Flyers

Fitting final week of 2017 for Flyers

usa-sean-couturier-wayne-simmonds-flyers-lightning.jpg
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).

Claude Julien gets last laugh in return to Boston

ap-canadiens-claude-julien.jpg
AP Images

Claude Julien gets last laugh in return to Boston

BOSTON -- David Pastrnak and Ryan Spooner each scored an early goal, Tuukka Rask stopped 21 shots and the Bruins beat Montreal 4-1 Wednesday night in Canadiens coach Claude Julien's return to Boston.

The surging Bruins have earned at least a point in 14 straight games (10-0-4), their longest stretch since going 15-0-1 in March 2014.

Brad Marchand added a power-play goal in the third period, David Krejci had an empty-netter and Patrice Bergeron had two assists for Boston, which posted its second win over the Canadiens in five days. The teams meet again in Montreal on Saturday night.

Jakub Jerabek scored his first NHL goal for Montreal, and Carey Price made 28 saves.

Julien, who coached Boston's Stanley Cup-winning team in 2011, was fired last Feb. 7 in his 10th season. He was replaced by assistant and current Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy, who opted for more up-tempo, charge-into-the-zone play from his defensemen as opposed to Julien's mostly defensive-minded style.

Rask extended his career-best point streak to 15 games (13-0-2), including a 4-3 shootout win at Montreal last Saturday (see full recap).

Ducks score 4 in 2nd period to beat Penguins
ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Rickard Rakell and Adam Henrique scored 1:35 apart to Anaheim the lead during its four-goal second period, and the Ducks went on to beat the Pittsburgh Penguins 5-3 Wednesday night.

Chris Wagner and Ondrej Kase also scored for Anaheim in the middle period, and Hampus Lindholm added an empty-netter in the final second of the game. John Gibson stopped 30 shots to help the Ducks improve to 7-3-1 in their last 11 games.

Anaheim scored four goals in a period for first time since doing it in the third period at Buffalo last Feb. 9.

Jake Guentzel, Phil Kessel and Evgeni Malkin scored for the Penguins, who snapped a four-game win streak. Tristan Jarry made 28 saves.

With the Ducks trailing 1-0, Rakell tied it on a redirect of a shot by Francois Beauchemin at 4:17 of the second. Henrique then put them ahead at 5:42, beating Jarry with a wraparound while the rookie was caught flatfooted at the opposite post trying to get his stick back.

Wagner scored on a short-handed breakaway to make it 3-1 at 9:24, notching the third special-teams goal of his career, all of which have come this season.

Kase's smooth breakaway backhand with 1:32 left in the period capped off the scoring deluge. Kase, who also had an assist, has five points in his last three games (see full recap).

Where is Dave Hakstol's sixth sense?

Where is Dave Hakstol's sixth sense?

VOORHEES, N.J. — Movie director M. Night Shyamalan may have created the sixth sense, and some of the more successful coaches in the NHL actually possess it. 

No, not the ability to see dead people, but rather, the recognition of assessing in-game situations and taking an immediate and proactive course of action before the team and the game itself begins to unravel.

Predators coach and former Flyers bench boss Peter Laviolette had an uncanny ability to utilize his only timeout at a moment when the team needed desperately to refocus during a stretch of poor hockey. Laviolette may have signaled for one during a lackluster first period or at the first sign of trouble in the third period.

He’d rip the gum out of his mouth and begin the process of chewing out his guys. His face would turn red and his temperature would rise as if it was measured by the red liquid in a thermometer. More often than not, Laviolette’s teams responded swiftly and appropriately to his message. He had an ability to seize the moment when others may not have seen it coming.

It’s a club Hakstol simply doesn’t have in his bag.

Hakstol prefers to hold onto his timeout predictably when the Flyers are down a goal late in the third period to draw up a play on the dry-erase board or to give his players a breather following an icing call. Rarely, if ever, is that timeout taken in an effort to overcome the opposition’s surge of momentum.

Same can be said for Hakstol’s decision to make a goaltending change.

In the Flyers' two most recent lopsided losses, both 5-1 setbacks to the Penguins and Rangers, Hakstol chose to pull Elliott after two periods with the outcomes pretty much decided heading into the third period. 

Regarding the Flyers' loss to New York Tuesday night: "We put [Elliott] in a pretty tough spot," Hakstol said postgame (see story). "Looking back on it, I could make the change after the fourth goal, but I felt like we put him in pretty tough spots tonight with the opportunities that we gave up in the first 30 minutes of the game."

While every coach seems to possess hindsight, not every coach has the appropriate sense of foresight. Goaltending changes can be the result of poor play in net and Elliott wasn’t great Tuesday night, but the decision can also take on a dual-purpose. Give the backup playing time while also attempting to ignite a spark up and down the bench.

Send a message that it’s not the goaltender’s responsibility alone for digging this hole, but since he can’t bench all 18 skaters, bench the goalie as a result of everyone else’s poor play. 

In both losses to the Penguins and Rangers, once Hakstol decided to replace Elliott with Neuvirth, the Flyers were facing a 4-1 and 5-1 deficit, respectively, heading into the third period. The coach would have had better success creating a spark by rubbing two sticks together.

Over the course of an 82-game season, it’s important for a coach to remain consistent with his message. Over the duration of a 60-minute game, that message is tailored around the team’s performance. Moments and situations elicit when a coach should be bold with his words or more reserved.

Judging by his manner and behavior behind the bench, Hakstol’s barometer rarely tilts one way or the other, and the team has seemingly taken on the personality of its coach, especially at times when urgency is required.

“It’s got to be the same this time of year,” Hakstol said when asked about the team’s mindset following a 5-1 loss. “It’s never as bad you think and it’s never as good as you think. Address the issues, be direct about it, fix them and move forward.”

However, the Flyers are now 27th in the league when trailing after the first period and 25th when trailing after two periods. Against the Penguins and Rangers, the Flyers gave themselves no chance at forcing overtime when every single point matters right now, especially against the two teams they’re chasing in the wild-card standings.      

Hakstol can attempt to correct X's and O’s, but at some point, his decision-making and ability to put his finger on the pulse of his team will become an X-factor.