Dave Hakstol

Still quiet outside top line as Flyers give one away to Jets

Still quiet outside top line as Flyers give one away to Jets

BOX SCORE

WINNIPEG, Manitoba — Now that the Flyers have seemingly rediscovered their scoring touch, they must next find a way to win a game again.

Mark Scheifele provided the game-tying goal with 49 seconds remaining in regulation Thursday after the Flyers had led for nearly 57 minutes before finally losing to the Jets, 3-2, in a shootout (see observations).

The defeat marks the Flyers' first three-game losing streak of the season.

“It’s something that hurts," Jakub Voracek said. "We were up 2-1 with a minute left. That’s a game you have to control and find a way to win. I think in overtime we were better. We had a lot of scoring chances, but again, it hurts."

Scheifele’s goal came after the Jets had pulled goaltender Connor Hellebuyck for the extra attacker. The Jets' No. 1 center worked a nice play with forward Blake Wheeler, as he sneaked his way between four Flyers and snapped a shot over the shoulder of Brian Elliott (see highlights).

“We had some tired coverage, and part of that is we had a couple of forwards that were tired on that coverage play and we had five D that played a lot of minutes through Periods 2 and 3,” head coach Dave Hakstol said. “That’s still no excuse. We don’t want to give that goal up obviously, but we played a pretty good road game tonight.”

Voracek gave the Flyers their initial lead just 2:27 into the game when he jumped on Sean Couturier’s rebound shot and wristed it past Hellebuyck for the 1-0 advantage. Voracek’s fifth of the season snapped the Flyers' scoreless drought at 158 minutes and 36 seconds. Less than three minutes later, Couturier answered with a rebound goal of his own.

“We knew we were going to score today," Voracek said. "It’s kind of a relief that after two games we scored two quick ones. We couldn’t close it. Too bad for us."

“For sure, it helps mentally,” Couturier said of the goals. “At the same time, we were prepared tonight to come out and it was behind us our last two games. We worked on it Wednesday trying to be more in front of the net, more in front of the goalie. I think we did a better job, for sure.”

The problem with the Flyers' goal scoring is how it continues to be pumped out of the same well. The Flyers' top line has been counted on to score the team’s past five tallies with the last goal from someone not named Claude Giroux, Voracek or Couturier coming in a 5-4 loss to the Avalanche on Nov. 4. 

With the return of rookie Nolan Patrick, Hakstol switched up his second and third lines for a second straight game. Patrick was eased back into the Flyers' lineup and played just 7:32 after sitting out the previous nine games with suspected concussion-related symptoms, centering a line with Dale Weise and Wayne Simmonds.

“I thought his game was good,” Hakstol said. “He didn’t play on the power play, but he was limited in his minutes. I thought he was sharp. He was strong on the puck. For not being in the lineup and coming into a pretty heavy game, I thought he played a pretty good hockey game.”

The Flyers were also forced to play shorthanded with five defensemen after Radko Gudas was assessed a five-minute major for slashing Mathieu Perreault in the back of the head while he dropped to his knees on the ice (see video). Initially, referees Jon McIsaac and Gord Dwyer assessed matching minor penalties to Gudas and Perreault but reconvened shortly after the play was shown on the scoreboard and the crowd collectively gasped in horror over the hit.

Not long afterwards, Gudas was given the major/misconduct penalty and ejected from the game. 

“I’ll assume they didn’t look at video,” Hakstol said. “They have a process they go through. If they have something in question, they huddle up and they make their best judgement. I would absolutely assume they did not have video involved."

The Jets converted 3 of 4 shootout attempts with Scheifele, Patrick Laine and Bryan Little beating Elliott, who was superb once again, but it was Laine’s goal Elliott would like to have back.

“He does [that move] every time. I knew he was doing it and he still scored," Elliott said. "That’s on me. If you look at every tape he does, it’s every shootout. He does the same thing and he still put it in. I don’t know what happened. He hit my stick and it went in.” 

