNet

The Flyers (14-16-6) will look to close out 2014 on a positive note when they battle the Colorado Avalanche (13-15-8) at the Pepsi Center on New Year's Eve.

Here are five things to get you ready for Wednesday's clash in Denver:

1. Same old song
Let's face it, the Flyers aren't going anywhere unless they fix their much-maligned special teams.

They've gone six consecutive games without a power-play goal. Six. The franchise hasn't had a longer drought on the man advantage since going seven straight games without a PP tally in November of 2002.

“Special teams make a lot of difference in games,” Flyers captain Claude Giroux said (see story). “Our power play has to find a way, and it doesn’t matter if it is pretty or not. ... We just have to find a way.”

Then there's penalty killing, or lack thereof. The Flyers have not fared well in shorthanded situations on their trip. They've surrendered six power-play markers and have dropped to dead last in the NHL in PK effectiveness (74.0 percent).

Despite a 3-2-0 record in the first five games of their trip, the Flyers have somehow managed to lose two points in the standings since departing Philadelphia. The final three stops on their eight-game tour are all seemingly winnable matchups (Colorado, Carolina and New Jersey) and should result in six points. The key word there is should. If the Flyers don't clean up their special-teams play, it will be incredibly difficult to gain ground in the Metropolitan Division.

2. Ummm ... berger?
One of the few bright spots from Monday's loss in Arizona was the third-period surge led by R.J. Umberger. Yes, R.J. Umberger. If you needed to re-read that sentence or do a double take, I understand.

It's no secret the veteran forward has struggled in his first season back in a Flyers sweater, but he had his best outing in what seems like a lifetime against the Coyotes. He potted two goals in the third period and almost guided the Flyers to a comeback. Who could make that up?

It's a shame the Flyers waited until eight minutes were remaining in the game to show some fight, though. If they can rally back from a three-goal deficit in such a short time frame, imagine what they'd be capable of doing if they played a full 60 minutes.

3. Aving a tough time
With a star-filled lineup featuring players such as Jarome Iginla, Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon, Matt Duchene and Danny Briere, it would be safe to assume the Avalanche would have no problem finding the back of the net.

Surprisingly, that hasn't been the case. Second-year bench boss Patrick Roy's biggest concern is the lack of scoring from his key forwards.

MacKinnon has scored just once in his last 18 games. Duchene has just one assist in his past seven. Briere has been held goalless in 11 straight contests. And Landeskog hasn't found twine since Nov. 29.

What is going on in Colorado? Well for starters, the Avs aren't getting pucks on net. They registered a season-low 16 shots in Monday's loss to the St. Louis Blues and are averaging just 26.2 shots per game in December.

Much like the Flyers, the Avs have been crippled by inconsistent play this season. After stringing together a three-game winning streak heading into the Christmas break, Colorado has dropped back-to-back contests. Sound familiar? That's because the Flyers have done the same exact thing. This game could be a barn burner.

4. Keep an eye on ...
Flyers: Vinny Lecavalier was actually one of the Flyers' most productive forwards against Arizona. He had has feet moving the entire game and finished with a team-high six shots on goal. It was an encouraging performance for the veteran, who has just five goals and nine points in 22 games this season. He's looked much better since being placed with Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Chris VandeVelde on the fourth line. With the way the trio has been forechecking, Lecavalier should continue to get quality chances.

Avalanche: As mentioned above, Colorado has no shortage of skilled forwards. So it's somewhat shocking to see Alex Tanguay, an aging veteran, leading the team in scoring with 24 points (12 goals). That's not to say Tanguay isn't gifted, quite the opposite. The 35-year-old has the ability to hold onto the puck for long periods of time and has terrific vision. And with many of his teammates mired in scoring slumps, Tanguay has found a way to consistently produce. He just needs some help.

5. This and that
• This will be the final meeting between these two clubs this season. Giroux and Jakub Voracek had three points apiece in a 4-3 win over Colorado on Nov. 8 at the Wells Fargo Center.

• The Flyers haven't won at the Pepsi Center since Dec. 27, 2002.

• The Avalanche have allowed 1,217 shots on goal this season, third-most in the NHL.

• The Flyers have gone 0 for 14 on the man advantage during their current trip.

• Colorado has four skaters who are minus-10 or worse this season.

NHL Notes: Islanders fire head coach Jack Capuano

NHL Notes: Islanders fire head coach Jack Capuano

The struggling New York Islanders fired coach Jack Capuano on Tuesday, ending his tenure in the middle of its seventh season.

General manager Garth Snow named assistant GM/coach Doug Weight as Capuano's interim replacement. Snow told reporters Tuesday that the Islanders weren't where they wanted to be in the standings and that everyone's disappointed in their performance his season.

"At the end of the day organizationally I don't think Jack was probably going to be a coach that we were going to bring back," Snow said, adding that the team will begin a full-time coaching search now.

Snow said the halfway point of the season played a role in the timing of firing Capuano a day after beating the Boston Bruins 4-0. The Islanders were 17-17-8 and are in last place in the Eastern Conference with 42 points (see full story).

Predators: Hunt claimed, Fiala sent to AHL
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Nashville Predators have claimed defenseman Brad Hunt off waivers from the St. Louis Blues.

In other moves announced Tuesday, the Predators assigned forward Kevin Fiala to their American Hockey League affiliate in Milwaukee and have placed defenseman Petter Granberg on injured reserve.

Hunt had one goal and four assists in nine games for St. Louis this season. He has appeared in a total of 30 NHL games over parts of four seasons with the Edmonton Oilers and St. Louis. He has two career goals and six assists.

Fiala has six goals and three assists in 32 games for Nashville this season.

Granberg has played in 10 games for the Predators and has 10 penalty minutes.

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 of the current coaching staff.

But, when we put things in perspective, there are positives. Provorov has proven he’s the real deal, and he just 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 has 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 in 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 just trust the process with the Flyers. Enjoy the course.