Loss to Isles may be final nail in Flyers' coffin

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Loss to Isles may be final nail in Flyers' coffin

BOX SCORE

UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- Sometimes, the right play is the easy, defensive play -- not trying to make something out of nothing.

Recognizing the difference is the hard part. And it’s why the Flyers have given up some ill-timed and rather costly goals this season.

That scenario repeated itself Tuesday night at Nassau Coliseum as the Islanders drove a stake through the Flyers' collective hearts with a 4-1 victory that may have very well sealed the team's playoff fate.

“Couple times,” coach Peter Laviolette said, “there were a few mistakes made that way. It was a competitive game both ways. Sometimes that’s the difference -- just making the right decision at a different time in the game.”

In the final 2:18 of the second period, Brayden Schenn had a chance to get a puck deep from neutral ice after a long shift following a Flyers' timeout. He tried to make an offensive play with Wayne Simmonds.

It backfired and resulted in Michael Grabner beating goalie Steve Mason low to the glove side from the high slot for a 2-1 Islanders' lead.

The Flyers never recovered and were outplayed in the third period by a fiercely competitive Islanders group that can smell the playoffs.

“It was a two-on-two and me and Simmer could have gotten it deep and gotten the line change,” Schenn said. “Made the wrong play.”

The game had tremendous playoff implications. The Flyers came in five points behind the eighth-seeded Isles in the Eastern Conference. They remain five behind the new No. 8-seeded Rangers with nine games to play.

They gained no ground, and that could prove fatal. The Islanders were a team the Flyers had to beat. With each loss, they become more dependent on others for help. They almost need a miracle.

“Probably,” Scott Hartnell said. “We know where we sit and how big this game was. “You’re trying to do the right thing when you’re working hard and create things and stuff like that.

“There are times and places where, like the last minute of a hockey game or a period, where you need to make a smart play.

“Seems like when we make a mistake it always goes in our net and we’re always frustrated and the heads go down and it goes on from there.

“Their second goal, I think I thought the puck was being chipped by Kimmo [Timonen] and [I] went behind Kimmo to get it and I get the ref, and it becomes a two-on-one and they score. It seems one play filters into more after that.”

Right-handed goalie Mason made his first start for the Flyers since being acquired last week at the NHL trade deadline. He played the third period of Saturday’s loss in Winnipeg.

New York held a 2-1 lead when the third period -- without question, the biggest of this season -- began.

For whatever reason, the Flyers appeared tired during the opening minutes of that frame as they were badly beaten to pucks in their own end.

Even as the period progressed, they had difficulty on the breakout, getting trapped in their own end before gaining their balance.

“I thought the first three-quarters of the second period we carried the play and were doing the right things,” Mike Knuble said.

“Then we tried to get a little too courageous offensively at times when the rush wasn’t in our advantage and ended up turning pucks over. They have some good guys who really live off it, and they grabbed the momentum off turnovers.”

In the final 1:37 of the game, the Isles iced it off the rush when Erik Gustafsson slid in an attempt to stop a partial breakaway by John Tavares but ended up putting the puck into the net himself.

That was followed by an empty-net goal.

“We were pushing but obviously it wasn’t enough to get one in there,” Knuble said.

Things were different at the start.

Claude Giroux has thrown some uncanny stretch passes up the ice this season that have led to Flyers' goals. He tossed another at 6:28 of the first period to one of his favorite targets, Jakub Voracek.

Catching it in full stride and into the Isles' end, Voracek went backhand on Evgeni Nabokov, who oddly trapped it under his pads.

“I knew G saw me so I kind of cheated a little bit,” Voracek said. “I think the puck bounced over their defenseman's stick.”

The problem was that Isles defenseman Andrew MacDonald pushed Voracek into Nabokov, who slid completely into the net with the puck as the net went off its moorings. After a review, it was ruled a good goal.

“I tried to square [Nabokov] up and slide the puck past him,” Voracek said. “I was a little lucky that it was early in the period because if it was at the end of the period, I don't think he would have slid in with it.”

The 1-0 lead lasted nine minutes before the Isles tied it. Brad Boyes gave Matt Moulson a perfect pass in the slot. His shot deflected off the stick of Bruno Gervais (minus-16 for the season).

The second period was pretty much like the first -- a lot of up-and-down skating and tight checking.

Remember Voracek coming to Giroux’s defense recently? Well, Schenn did the same for Mason after he got run into by Matt Martin. Schenn took Martin on in a fight six minutes into the period.

Near period’s end, Mason’s righthand ability came up big time with a huge save on Kyle Okposo’s breakaway.

Mason wasn’t so fortunate on Grabner’s shot soon after.

“We keep going,” Knuble said. “Thursday [against Ottawa] is another game for us. Obviously, we’re gonna start needing some help. But we can only worry about the games we have to play. That’s as simple as it is … Win the games in front of you.

“Any points would have been helpful tonight. Every day that ticks off the calendar, every game, every point is more valuable than the previous.

“You have to come up with something. To come up empty-handed the last two games … is not what we need right now.”

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.