Sean Couturier

Rob's Rants —The Flyers might really miss the playoffs

AP Images

Rob's Rants —The Flyers might really miss the playoffs

Question: What’s been worse, the weather in the month of March in the Delaware Valley or the Flyers' play this month?

Tough one, but I’d have to go with the Flyers. At least you can go inside to escape Mother Nature. There’s been no escaping the storm clouds forming of late around the Flyers. They say timing in life is everything and right now time could be running out on the orange and black’s playoff chances. They are 1-6-1 in the month of March. Teams that appeared to have no chance of catching the Flyers in the playoff race are now right on their bumper.

The Flyers had won ten of eleven after beating the Canadiens, 1-0, on Feb. 26. Since then, they’ve lost games in a myriad of ways. Late in games (Boston, Vegas). Poor starts; the Flyers have been outscored in the first period during this stretch, 11-5. The power play has not been good enough. The penalty kill has been a major issue all season. They have not gotten nearly enough secondary scoring.

And players not named Claude Giroux who have been studs all year have not been producing goals. Sean Couturier does a ton for this hockey team. But the way they are built, he needs to put the puck in the net. He‘s gone without a goal in thirteen straight games.  

But more troubling is the pattern of late where they are being outworked. 50-50 battles are being lost. Careless clears, turnovers you may get away with against Montreal, cost you against Vegas.

Head coach Dave Hakstol said this after Thursday’s loss to Columbus: “I thought their team was a little bit more ready to play, and that squarely comes to me.”

Excuse me? More ready to play? This time of year? That’s a stark indictment of both him and his team. Mid-March, game No. 71 of the season at home vs. a team that is right on your heels and they were more ready than your club? His players echoed the same sentiment after the game. Inexcusable. This would be a colossal collapse if they don’t make the postseason. The fans are owed more. 

Columbus has won six straight and is now tied with the Flyers at 81 points. The Florida Panthers, who at 77 points are three out of the final wildcard spot, were 16 points behind the Flyers on Feb. 26. They now trail them by just four points with three games in hand. The Flyers are currently the sixth seed, they have eleven games left — five at home, five are against Metropolitan Division opponents, all but two are against the Eastern Conference. So they very much control their own fate. But if they don’t find a sense of urgency, it will be two straight seasons of tee times in early April.

Flyers need to get up to speed vs. surprising Vegas

USA Today Images

Flyers need to get up to speed vs. surprising Vegas

Of all the headliners that can be found on the Vegas strip, who would have imagined the Golden Knights, in their expansion year, would be right up there with Cirque du Soleil, Inferno and Chris Angel?

They shoot, they score, they entertain, and most impressively, they win. Only Tampa Bay averages more goals per game than Vegas does this season.

Vegas coach Gerard Gallant has performed a miracle that’s one part Herb Brooks, another part David Copperfield.

How can a coach bring together a collection of castoffs from across the league and build not just the best expansion team in league history, but one of the top hockey teams in the entire NHL, all while playing an uptempo, fan-friendly system?

“That’s a good question,” Flyers forward Jakub Voracek said. “They’re just skating very well, all of them. Obviously it’s hard to play against someone that’s skating so well.”

When these two teams played for the first time in Las Vegas in early February, the Flyers found out firsthand as they were outshot 39-18, the most lopsided shot total of any game this season, but were opportunistic in a 4-1 win.

Under Gallant, the Golden Knights have developed into one of the quickest puck-moving teams in the league and are constantly on the attack. Sean Couturier doesn’t believe there’s another team in the league that plays that style as well as Vegas does.

“I don’t think so,” Couturier said. “Not as good as they do. I think a lot of teams try and play like they do — spread the offensive zone, cycle the puck, control the play and get defenders out of position, but they’re really good at it.”

So if it works for the Golden Knights, why couldn’t the Flyers adopt a similar system?

For starters, Vegas general manager George McPhee was able to handpick his entire roster from a list of unprotected players — good players, at that. So if speed, puck control and skating ability were key attributes, then McPhee had the luxury of assembling that type of roster.

“What stands out when you watch them and when you play against them? Their speed presents a real challenge,” said Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol, whose team has 81 points, good for third in the Metro behind Pittsburgh (84) and Washington (83), and three points ahead of New Jersey (78). Washington hosts Winnipeg Monday night.

“You have to be ready to defend that and you have to be ready to counterattack against it.”

