Flyers

Fitting final week of 2017 for Flyers

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USA Today Images

Fitting final week of 2017 for Flyers

The Flyers closed out the 2017 calendar year in style.

Well, in the style we’ve all become accustomed to the past 52 weeks, and even beyond.

The Flyers closed 2017 in a fittingly inconsistent and frustrating matter. How? First, an uglier-than-it-looks 3-2 loss Thursday to the host Florida Panthers. But then that was followed up 24 hours later with an impressive 5-3 win over the NHL-best Tampa Bay Lightning that snapped the Bolts’ eight-game home win streak.

Just because there were only two games this week doesn’t mean we don’t have plenty to dissect as 2017 reaches the brink of existence.

Let’s dive right in.

• This week was just so incredibly apropos of what we’ve seen from these Flyers, wasn’t it? We’ve seen this club come out of the gate strong, fall into the dark abyss of a 10-game losing streak, power out of that hole by reeling off six straight and then have its pulse even out with a win here and a loss there.

It’s this Jekyll and Hyde show that seems to have no end for this group. This week was the latest example with the uninspiring loss in South Florida and then the total 180 for an earmarked win over the powerhouse Bolts in their own barn, where they hadn’t lost in almost a month.

This inconsistency with these Flyers isn’t anywhere close to breaking news, but when you look back at these two games this past week, it’s the overwhelming theme. And that overwhelming theme of this week is a microcosm of why the Flyers are where they are, four points behind the New York Islanders for the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference as of Sunday morning.

Atop the list of 2018 resolutions, well, you fill in the blank. It’s the same one that’s been near the top of that list each year for a while now.

• The Flyers’ return from the Christmas break in South Florida was almost doomed from the beginning.

They kicked things off with a bang (not really) by taking three penalties in the first period, taxing their penalty killers and forcing lines to be jumbled. They wound up outshot by a 13-5 margin in that period. Then Brian Elliott wasn’t his sharpest, giving up three goals, including an early softie to Jared McCann, on 27 shots.

Then it was the power play. And, oh, was it ever the power play, and not in a good way. The man advantage was a dismal 0 for 4 with just six shots on net and it continually shot itself in the foot, including allowing a shorthanded goal to Derek McKenzie.

Almost everything that could have gone wrong for the Flyers did, before they turned it on late with two goals turn the heat up a bit, but not nearly enough. The Flyers aren’t good enough right now to continually play catch-up like that against any team in the NHL, no matter if it’s the worst or the best. They can’t just play 10 minutes and expect to win. And that was another hard reality Thursday.

• Lesson learned Friday in Tampa, where the Flyers put forth a complete, sound effort in topping the league-best Bolts, snapping their long home win streak and making a statement in the process.

Yes, the Flyers caught a break as the Lightning started backup goalie Peter Budaj over Andrei Vasilevskiy and yes, the Flyers found themselves in a hole again courtesy of an unstoppable Steven Stamkos power-play laser beam. But from that point on, they controlled the flow of the game and had the Lightning on their heels for the rest of the evening.

A major difference, you ask? The power play that was dreadful the night before laid the groundwork with two quick second-period tallies, one off the stick of Wayne Simmonds, the other off the stick of Shayne Gostisbehere. What else did those tallies do? They gave the Flyers a much-needed jolt of confidence — confidence that not only could they hang on the road with the best team in the league, but also that they could go on the road and take it to the best team in the league.

It was a complete effort that also included goals from Sean Couturier and Brandon Manning and an empty-netter by Valtteri Filppula.

If only that effort could be bottled up and spread out over a full season.

• What else more can be said about Couturier and the complete player he’s evolved into this season? He again displayed his evolution on the offensive end in the two games this week.

On Thursday, he collected goal No. 17 on the season when he got a piece of Gostisbehere’s point drive late in the third. On Friday, he set up Simmonds with a gorgeous backhand saucer pass across the crease before he slammed home a rebound at the end of the second period for goal No. 18.

So what’s changed for Couturier to get him here? It’s not talent. He’s always had that offensive talent dating back to junior. Sure, playing on the top line with guys like Simmonds and Claude Giroux and Jake Voracek also helps.

But he is supremely confident now in the offensive end. There’s no hesitation. But also look at where the majority of his goals have come from this season — in and around the crease. He’s getting into the greasy areas around the net and putting his 6-foot-3, 211-pound frame to work. And it shows.

That's how you become a top center.

• There were only two games last week, so let’s look into the orange and black crystal ball and take a peek at the week coming up. The Flyers are about to embark on a four-game homestand vs. the Pittsburgh Penguins, the New York Islanders, St. Louis Blues and Buffalo Sabres. And that’s before hitting the mandated bye week, which starts Jan. 8.

Yeah, so, needless to say, this is a pivotal week for the Flyers if they are to make some type of push toward the postseason. It will officially be January and the nitty-gritty is approaching if it’s not already here. The Pens and Isles both sit ahead of the Flyers in the standings. The Sabres are the worst team in the East as of Sunday morning and are more-than-beatable. The Blues are a feisty squad out of the Central Division, but the Flyers already shut them out earlier in the season in St. Louis.

Better grab some points now before the bye week passes you by.

Coming up this week: Tuesday vs. Pittsburgh (7 p.m. on NBCSN), Thursday vs. New York Islanders (7 p.m. on NBCSP), Saturday vs. St. Louis (1 p.m. on NBCSP), Sunday vs. Buffalo (1 p.m. on NBCSP).

