Now the pressure really picks up for Dave Hakstol, Flyers

Now the pressure really picks up for Dave Hakstol, Flyers

Dave Hakstol lifted his arm effortlessly with his hand steadily inclining toward the ceiling, almost portraying the takeoff of an airplane.

He was discussing the timeline for young hockey players, which his Flyers have a lot of and will gain only more as the blocks are stacked one by one.

And as the head coach digested a topsy-turvy, season-ending loss, his demonstration depicted what he knew wasn't the case.

"You always want development to be this smooth path and this smooth climb; it doesn't work that way," Hakstol said. "It's kind of a jagged climb, and as long as you're seeing a steady push to improve, then you stick with it and keep pushing in that direction."

The Flyers have been allowed to hit those jagged edges on their climb, like Sunday's 8-5 Game 6 defeat to the Penguins (see story). It was the final swing (and miss) in a best-of-seven first-round playoff matchup with the two-time defending champs, another cut along the grand hike for the Flyers.

But with it came a signal.

This is no longer the bottom of the mountain. The trek has been underway for three seasons and the long view should, expectedly, be coming into focus. In 2018-19, Hakstol will enter the fourth year of a five-year contract, according to CapFriendly.com. The Flyers' core, looking at its peak, will be a year older, as will the foundation pieces, already here and being counted on to drive things forward. 

The Flyers played four rookies in the playoffs, while five of their top eight regular-season goal scorers were 25 years old or younger. 

"For the most part, I liked the growth of our young guys," Hakstol said. "I think they had an opportunity to really see some tough points during the year and figure out how to be a part of battling out of them. They had the opportunity to play through and be part of a playoff push that other teams weren't going away, and we knew that with eight to 10 games to go, we knew that we would have to win our way in. So they had the opportunity to be a part of that and gain that experience of understanding and knowing how hard that is. And they were successful in that."

It resulted in 42 wins and 98 points during the regular season, both highs under Hakstol, surpassing the 41 and 96 set in Year 1. It also led to another first-round exit, the second under Hakstol against a topflight opponent. In those series, the Flyers went 1-5 at home, where they were outscored 26-9.

Harsh yet clear reminders the Flyers aren't where they want to be.

The Penguins, no duh, are. 

"We're working to build toward something like that," Wayne Simmonds said. "I thought we took a step in the right direction this year."

Claude Giroux, the 102-point, 30-year-old captain, sees it, too.

"I know for a fact that we got better as the season went on," Giroux said. "Look at our team last year and look at our team this year. We improved a lot."

While patience is always of the essence with general manager Ron Hextall, Year 4 will demand much more, unlike seasons past. This is Hakstol's team — the blocks are in place, both old and now not so new.

"There's going to be a lot of good and a lot of things that we'll say, 'Hey, these are good steps for our team,'" Hakstol said of this season. "End of the day, we didn't come into this playoff series to make steps, though."

That undoubtedly won't be the objective in 2018-19. It can't be, and the Flyers should know it.

Sean Couturier played through torn MCL in Flyers' final 2 games

Sean Couturier played through torn MCL in Flyers' final 2 games

Sean Couturier's "lower-body" injury was a lot more serious than originally believed.

After the Flyers were eliminated by the Penguins in Game 6 Sunday (see observations), Couturier revealed he had been playing on a torn MCL in his right knee. It will not require surgery, he said.

Couturier missed just one game with the injury. When asked if he'd come back as fast if it were the regular season, the centerman said, "probably not."

"It's usually something like four weeks," he said. "Depends on the situation during the season, [but] probably take more time off."

The Flyers' top center suffered the injury in a collision with teammate Radko Gudas during practice April 17. He missed Game 4 and then returned for Game 5 in Pittsburgh, where he scored the game-winning goal to help the Flyers force Game 6.

On Sunday afternoon, Couturier recorded his second career playoff hat trick — both coming against the Penguins — and had five total points in the Flyers' 8-5 loss.

"That was incredible," Flyers defenseman Andrew MacDonald said. "If you guys only knew what kind of shape those guys were in. I respect the hell out of those guys."

It turns out, we found out exactly what kind of shape Couturier was in, and it certainly was far more serious than we thought.

