Ah, yes, goaltending and Philadelphia – a match made in sportswriters and internet commenters heaven.
And in past years and decades and eons when the Flyers have been mired in miserable losing skids, a city and a fanbase have pointed their collective fingers toward the guy wearing the orange sweater in the crease.
But this time, as the egg is still smeared on the face of a team that dropped its 10th consecutive game with a 3-0 loss to the visiting Bruins on Saturday, the fingers are pointing in different directions.
And for good reason as netminder Brian Elliott has given his teammates chances to win night in and night out while he’s started eight of the 10 games in this bowling shoe-ugly streak. Michal Neuvirth only started the 3-1 loss to the San Jose Sharks on Tuesday and the 5-2 loss to the Vancouver Canucks the previous Tuesday. Neuvirth was pulled in the second period of the Vancouver game after allowing four goals on 22 shots as the lifeless Flyers were whitewashed by the Canucks. Elliott came in and stopped all 13 shots faced as the Canucks added an empty-net tally for the cherry on top.
In those nine games played, Elliott is 0-3-5 and has a .906 save percentage. The best numbers in the world? No. But more than enough to give the Flyers a fighting chance.
“It’s about playing the game the right way and playing smart,” said Elliott, now 6-7-6 on the season, after Saturday’s loss to Boston. “It’s getting tiring coming out here and trying to explain a game or two.
“If I had the answer, we’d be turning it around, I guess, right? … I think we’re working really hard. Sometimes I think you’re spinning your tires and nothing gets accomplished – we played a good team [Saturday] with good structure and if you don’t make the smart play, they’re going to turn it around and take it the other way."
During this dark almost month-long stretch, Elliott has been a breath of fresh air in both play and influence.
That’s all obviously more-than welcomed right now on an offensively challenged team that has been outscored by a 37-20 margin during this streak and has been shut out in three of the 10 losses. If we’re looking bigger picture, the Flyers have been shut out a league-leading six times in 26 games.
There hasn’t been much help for Elliott in the meantime, save for that 5-4 OT debacle in Pittsburgh last Monday night, a game in which Elliott made 47 saves on 52 Penguins shots, and a 5-4 OT loss to Calgary two weeks ago. Six of Elliott's starts during this streak have wound up as one-goal losses, including five OT or shootout defeats.
Throughout these 10 games, the Flyers have scored just 13 5-on-5 goals to back up Elliott in his starts.
And that, to the Flyers themselves, is where a major problem lies.
“I think it’s collective, it’s a 5-on-5 game,” defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere said. “It’s more collectively team 5-on-5 play and we’ve got to clean it up in all areas.”
Glaring examples came on all three of the Bruins’ goals in Saturday afternoon.
On the first one, Nolan Patrick’s ill-advised drop pass was picked by Ryan Spooner, who blew past Andrew MacDonald and hung Elliott out on the clothesline with a silky move on a breakaway.
The second Bruins goal was the result of a bad icing, which left tired Flyers on the ice and at the mercy of a well-designed faceoff play that David Pastrnak cashed in on.
The dagger of a third goal was result of yet another bad icing, which again saw tired Flyers out on the ice, and Brad Marchand was left all alone in front. He rarely misses from there.
“What got us in terms of execution on the goals against was that we made mistakes and [the Bruins] took advantage of those mistakes,” Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol said.
“Both [second-period goals] stemmed from icings that we’d like to avoid. They’re different plays from there. One is a faceoff play where we get beat off the wall to a puck in the middle of the rink. And the second one is coverage out of a scrum on the half-wall in our zone. We had four guys in on that pile and we should have three and two on the outside of it.”
Saturday’s goals against are just samples on the smorgasbord of coverage mistakes that have plagued the Flyers all season, but especially since this streak began way back on Nov. 11 with a 1-0 loss at home to the Minnesota Wild.
Cleaning it up in all areas, as Gostisbehere bluntly stated, will certainly help put more victories in the win column of a goaltender who deserves more of them.
But Elliott isn’t the type to make a fuss about that whether to the media or internally in the locker room. He’s been a steadying presence in the toughest of times for a team chock-full of younger players, especially the defensemen who surround and protect his crease on a daily basis.
“It’s just having belief and sticking together,” Elliott said. “It’s not a magical recipe, it’s playing the game the right way. We have the personnel in here to do it. You’ve got to keep going. There’s no give up in this room, that’s what I know for sure.”
While the results haven’t come for Elliott, he’s still providing something to the Flyers right now in the most trying of times: stability, both in and out of the locker room.
And in the most unstable of times, the little things can start to be an agent of change, no matter how big or small.