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.

Flyers Weekly Observations: Everything coming apart at the seams

Flyers Weekly Observations: Everything coming apart at the seams

That week was… not pretty.

Not by a long shot.

The Flyers’ busy week saw them play five games in an eight-day stretch and come out on the winning side of things just once. Overall, the Flyers went 1-3-1 last week with a 2-1 overtime loss in Columbus, a disheartening 4-1 defeat in Buffalo, a wild 5-4 shootout win over visiting Vancouver, an ugly 6-3 loss in Boston and an even uglier 5-0 loss in Washington.

There’s a lot to digest in this week’s Flyers Weekly Observations, and, needless to say, not much of it is good.

Where to even begin?

• Let’s start with Shayne Gostisbehere’s benching on Saturday afternoon in Boston, the second healthy scratch of the season for last season’s runner up to the Calder Trophy. Let’s face it, the 23-year-old defenseman has not played great this season. He’s struggled mightily defensively and he’s had a miserable time hitting the net in the offensive zone, among other warts in his game. He’s obviously not alone. After all, this 3-8-3 skid is rooted in shoddy defensive play in all zones. But he has not played well. We all know offense is Gostisbehere’s strength, but he’s got just four goals and 15 assists in 46 games. And he’s sporting a minus-17 after Sunday's loss. Dave Hakstol is obviously not happy with his young defenseman’s game and figured the best course of action would be to let Gostisbehere sit down, observe and clear his head. And I get that thought process. Sometimes that’s a good thing. But I’m of the belief it’s best to let a young player play through his struggles. Gostisbehere’s going to have to get used to doing that because this will not be the only time in his career he will struggle. It happens to every player, even the best ones. And it’s even tougher to defend Ghost’s benching with as poorly as Michael Del Zotto and Brandon Manning played in the previous game against Vancouver.

• Speaking of which, those stick penalties Del Zotto and Manning took over and over again in the first period against the Canucks were just careless and put the Flyers into a hole that could have been a lot deeper if not for the play of the penalty kill and Steve Mason. That’s the stuff that can just kill a team, and that’s the stuff that’s also very avoidable.

• One play really stuck out to me during Saturday’s loss to the Bruins in Beantown. The Flyers were down 5-3 early in the third period and attacking in the Bruins' zone when Jake Voracek hit Sean Couturier with a slick cross-ice pass. Couturier had net to shoot at and a chance to cut it to a one-goal game, but instead skated to the side of the net and backhanded the puck into the crowded slot and turned it over. When you’re down two in the third period, you need to shoot there. Even if Tuukka Rask stops it, you never know if there’s going to be a rebound. It was an example of how Couturier needs to be more aggressive offensively on a consistent basis. Especially after he was aggressive against Vancouver with a goal and a post hit after a beautiful offensive rush.

• What was that effort in Buffalo on Tuesday night? Credit the improving Sabres for playing well and earning the win, but the Flyers were just lifeless out there on the ice.

• Let’s chat some about those goalie interference calls that didn’t go the Flyers’ way in Columbus last weekend. Michael Raffl was squeezed into Sergei Bobrovsky and barely made contact with the Jackets’ goalie on the first one. Raffl is entitled to that space just as much as anyone else on the ice. It’s a hockey play, plain and simple. No idea how that one was overturned. Contact was made with Mason’s skate on the second one, but I believe that call was eventually correct as the goal stood. The problem is this: They were two similar plays with limited contact made with the goaltender. The league can’t have one count there and one not. The league is creating itself a very unnecessary grey area with those calls.

• On the NBC national telecast of Sunday’s debacle in Washington, analyst Brian Boucher said something to the effect of the Flyers were in the process of quitting the game after the Caps’ fourth goal, which was scored early in the third period. And it was hard to disagree him with what we all saw. Things can become fragile over these kinds of skids and it just seems recently when one thing goes wrong with for the Flyers, everything comes apart at the seams.

• Brayden Schenn’s stat line so far this season is uneven, literally. He’s got 14 goals on the season, but a league-leading 11 have come on the power play. So that’s 79 percent of Schenn’s goal-scoring coming on the man advantage. That’s obviously great for when the Flyers are on the power play, but with how they’re averaging 1.79 goals per game over this recent 3-8-3 stretch, that could really use it at even strength. That goes for everybody.

• I’m not sure how I feel about the bye week. On one hand, it comes at the right time as the Flyers can rest, recharge and get their heads straight after this awful stretch. On the other hand, it’s no secret this team could REALLY use the practice time right now just to get back to the basics and for the players just to get their footing back underneath themselves. They’ll next be able to practice Friday afternoon.