NBC Sports Philadelphia's Eric Mullin contributed to this story.

Flyers-Penguins Game 6 essentials

Flyers-Penguins Game 6 essentials

Here's everything you need to know Sunday afternoon for Game 6 of the Flyers-Penguins best-of-seven first-round playoff series.

Flyers vs. Penguins (Penguins lead series 3-2)
3 p.m. on NBC; Pregame Live at 2:30 p.m. on NBCSP+ with Postgame Live after final buzzer

Live stream
Live stats
Social media
Series schedule

Projected lineups

Flyers
Forwards
Claude Giroux-Valtteri Filppula-Jakub Voracek
Michael Raffl-Nolan Patrick-Travis Konecny
Scott Laughton-Sean Couturier-Wayne Simmonds
Matt Read-Jori Lehtera-Dale Weise

Defensemen
Ivan Provorov-Shayne Gostisbehere
Robert Hagg-Andrew MacDonald
Brandon Manning-Radko Gudas

Goalies
Michal Neuvirth
Brian Elliott

Scratches: Forwards Oskar Lindblom, Jordan Weal and Taylor Leier; defensemen Travis Sanheim and Johnny Oduya; goalie Petr Mrazek.

Penguins
Forwards
Jake Guentzel-Sidney Crosby-Patric Hornqvist
Carl Hagelin-Evgeni Malkin-Phil Kessel
Conor Sheary-Derick Brassard-Bryan Rust
Zach Aston-Reese-Riley Sheahan-Tom Kuhnhackl

Defensemen
Brian Dumoulin-Kris Letang
Olli Maatta-Justin Schultz
Jamie Oleksiak-Chad Ruhwedel

Goalies
Matt Murray
Casey DeSmith

Scratches: Forwards Dominik Simon, Josh Jooris and Carter Rowney (injured); defenseman Matt Hunwick.

What to watch for …

John Boruk
Keep an eye on: 
Ivan Provorov
The Flyers' minute-munching defenseman was dinged up in the final 90 seconds of the Game 5 win. Provorov's presence is vital if the Flyers want to push the series to a Game 7. He logged 30 minutes in Game 5 and the Flyers needed him on the ice during the final minute when Sidney Crosby nearly tied the game. Provorov hasn’t missed a game in his two-year career, and while I don’t expect him to miss Game 6, watch closely to see if he’s limited in any way.

Bold prediction: Game 6 will be decided in overtime. You have to go back to the 2012 Eastern Conference semifinals against the Devils to find the Flyers' last playoff game decided in overtime — a stretch of 20 straight in the postseason. As poorly as the Flyers have played on home ice in this series, Game 6 will be competitive as Michal Neuvirth will turn in another solid effort to keep the game close.

Tom Dougherty
Keep an eye on:
Flyers on home ice​
The Penguins have outscored the Flyers, 20-4, in eight games at the Wells Fargo Center this season, including the playoffs. No one thought there would be a Game 6, yet here we are. The Flyers extended their season one more game, but how will they fare on home ice? Home ice hasn't treated the Flyers well vs. Pittsburgh; they have to figure it out today.

Bold prediction: The Flyers are so unpredictable. With that said, I don't see this series going back to Pittsburgh. This one will be close; perhaps the Flyers even take the lead. But in the end, the Penguins come out on top, and the Flyers schedule their vacations.

Jordan Hall
Keep an eye on: Michal Neuvirth
Neuvirth is arguably the most important player on the ice for the Flyers. With the lineup employed, the Flyers are trying to muddy things up in an attempt to force the Penguins out of their style. A more physical, low-risk approach keeps the Flyers in it, but to play such a game, you desperately need your goalie to do his part. Neuvirth is 3-1-0 with 133 saves on 137 shots for a 1.01 goals-against average in his last four playoff starts. Can he have sustained success against these Penguins?

Bold prediction: The team that has scored first has won every game of the series. That will change in Game 6 as momentum swings will be felt at a lively, pressure-filled Wells Fargo Center.

Recommended reading
• Flyers' fate lies with Neuvirth ... and that's a good thing

• Hakstol's unconventional decisions keep season alive

• With Giroux's story, heroic Couturier pulls a Pronger