The Flyers picked up a point, but giving one back hurts even more. They’re now 2-4-3 in one-goal games, having dropped their last five by the slightest of margins.

Why the Flyers are struggling to score

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USA Today Images

Why the Flyers are struggling to score

WINNIPEG, Manitoba — Ivan Provorov has been playing hockey since the age of six, and he can't ever remember a time when his team went two straight games without scoring a goal.

"Not really, no. All the teams I've played on were very high-scoring teams," Provorov said. "Stuff like this happens. They're good teams and playing the same team two games in a row, the goalie was hot."

Perhaps Provorov's rookie season at times was a blur because the Flyers went through a similar type of drought last season. During a 19-game stretch from Dec. 22 to Feb. 6, the Flyers were also shut out on five different occasions, including back-to-back games, and the offense was so dismal that they scored just four goals over a five-game stretch.

"Yeah, but we didn't play good," Jakub Voracek vividly recalls. "We weren't good enough to win the games. We may have outshot them, but we didn't play good enough last year after that 10-game winning streak to deserve to win more games. You can't compare it to this year. I don't know how it looks from up top in the press box, but I think we're playing better hockey, to be honest."

Last season's goalless streak lasted 134 minutes and 56 seconds. When the Flyers take the ice in Winnipeg tonight, the skid will pick up at 156 minutes and nine seconds.

"I think we're doing a better job of getting more quality shots this year than we are last year, to be honest with you, and quality chances," Voracek said. "We're moving a little better than we did last year. That's why we're creating more [and better] scoring chances."

In their 1-0 loss to the Wild Saturday, the Flyers outshot Minnesota, 32-27, but according to the website NaturalStatTrick.com that tracks shot location, the highest concentration of shots (5-on-5) came from the right point. The Flyers were also able to manufacture some shots from the top of the left circle as well, but not nearly as much in the danger zone between the circles.

The end result made Devan Dubnyk's 32-save shutout at the Wells Fargo Center not too terribly difficult, which is why Dave Hakstol and his players made a more conscious effort to get more traffic, look for more rebounds and second effort chances. Here's the shot map from Tuesday's game at the Xcel Energy Center where the Flyers were able to generate more action in front of the crease with a high volume from the right defense position. 

"I think we did a better job than we did on Saturday," Voracek said. "In the end, it doesn't really matter. Sometimes shots don't tell the whole story. We had so many games last year that we outshot them by 20 shots."

The Flyers generated some excellent chances. Scott Laughton had a couple looks from in tight, while Dale Weise was stuffed on a breakaway.

However, you'll notice one distinct difference between the Flyers' shot chart and that of the Minnesota Wild. The Wild aren't relying as much on shots inside their blue line as they were able to maintain a strong cycle game from their four lines and generate more offense down low, where the Flyers at times are forced to settle on working the puck around the perimeter and up top to their defense.

Credit Dave Hakstol for switching up the lines and inserting Jordan Weal at center where the line of Weise, Weal and Wayne Simmonds generated more possession time and more quality scoring chances. Prior to Tuesday's game, the Flyers' second and third lines with Valtteri Filppula and Jori Lehtera in the middle simply weren't generating a cycle game to create shots in and around the net.

When those two lines are on the ice, there's more emphasis on swinging the puck to the defensemen while hopefully getting a rebound or a deflected goal.

"It's hard to get a rebound if the D has to shoot it through five guys, you know what I mean," Voracek said. "If they box you out, the goalie sees it, if they don't they do a good job of putting three guys in the lane and it's hard for the defense to get some kind of lane." 

Voracek and I both agreed that's what's plagued the Flyers for much of last season, and more recently when they've had trouble scoring this season. While the Flyers would love to activate their defense in the offensive zone, that doesn't necessarily include just sending pucks on net from inside the blue line. 

Lately, it's been the No. 1 line and the fourth line of Taylor Leier, Laughton and Michael Raffl that has created the offensive pressure. The Flyers need more than that or these scoring droughts will continue to linger.