Secondly, the Golden Knights possess balance with no real “star power.” For most of this season, every line that Gallant has assembled has had to prove it's worthy of ice time, including the current top line of leading goal-scorer William Karlsson (35 goals) at center and Jonathan Marchessault (22 goals) and recent pickup Tomas Tatar (17 goals), formerly of the Red Wings. That trio has combined 74 goals on the season. The Knights also have 20-goal scorers in Erik Haula (24), James Neal (24) and Riley Smith (22).

“The biggest part of it is to have 23 players here, all kinda misfits who were left unprotected. So when they came with a simple system, it has to be 20 guys every night. You can’t have one line hot and the other three coasting,” said former Flyers forward Pierre Edouard-Bellemare, whom Vegas plucked in the expansion draft last summer. “[Gallant] played the guys who were working the hardest, and that was the indicator for the other guys, it doesn’t matter who your name is.”

Which probably wouldn’t work for Hakstol if Voracek, Couturier or Claude Giroux didn’t exactly bring their best effort every game. Gallant has been dealing from the same deck all season, a “use-it-or-lose-it” philosophy, you could say.

Impressively, it’s the same approach Gallant took with the Summerside Capitals of the Maritime Junior Hockey League back in the mid-1990s.

“The way I coach is the same I coached in junior hockey,” Gallant said. “Come to the rink, have fun, work hard and be competitive. I don’t prepare my team much differently than anyone else does. For me, it’s having fun and having a good attitude and make sure your players are ready to play.”

Proof what happens in Vegas certainly shouldn’t stay there.

4 best guesses at what's wrong with Flyers

4 best guesses at what's wrong with Flyers

How does one explain the Flyers' current five-game winless streak? Here are four ways to evaluate the current 0-4-1 stretch: 

No one said this would be easy
Starting with last week’s road trip to Florida, the degree of difficulty in the Flyers' schedule went from a springboard cannonball to a reverse three-and-a-half somersault in the pike position. Right now, they’re having a tough time nailing the landing. 

The opponents during this current stretch (Lightning, Panthers, Penguins, Bruins, Golden Knights and Jets) have an average of 87.8 points and a winning percentage of .660. Compare that to the teams the Flyers beat during their six-game winning streak (Blue Jackets twice, Canadiens twice, Rangers and Senators): 64.5 points and a .480 winning percentage.

5-on-5 needs to come alive
In the first half of the season, the Flyers were significantly better at even strength than their opponents. Even during the 10-game winless streak, the goal differential during 5-on-5 play was a minus-seven. During this current five-game winless streak, the Flyers are an eye-popping minus-nine at even strength.

If even-strength play isn’t carrying its weight, then you had better hope the power play provides the pick-me-up. Unfortunately for the Flyers, that unit is 2 for 19 during this current slump and 4 for 34 over the last 11 games. It’s a bad time for both to be struggling. 

Is Couturier OK?
I don’t see anything physically wrong with the Flyers' No. 1 center, but I can’t help but wonder if Sean Couturier has hit a wall, at least in offensive production. Not only has his ice time spiked this season — from 18:27 a year ago to 21:35 this season — but Couturier plays a hard game that includes significant penalty-kill time.

At the forward position, only L.A. Kings captain Anze Kopitar has more ice time than Couturier. He’s already logged more minutes this season than he has in the two previous injury-plagued seasons, and Couturier has actually seen his ice time increase significantly in March. Couturier’s averaging 23:52 in the five games he’s played this month after a 28-plus minute effort in Tampa.

“We don’t want to be at that level consistently over a long stretch, but he’s handled them very well up ’til now,” head coach Dave Hakstol said.

The Flyers' leading goal scorer has now gone 10 games without scoring. Previously, his longest stretch was just six games. 

Maybe they're just streaky
There was the 10-game winless streak in November, followed immediately by a six-game winning streak. When the calendar turned to 2018, the Flyers had two separate four-game winning streaks in January. That was followed by another four-game skid, then last month’s six-game winning streak that has now evolved into their current five-game winless streak. Perplexing, to say the least, but for the better part of the past four months, the Flyers are a team that snowballs in one direction or the other.

However, the last game of the aforementioned 10-game winless skid was a loss to the Bruins, and the Flyers then snapped off a winning streak against a pair of Western Conference opponents.

With a 3-2 loss to the Bruins on Thursday, the Flyers can reverse course against a pair of Western Conference opponents: the Jets on Saturday and the Golden Knights on Monday.