Dave Hakstol's unconventional decisions do the trick for Flyers

Dave Hakstol's unconventional decisions do the trick for Flyers

PITTSBURGH — When Dave Hakstol decided to push a few buttons prior to Game 5, the initial reaction was the noise that rings out when a toddler sits down at a piano for the first time.

Valtteri Filppula centering Claude Giroux and Jake Voracek? Dale Weise back in the lineup for the first time in 23 days? Starting a goalie that many feared would pull up with a groin injury midway through the second period? And of course, the only defense pairing that’s remained intact is Brandon Manning with Radko Gudas. 

None of it sounded all that good, but desperate times apparently call for unconventional coaching decisions. Hakstol found a way to string a few notes on a sheet of music, and while he may not be considered the NHL’s Beethoven behind the bench, Friday's game at least left you tapping your foot to the beat.

And somehow it all came together.

Consider: How may teams can cycle through three different goaltenders and three different No. 1 centers five games into a playoff series against the two-time champions and still live to see another day?

Even Claude Giroux, the franchise’s No. 1 center for most of the past decade, was singing Filppula’s praises. 

“He’s a smart player and he’s in great position all the time,” Giroux said. “We did some nice plays. I think it’s probably the first time I’ve played with him. He’s easy to play with. It was fun.”

But ultimately the Flyers needed a showstopper in net. General manager Ron Hextall pointed that out Thursday before the team charter departed for Pittsburgh. 

Brian Elliott had been pulled in two of his four starts in this series, and while it was a mere footnote of a dreadful 5-0 shutout loss in Game 4, the decision to give Michal Neuvirth the nod over Petr Mrazek as Elliott’s backup could very well be the single biggest reason the Wells Fargo Center is hosting a Game 6 Sunday.

“We just felt Neuvy looked sharp in practice,” Hakstol said. “He went in the other night and got some game action. Just talking it through with Kim Dillabaugh, our goaltending coach, he was the right choice.”

Sidney Crosby would agree. The Penguins superstar had scored at will in this series, and the only time he had been denied on the doorstep was the result of some sort of stick malfunction in Game 2 that saw his shot miss the net completely.

But with 50 seconds remaining Neuvirth’s glove was better than Crosby’s stick. He not only saved the game but the Flyers' season as well.

“He made some huge saves the end of the third period there to able to go across (robbing Crosby)," Giroux said. "When he plays cocky, he’s pretty good.”

Neuvirth now has a 3-1 record with a .960 save percentage in five career postseason games with the Flyers.

Giroux also referred to the Flyers' Game 5 win as the team’s best overall game in this series.

Of course, this time of the season it doesn’t have to be a masterpiece, it just has to be good enough that it doesn’t leave your ears bleeding.

Alex Lyon provides keen insight on Carter Hart's transition to pro hockey

Alex Lyon provides keen insight on Carter Hart's transition to pro hockey

VOORHEES, N.J. — Regardless of his playing status, it’s easy to gravitate to the Yale-educated Alex Lyon with his insightful answers and his introspection on all things hockey. Following his call-up from Lehigh Valley, Lyon provided some keen observations on what he’s seen from goaltending prospect Carter Hart, who struggled in his initiation to pro hockey.

“You’ve got to learn it for yourself, that’s the key,” Lyon said Friday from the Skate Zone in Voorhees. “I don’t try and get in his ear. He’s a great goalie. From my end, the only thing I try to let him know is that it’s going to be hard, and there’s going to be days when you don’t practice or get your gear on, but you have to and you have to make the most of it.

You can’t feel sorry for yourself even when you want to. That’s what I try and let him know. Just prepare right now for the fact that it’s going to be extremely difficult, even if you’re the most highly touted second-rounder or whatever he may be."

Lyon took a different route to pro hockey, spending two years in the USHL in Omaha, Nebraska, before enrolling at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, where he spent three more years. When he signed with the Phantoms, Lyon was 23. Hart, on the other hand, is just three months removed from his 20th birthday and still adjusting to independent living in a city 2,820 miles away from where he came from.  