With Jets on tap, Flyers have proven better off without Steve Mason

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USA Today Images

With Jets on tap, Flyers have proven better off without Steve Mason

WINNIPEG, Manitoba — Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth sat side by side in their cramped stalls Wednesday afternoon at Bell MTS Place in Winnipeg and shared a laugh after coming off the ice from their midday practice. 

The two NHL goaltenders have learned about sharing space, especially in net. If the NHL ever had a timeshare presentation, Elliott and Neuvirth could probably sell you on its benefits.

Financially, they’re both making nearly identical salaries, with Elliott at $2.75 million and Neuvirth $2.5 million.

Neither guy came into October expecting to be the No. 1 in net, and if they did, they certainly downplayed it within the media. It’s a ho-hum tandem that just goes about its business, which is quite the contrast from the past four seasons.

With Steve Mason, you knew what was on his mind, almost to a fault. 

He despised the shootout. He talked about facing the pressure, a lot. There was an admission a few years back that he vented to his parents, sometimes swearing, after a bad start or a string of rough outings. He was naturally upset he wasn’t named the starter for the season opener in Los Angeles. There was the disappointment of not having a contract after last season, and then the “clarity” of moving forward after the Flyers re-signed Neuvirth and not him. 

Whereas Ilya Bryzgalov was the organizational migraine, Mason was simply a wave of nausea. Perhaps he came at just the right time following the most disastrous contract ever. 

For a franchise that gets nearly as much grief for its goalies as the Cleveland Browns do with quarterbacks, finding one that is relatively low-key, along with a propensity for stopping the puck, should be high on the Flyers’ list.  

Privately, a few former and current Flyers told me Mason had a way about him that could rub players the wrong way. There was his body language and staredown after giving up a goal. Then on a few occasions he called out his teammates following a lackluster performance. Ironically, last season’s game right here in Winnipeg, a 3-2 loss, was a prime example: 

“It was up to us to make them feel uncomfortable,” Mason said after the March 22 game. “We're also facing a goaltender (Michael Hutchinson) who hadn't had a start in two months, and I don't think we made it hard enough for him. We need a better effort.

“We keep playing like this and we'll be mathematically eliminated before you know it. We've got to stop this win-one-lose-one [habit]. We have to have some growth on the team here.”

While there may have been some truth to Mason’s words, one could argue it wasn’t his place to point fingers. That’s especially the case on a team with a coach who keeps most of his criticisms in a clenched fist.

Not once can you recall Mason’s teammates calling out their netminder following a horrendous game or, say, giving up a goal in a first-round playoff game that slides right through the five-hole from 125 feet away.

However, Mason left Philadelphia ranked third on the franchise’s all-time games played list and wins list. Only NHL Hall of Famer Bernie Parent and Flyers Hall of Famer Ron Hextall had more. 

When Mason returns to Philadelphia, I’m sure the organization will have a video tribute for his four-plus years of service in orange and black. However, let’s face it, Hextall wanted no part of Mason moving forward.  

“I had wanted to go back there (to Philadelphia), but seeing that they wanted to go in a different direction, you take it as what it is,” Mason recently told The Winnipeg Sun. “Come the summer, there were no discussions, so you move on. I’m happy to be in Winnipeg.”

No discussions. No chance to stay at a reduced rate. No more Mason.

With the signing of Elliott, Hextall was able to save money, and so far, the Flyers’ pair of Elliott and Neuvirth has saved its share of pucks. The Flyers are currently tied for sixth in the NHL with a 2.61 goals against per game.

On the flip side, Mason has had to recover from a disastrous start, one that included surrendering five goals in each of his first three starts with the Jets. He has also been outplayed by Connor Hellebuyck. Mason finally earned his first win of the season this past Saturday against the Coyotes.

Goaltending may not be the Flyers’ greatest strength this season, but it’s clearly not a weakness. Perhaps more importantly, it’s a quiet corner in the locker room.