Whatever that proverbial hump looks like, wherever you may find it and however high it stands, the Flyers just can’t seem to get over it this season.
Tuesday’s night’s 5-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins was all the proof you needed as the Flyers had a prime opportunity to pass up their cross-state rival in the wild-card standings, only to watch it come crashing down in a span of two minutes and 17 seconds when the Pens scored three unanswered goals (see observations).
“We know [there are] big points for grabs, especially tonight,” Sean Couturier said. “It was a good chance to make a statement and get back in the standings, but we lost that chance. We still have 40-something games left, so there’s still lots of hockey left.”
Coming off their most impressive win of the season, a 5-3 victory last Friday in Tampa over the NHL’s best team at the midway point, the Flyers reverted back to the team that brings the required effort but can’t seem to pair that with the necessary goals or sound defensive play.
“We can’t have off nights like this,” said Brian Elliott, who was pulled after two periods once he surrendered four goals on 14 shots. “It didn’t seem like we had it tonight for whatever reason. We got caught in the second period there, but not what we want to see tonight.”
On this particular night, the Penguins didn’t even need the All-Star services of Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. Surprisingly, it was the play of their fourth line that made the difference as Tom Kuhnhackl and Ryan Reaves (two goals combined entering the game) both scored in that decisive second period (see highlights).
“Well, they’re a big, heavy line,” Flyers coach Dave Hakstol said. “They’re hard to handle down low, but you have to defend hard on the right side of them with your feet, sticks and at the right time physically.”
One play may have summed up the breakdowns perfectly. The Penguins won a puck battle in their end of the ice and chipped it out to forward Conor Sheary, who broke in all alone for an easy goal after rookie defenseman Robert Hagg was caught up on the wrong side of the ice.
“We just made some consecutive, critical mistakes,” Andrew MacDonald said. “We had some shifts where we made some errors, not just one but multiple, and they ended up in the back of our net. That kind of summed it up.”
It was also the first time this season the Flyers allowed four goals in one period, as the Penguins ripped off all four of those goals in four minutes and 29 seconds to put the game well out of reach.
One team converted its chances and the other simply did not. The Flyers were also the recipients of odd-man rushes, open looks and power-play opportunities, but they came up short. At some point, the process of playing hard-nose hockey has to yield offensive production.
Sometimes the Flyers find the back of the net, but more often than not, they come up empty.
“First period, we had a lot of chances. It just didn’t really go in and we’ve got to find a way for it to go in,” captain Claude Giroux said. “It’s frustrating. We know we can play better. We know we’re a better team than that and we’ll have to answer next game.”
“I don’t think there’s a whole lot we would change in the first 30 minutes,” Hakstol said. “It’s the next two, two and a half minutes that cost us the game.”
If they don’t correct the necessary flaws and mistakes, that hump the Flyers have attempted to repeatedly climb will grow into an unscalable mountain.