Coming up this week: Saturday vs. New Jersey (7 p.m./TCN), Sunday at New York Islanders (6 p.m./CSN)

Flyers' Neuvirth comes off bench to 'shut the door' in win over Canucks

Flyers' Neuvirth comes off bench to 'shut the door' in win over Canucks

BOX SCORE

Flyers coach Dave Hakstol has been pushing a lot of different buttons trying to find the right combination to get his team out of its recent downward spiral toward mediocrity.

From tinkering with his lines trying to find something that works to scratching a healthy top-four defenseman, Hakstol has played just about every card left in his hand.

And on Thursday night, the second-year head coach had one final play, a card he hasn’t put on the table yet during the Flyers’ recent stretch of seeing valuable points slip away.

With the Flyers down one goal after surrendering three goals in the second period, Hakstol made a goaltender change, from Steve Mason to Michal Neuvirth, for the third.

“We thought it was a good time just for a change for our team coming out of the second period,” Hakstol said after a 5-4 shootout win over Vancouver at the Wells Fargo Center (see Instant Replay).

“It was a tough second period. A lot of different things going on there, so it was two-fold. I think Mase would probably admit there was one more save there he can make, but at least equal or more than that, it was just a time to make a change for our team and try to push for a little change in direction, and Neuvy went in and did a good job.”

The goalie reset button paid dividends for Hakstol and the Flyers, as Neuvirth provided a calming presence in net and turned away all 14 shots the Canucks threw at him in the third period and overtime, and stopping all three Vancouver shootout attempts.

Claude Giroux scored the lone goal of the shootout on his 29th birthday, beating Ryan Miller, the NHL’s winningest shootout goalie, five-hole on the Flyers’ second attempt.

Neuvirth picked up his sixth win of the season, and second since returning from a left knee injury that forced him out of commission for almost two months on Jan. 4.

“Coach asked me to come in and shut the door,” Neuvirth said, “and that’s what I did.”

Since the Flyers’ 10-game winning streak was snapped Dec. 17, the orange and black entered Thursday’s game 2-6-3 in their previous 11 games and losers of seven of their last eight contests. With a back-to-back this weekend in Boston and Washington before their bye week, Hakstol decided to continue to ride Mason.

Mason made his 26th start out of the Flyers’ last 30 games Thursday, and fourth out of the five games since Neuvirth returned from injury. The Flyers’ goalie stood tall in the first 20 minutes, turning away 12 of the 13 shots the Canucks threw at him.

But, as the Flyers’ lack of discipline and lackadaisical defensive coverage caught up to them in the second, Mason began to bend and yielded three second-period goals. Two of the three goals were results of a failed clear on a 5-on-3 penalty kill and a complete defensive breakdown, but Vancouver’s third goal was one Mason cannot let in.

Markus Granlund punched his second goal of the game at 10:01 past Mason in tight for the equalizer, making it 3-3, after the Flyers captured a 3-2 lead in an 18-second span of the second period with goals from Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Sean Couturier.

After the game, Mason admitted he was struggling in a lengthy session with reporters. He finished Thursday stopping 20 of 24 shots, and in his last eight games, he’s 0-5-2 with a 3.78 goals-against average and .860 save percentage.

“Not getting the job done,” Mason said. “I totally understand where [Hakstol] is coming from, and I have to work at it to get better. I am just not happy with where the game is at right now. I have to find ways to work through this and to get back to where I can be.

“It’s not mental. I’ve played a lot of hockey. There hasn’t been a lot of time to have practice and actually work on things. When you are playing a lot of hockey, you just kind of keep going and keep going. I think it would be good to get some practice in.”

Second periods haven’t been kind to the Flyers of late. On Tuesday night, they fell apart in Buffalo, allowing three goals before losing, 4-1, to the Sabres. And on Thursday, the second stanza again almost cost the Flyers two points they desperately needed.

Discipline was an issue from the start, as the Flyers spent nearly half of the first period penalized, faced back-to-back double minors and had to kill off two 5-on-3 power plays. Yet, they escaped against the Canucks, allowing just one power-play goal in eight kills.

“That was ugly, wasn’t it? Just one of those games where [you’re] sitting in the penalty box all night,” Brayden Schenn, who scored his NHL-leading 10th power-play goal in the third period, said. “PK did an outstanding job for us. Power play came up with some big goals, and Neuvy came in and shut the door. Probably not the way we wanted to draw it up, but at the end of the day, we got the two points.”

Loose pucks
The Flyers’ power play struck twice in four opportunities, with Schenn’s third-period goal and Travis Konecny’s first-period marker. … Radko Gudas was a healthy scratch Thursday, with Nick Schultz entering the lineup. Schultz was a minus-2 with four blocked shots in 16:12. … Sean Couturier had a goal and an assist playing with Nick Cousins and Jakub Voracek. The line combined for four points, and Couturier led the Flyers with five shots on goal.