There’s nothing Dave Hakstol, or even a Super Bowl-bound coach, could have done to change the Flyers’ fate.
On a night when the Eagles’ Doug Pederson dropped the ceremonial first puck prior to the game (see story), the Tampa Bay Lightning showed why they’ve owned the NHL during the first half of the season.
The Lightning struck fast and furiously during a three-goal second period to cruise to a 5-1 win over the Flyers Thursday night at the Wells Fargo Center (see observations). The victory was Tampa Bay’s 34th of the season as it also became the first team to reach 70 points this season.
With the All-Star Game convening in Tampa, Florida, this weekend, the Lightning showed why they have the largest contingency chosen to represent the Atlantic Division.
All-Star center Brayden Point opened the scoring just 25 seconds into the second period when the Flyers overloaded their coverage to the far side of the ice and left him alone in front of Michal Neuvirth (see highlights).
“We knew how they play on the road,” Neuvirth said. “They shoot a lot of pucks and they are just playing with the puck and waiting for the big scoring chance, and we had a tough time in front of our net.”
Nine and a half minutes later, winger Yanni Gourde increased the Lightning’s lead to 2-0 when he was left unaccompanied just to the right of Neuvirth as the Flyers had another breakdown in coverage.
“I think we played pretty good, but pretty good doesn’t cut it against teams like that,” defenseman Ivan Provorov said. “A couple of mistakes cost us the game. We fell behind but we were pushing. We scored a goal to make it 3-1, but gave up another one right after, which we cannot do.”
Russian-born Provorov had to admire the play of his fellow countrymen Nikita Kucherov (two assists), Vladislav Namestnikov (two goals) and goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, who showed precisely why he’s been the NHL’s best goaltender in the first half of the season as he denied 36 of the 37 shots he faced.
“He’s big. Even the pucks he doesn’t see he uses his body pretty well to still find a way to stop it,” center Sean Couturier said. “He seems to be athletic. He’s a good goalie. He made some big saves, kept them in the game, and the next thing you know we’re chasing.”
Perhaps most discouraging was to watch the Flyers’ power play cough up another shorthanded goal, its eighth this season. Ryan Callahan wheeled completely around defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere for a goal that essentially put the game out of reach at 3-0 in the final minutes of the second period.
“Whether you’re a fan of us or not, that was a really nice hockey play,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “That was probably the one that took the wind out of their sails. That was a heck of an effort.”
Hakstol expressed concern during the morning skate over how his team appeared mentally and physically exhausted just two nights earlier in Detroit. However, that didn’t appear to be the case against the Lightning, as the Flyers outshot them by a 37-22 margin.
“I thought we deserved a better fate,” Hakstol said. “Second period, we came out of it down 3-0 and that’s a pretty deep, deep hole. In the goals we gave up, there were a couple of individual mistakes and probably somewhere in there we need a save on one of those, at least.”
“Obviously we outshot them quite handily, but their opportunities were prime opportunities, and obviously they’re probably the highest-scoring team in the league,” forward Wayne Simmonds said.
Despite the loss, the Flyers have won eight of 10 to propel them into a wild-card position. Only the Boston Bruins have earned more points in the Eastern Conference during that stretch.
“I think we put ourselves in a good spot,” said Travis Konecny, who now has a four-game goal streak. “It’s tough saying that when you lose a game like this, but I think we’ve done a lot of good things up to this point. I think we can take these last 10 games going into the break as a positive even though we had a little slip-up, but those happen."
“It’s frustrating going into a break like this, but at the same time, we’ve got to look at what we have been doing for a month or so and we’ve got to build on it when we come back,” captain Claude Giroux said.
Since the start of 2018, an interesting trend has also emerged. One the Flyers would like to carry over coming out of the All-Star break:
• 5-1 loss to the Penguins on Jan. 2 followed by four straight wins
• 5-1 loss to the Rangers on Jan. 16 followed by four straight wins
• 5-1 loss to the Lightning on Jan. 25 …
Another four-game winning streak? We’ll see if the pattern continues next Wednesday in Washington.