“It just takes time. I don’t know how else to put it than that. It’s so difficult,” Lyon said. “If you think he was living with somebody who cooked him all his meals and didn’t have to pay rent, didn’t worry about taking out his garbage at night. You come home and your fridge is stocked. All of a sudden your whole world gets turned upside down. He was the most important player in that franchise (Everett Silvertips) for four years, and then everything is totally different.” 

Compounding the myriad of changes is that Hart is now cashing big paychecks in the first year of his entry-level deal that pays him roughly $750,000 bi-weekly over the course of a six-month season after receiving a mere monthly allowance at the junior level.

“You get a pay check every two weeks,” Lyon said. “It’s pretty easy to get high on life when you start making money. I’ve fallen into that trap so many times. I still fall into it.”

But financial matters don’t define greatness, and with that, Hart is forced to prove himself all over again to a group of coaches and teammates who have the same NHL aspirations as he does. 

“You get to professional hockey and he’s just another commoner,” Lyon said. “Obviously, he’s a very good goalie. It’s just so different and it’s easy to look at it in terms of your glove isn't quite as sharp or your squareness isn’t quite as sharp. Maybe his long-distance girlfriend just broke up with him. I don’t know, but that’s what it is and that stuff affects your play. It does. And to think that you can just erase that when you get to the rink is just crazy. I think that’s one thing that gets overlooked is you have to try and adjust to that.

It’s just patience. He’s going to be fine.”

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Between the pipes, Ron Hextall's patience and process being pushed to the brink

Between the pipes, Ron Hextall's patience and process being pushed to the brink

Ron Hextall, a build-from-within ideologist, is having his belief system tested.

In fact, the staunchness behind that belief system has come back to bite the Flyers — and it took only 19 games into the season.

Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth are the Flyers' placeholders. The organization has its plan with young goalies waiting in the wings — one, in particular, by the name of Carter Hart.

But those prospects haven't been deemed ready. And Hextall's vision since taking over as general manager in May 2014 has always been competitiveness in the present with a keen eye on the future. Turns out, the Flyers' fort had to be held down much firmer than the shaky stakes currently in the blue paint.

This season marks the biggest win-now moment in the era under Hextall and Dave Hakstol. The Flyers went out and landed James van Riemsdyk for five years, $35 million. The core, a big chunk of it coming off career seasons, is getting a year older, while the Flyers' youth movement has climbed another peg on the ladder.

During the offseason, though, the Flyers stood pat in net and they're now trying to survive the backfire at the mid-November mark.

Was this a risk they could afford? We'll find out.

But banking on Elliott and Neuvirth looked a heck of a lot more risky than it did safe.

Elliott underwent core muscle surgery in February and had a summer comprised of recovery and a cleanup procedure. He played 43 games in 2017-18 and, as a tandem goalie for most of his career, has played more than 50 games just once, back in 2009-10.

The oft-injured Neuvirth had offseason surgery on his hips after playing just 22 games last season and 28 the year prior. This year, Neuvirth suffered an injury during the preseason, has played one regular-season game and currently isn't practicing with the team.

The situation appears dire.

Even with Elliott out only two weeks approximately after sustaining a lower-body injury Thursday, who's to believe he won't get hurt again? He's 33 years old and was injured trying to go post to post, oftentimes a routine maneuver in net.

So what now?

Calvin Pickard is the guy. He's a goalie from outside the organization but not exactly a savior given he spent almost all of last season in the AHL.

Alex Lyon is the backup. He's played four AHL games this season and has 11 career games of NHL experience under his belt.

This is all part of the Flyers' internal approach — trusting who's next in line. Maybe Lyon or another prospect quickly rewards them.

The Flyers believe in the overall approach. They like their goalie prospects and are willing to be patient, but did the Flyers have enough time to be patient?

Or even the bodies?

Again, this is just 19 games into a season that should mean something.

The Flyers may have to act.

Because Hextall's build-from-within mindset is breaking down in net.

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