Thursday, April 19, 2018

Undermanned and underwhelming, Flyers go quietly in the night

April 18, 2018

Michal Neuvirth #30 of the Philadelphia Flyers greets Brian Elliott #37 as he enters the game after Elliott surrendered 3 goals on 17 shots by the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game Four of the Eastern Conference First Round during the 2018 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Wells Fargo Center on April 18, 2018 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images)

For the Flyers to beat the Pittsburgh Penguins in their first-round playoff series, they needed everything to go right.

Not for everything to go wrong.

They needed Brian Elliott to play as he had in December, or at least how he played before suffering that core muscle injury. Not be taken out prematurely in two of the four games played thus far.

They needed Claude Giroux to carry his Hart Trophy worthy season into the postseason. They needed Wayne Simmonds to relocate the speed, strength and balance that made him such a force last season and at the start of this one. They needed Radko Gudas to cease with his hot potato act every time the puck is on their sticks, as if seeking to avoid blame by pushing it to his partner – often in an impossible to play position.

They needed Sean Couturier, the Selke Trophy finalist who was averaging 24:35 of playing time over the first three games of this series, playing against Pittsburgh’s top lines, on the penalty kill and the power play to… play.

Hurt in a collision with Gudas during Tuesday’s practice, Couturier’s absence sent a team already in search of answers in search of miracles. The Flyers countered Pittsburgh’s holy trinity of centers – Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Derick Brassard  with rookie Nolan Patrick, 34-year-old Valtteri Filppula and Scott Laughton.

With Wednesday’s 5-0 Game 4 victory over the Flyers, the former have combined for nine goals thus far in this series.

Patrick has the lone goal of the latter triumvirate.

In the three games they have lost to the Penguins so far, the Flyers have scored one goal.

One goal.

Which would imply that it’s not just the goalie. Or goalies.

“We lost to a better team,’’ Michal Neuvirth said plainly after replacing Elliott after the score grew to 4-0 in the second period.

Yeah, it hasn’t been much of a fight. And while that’s not earth-shattering news, Patrick’s lone goal among the team’s centers underlines an underreported aspect of this series – and, really, their season.

It’s not the kids who make you grind your teeth watching this team. Patrick, Shayne Gostisbehere, Ivan Provorov, Travis Konecny, even Travis Sanheim of late: You feel generally good when the puck’s on their sticks.

And as ineffectual as Giroux has been in this series – and really Couturier before his injury – that seems to be a byproduct of the abyss in talent between the teams. Giroux and Couturier – and last night Giroux and Patrick – spend too many of their shifts trying to alter momentum, not continue it.

There are spots when they do generate momentum. For nearly 3 ½ minutes of the first period Wednesday night, down by just a goal, the Flyers pinned the Penguins in their own zone, rolling all of their lines in the process. Giroux’s slapshot was stopped by Murray. His tip-in try went wide. Andrew MacDonald’s slapshot was turned away, Provorov wristed one wide, Voracek got off a snap shot from 31 feet and Konecny missed wide with a wrist shot.

Finally, Laughton coughed up a puck in Pittsburgh’s zone. Six seconds later Phil Kessel took a pass from Evgeni Malkin on a 2-on-1 and fired it past Elliott for a deflating second goal.

“We had some good spurts,’’ said Patrick. “And then we’d make a mistake and it would end up in our net.’’

Too much talent. Too much firepower. Too much experience in these kind of games.

The Flyers lineup for Game 4 of their postseason contained three players who spent chunks of their season in the AHL – Matt Read, Oskar Lindblom and Travis Sanheim — and two players, Jordan Weal and Jori Lehtera, who have scored 11 goals between them.

All this could be salvaged perhaps if the one position General Manager Ron Hextall tried to cover with the low-budget signing of Michal Neuvirth amid last season and the equally cost-conscious free-agent signing of Brian Elliott had played out in any way, shape or form the way he professed it would last summer. Two guys sharing the load. Not one guy used in back-to-backs, ridden from the depths of the division to, for a brief time, the top of it, before his 32-year-old body broke down.

If this sounds like an epitaph one game too soon, well, you’re right. The Penguins finished last game the way they had in their two other wins, with all the intensity of a Friday afternoon pickup game – and all the resistance of one too. The few Flyers who showed up in their dressing room afterwards seemed worn down by their previous no-quit proclamations.

And as it ended, as the remaining fans exhausted of their Eagles cheers and Crosby jeers, a chant grew among the few who remained.

“Fire Hakstol,’’ it sounded to some in the press box.

“Fire Hextall,’’ it sounded to others.

Who knows? Maybe the chant contained both.

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