Among the 31 players on the Flyers' roster, Matt Niskanen has experienced the most playoff wars and the pressure that hangs over them.
The 33-year-old defenseman has played in 130 career postseason games and counting. He won the 2018 Stanley Cup with the Capitals and his time in D.C. featured an accomplished core of players that had to constantly stare playoff pressure in the eyes. Before 2018, the Capitals created expectations with back-to-back Presidents' Trophy honors from 2015-17 and had never hoisted the Cup in their organization's history.
In the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Flyers are the Eastern Conference's top seed after climbing from No. 4 to No. 1 during the round robin. In the first round, they're coming off an eye-opening 5-0 loss to the Canadiens, who entered the NHL's return-to-play tournament as the lowest overall seed in the 24-team field.
The alarming Game 2 has called for a loud response from the Flyers with the series knotted at 1-1 heading into Sunday's Game 3 (8 p.m. ET/NBC). Niskanen, who has played on various clubs that went through the postseason trenches, was asked why these Flyers are built to respond in the playoffs like they did during their regular-season stretch run.
"We've got guys that are hungry for success," Niskanen said Friday with some conviction in his voice following the loss to Montreal.
"I like our group, we believe in our abilities. ... We had a bit of a blunder today, we’ll learn from it quickly and get excited and get our energy up for the next game. I know we’ll play better."
The Flyers' belief in their ability to quickly respond holds merit. From Jan. 8 to the end of the regular season (which was March 12 because of the coronavirus outbreak), the Flyers went 19-6-1 without consecutive losses. Over that time, in games after their last eight losses (including their 2-0 loss to the Bruins in the regular-season finale), the Flyers are 8-0-0 and have outscored the opposition 40-17.
On Jan. 16, the Flyers stumbled to the Canadiens, 4-1. They followed it up with a 4-1 win over the Kings and 3-0 blanking of the Penguins. On Feb. 6, the Flyers were blown out by the Devils, 5-0, at the Wells Fargo Center. Their very next game, they routed the Capitals, 7-2, on the road.
Turning the page became a staple under head coach Alain Vigneault as the Flyers started climbing the standings. They need that staple early in the playoffs. The Flyers were going to eventually lose a game in the postseason, but the defeat was not expected to be by five goals or a truly one-sided decision this soon through the first round.
"We have [Carter Hart and Brian Elliott] in there, they always help, we've got the right coaching staff and we've got the right leaders on this team that know that we need to respond in a certain way," Kevin Hayes said Friday. "I have all the faith in the world in our leaders and in all of our teammates that we’re going to respond in the right way in Game 3."
Losses of the flavor the Flyers tasted in Game 2 tend to bring at least some changes or tweaks. The statuses of Travis Konecny and Michael Raffl are uncertain for Game 3. Konecny exited late in the third period of Game 2 after blocking a shot with his foot and Raffl has missed the last four games with an undisclosed injury but took part in warmups Friday. Per NHL protocols for the tournament, Vigneault is not permitted to release specifics on any injuries/illnesses. It's not as if he would anyway this time of year. For strategic purposes, the bench boss is not disclosing lineup decisions during the postseason.
But Vigneault and his staff have important adjustments to dissect and discuss, adjustments that could come down the lineup.
"Well, that’s why they pay me the big bucks, you know?" Vigneault said with a laugh Saturday. "At the end of the day, that was our first really tough game in the last 16 or 17. Do you make some minor changes? Do you make some major changes? Do you show faith in the group that brought you to the dance and played extremely well down the stretch? Tune in, you’ll find out tomorrow."
And we'll find out how well the top-seeded Flyers are prepared for an early test of playoff fortitude.
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