Michal Neuvirth gives the Flyers hope against Penguins

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AP Images

Michal Neuvirth gives the Flyers hope against Penguins

VOORHEES, N.J. — And now comes the real test.

Watch the Flyers one night and they may look unbeatable. The next night they’ll come out flatter than Kyrie Irving’s view of Earth.  

The Flyers, maddeningly inconsistent at times — OK, most of the time — will need to build off of Friday’s Game 5 win to keep the series alive with a win in Sunday’s Game 6.

It’s now or never for these Flyers.

After steamrolling the Penguins in Game 2 in Pittsburgh, the Flyers returned to home ice with all the momentum in the world. And we all know what happened next. A 5-1 drubbing in Game 3, a loss seemingly dolled out before the horn sounded after the first period.

This time around, though, the orange and black will have a huge upgrade they were dearly missing in Games 3 and 4.

Goalie Michal Neuvirth. Yes, that’s right, the oft-injured Neuvirth is the Flyers’ best and only hope of forcing a Game 7. That’s not a hot take, either. Just check out the numbers.

Neuvirth’s playoff numbers are staggering. His .930 career playoff save percentage and 2.00 goals-against average rank third and fourth, respectively, among active goalies. 

“I just enjoy playing in the playoffs,” Neuvirth said of his ability to ramp up his play in the postseason. “Crowds been unreal in Pittsburgh and at home so it’s just so fun playing in the playoffs. I had success in the past, even in the AHL so I believe in myself that I can bring my A-game on the big stage.”

The fact is, Neuvirth — when healthy — is the only goalie on the Flyers’ roster capable of delivering that brick-wall, game-stealing performance for the team.

Playing his first full game since Feb. 16, Neuvirth stopped 30 of 32 shots in Game 5, including the ones that mattered most. 

The 30-year-old stoned the Pens’ blazing powerplay, as the penalty kill went a perfect 5 for 5. The Pens came into the game 5 for 19 with the man advantage, but the stability of Neuvirth, as well as the return of Sean Couturier, stifled the attack.

“We knew Neuvy was gonna come in and play big for us,” Shayne Gostisbehere said. “He’s a playoff goaltender.”

And he did just that in Game 5. With the extra attacker, Neuvirth robbed Sidney Crosby of a soul-crushing, game-tying goal in the waning seconds of the game to send the series back to Philly.

“He made some huge saves the end of the third period there to able to go across (robbing Crosby)," Giroux said after the 4-2 win. "When he plays cocky, he’s pretty good.”

Of course, that was all just one game. 

But with the Flyers facing elimination, one more game is all the team can ask for. 

Dave Hakstol's unconventional decisions do the trick for Flyers

Dave Hakstol's unconventional decisions do the trick for Flyers

PITTSBURGH — When Dave Hakstol decided to push a few buttons prior to Game 5, the initial reaction was the noise that rings out when a toddler sits down at a piano for the first time.

Valtteri Filppula centering Claude Giroux and Jake Voracek? Dale Weise back in the lineup for the first time in 23 days? Starting a goalie that many feared would pull up with a groin injury midway through the second period? And of course, the only defense pairing that’s remained intact is Brandon Manning with Radko Gudas. 

None of it sounded all that good, but desperate times apparently call for unconventional coaching decisions. Hakstol found a way to string a few notes on a sheet of music, and while he may not be considered the NHL’s Beethoven behind the bench, Friday's game at least left you tapping your foot to the beat.

And somehow it all came together.

Consider: How may teams can cycle through three different goaltenders and three different No. 1 centers five games into a playoff series against the two-time champions and still live to see another day?

Even Claude Giroux, the franchise’s No. 1 center for most of the past decade, was singing Filppula’s praises. 

“He’s a smart player and he’s in great position all the time,” Giroux said. “We did some nice plays. I think it’s probably the first time I’ve played with him. He’s easy to play with. It was fun.”

But ultimately the Flyers needed a showstopper in net. General manager Ron Hextall pointed that out Thursday before the team charter departed for Pittsburgh. 

Brian Elliott had been pulled in two of his four starts in this series, and while it was a mere footnote of a dreadful 5-0 shutout loss in Game 4, the decision to give Michal Neuvirth the nod over Petr Mrazek as Elliott’s backup could very well be the single biggest reason the Wells Fargo Center is hosting a Game 6 Sunday.

“We just felt Neuvy looked sharp in practice,” Hakstol said. “He went in the other night and got some game action. Just talking it through with Kim Dillabaugh, our goaltending coach, he was the right choice.”

Sidney Crosby would agree. The Penguins superstar had scored at will in this series, and the only time he had been denied on the doorstep was the result of some sort of stick malfunction in Game 2 that saw his shot miss the net completely.

But with 50 seconds remaining Neuvirth’s glove was better than Crosby’s stick. He not only saved the game but the Flyers' season as well.

“He made some huge saves the end of the third period there to able to go across (robbing Crosby)," Giroux said. "When he plays cocky, he’s pretty good.”

Neuvirth now has a 3-1 record with a .960 save percentage in five career postseason games with the Flyers.

Giroux also referred to the Flyers' Game 5 win as the team’s best overall game in this series.

Of course, this time of the season it doesn’t have to be a masterpiece, it just has to be good enough that it doesn’t leave your ears bleeding.