VOORHEES, N.J. — For a team that has coughed up two-goal leads recently like mucusy phlegm during flu season, having Andrew MacDonald back on the ice paired with Ivan Provorov was a welcome sight for the Flyers at practice Sunday before heading out to Pittsburgh to battle the two-time Stanley Cup champion and rival Penguins Monday night.
“It’s great to have Mac back. He’s a great leader,” Provorov said. “He makes a great impact on the team. We understand each other. We read off each other. He’s in great position most of the times and that’s why he’s able to get great blocks and good sticks.”
MacDonald has been skating and practicing for the past week, looking to regain the flexibility and motion with his skating muscles after blocking a slap shot off his leg in the Oct. 21 game against Edmonton. After all, it was just a week ago MacDonald ditched the walking boot.
“It was simply getting some strength back into it,” MacDonald said. “I wasn’t putting any weight on it for a while and you’re losing some muscle in there. At this point, you just have to build it up a little bit and make sure there’s no setbacks.”
At the time of MacDonald’s injury, the Flyers were 5-3 and had given up an average of 2.25 goals per game. In the 15 games MacDonald has missed, the Flyers have an Eastern Conference-worst three wins during that span and have surrendered on average 3.6 goals.
The return of MacDonald certainly gives the Flyers more balance on the blue line, as head coach Dave Hakstol has been forced to rely on three rookies interspersed among his three pairs.
“When you have to shift your D pairings due to an injury, it depends sometimes how you’re making your shift or who you’re shifting for,” Hakstol said. “For us, the last couple of games we’ve had Mac out and [Radko Gudas] out. Two players that are very distinct in their roles. Today, Mac had a heck of a good day and looked good. He’s got a real presence in our dressing room and he also has a real presence for us on the ice, and the domino effect throughout our pairings.”
Along with Provorov, MacDonald will also help solidify the Flyers' top penalty-killing unit, a group that has plunged to 28th in the NHL while surrendering nine power-play goals over the last five games.
Looking for buzz with new bees
Apparently the "Honey Bees" aren’t generating enough honey these days.
After keeping the line of Taylor Leier, Scott Laughton and Michael Raffl intact for the first 19 games of the season, Hakstol has elected to completely dismantle that line, as Laughton centered Jori Lehtera and Dale Weise during Sunday’s practice.
“Those two veterans have been out of the lineup for a couple nights,” Hakstol said. “There’s certain elements that they bring that are a little bit different than what Taylor and Jordan bring. Jori has played good, hard two-way hockey. He brings a heaviness to whatever line he’s on. For me, it’s more of looking for factors like that.”
The move also means Jordan Weal and Leier will serve as the healthy scratches for the Flyers' first game of the season against their cross-state rivals.
“As an offensive guy, the numbers haven’t been there, and when that happens, it’s part of the game,” Weal said. “We need a little secondary scoring in the lineup. There’s no excuses. As an offensive guy, you’ve got to produce offense no matter where you are and what part of the lineup. I wasn’t doing my job and that’s what I was paid and brought here to do.”
“[Weal] wants to help and produce offensively,” Hakstol said. “He’s working hard and he hasn’t changed anything with his work ethic or his tenacity. Things haven’t happened and haven’t gone well for him.”
Interestingly for Leier, he scored his first goal of the season Wednesday against the Islanders.
“I don’t think I’ve changed the way I’ve played,” Leier said. “It’s a long year and we’re on a losing streak right now. I try not to get too high or too low. Sometimes you can tend to overthink during a year like this. There’s always a lot of variables that go into every situation. Sometimes you have to mix it up when there’s a losing streak and everyone wants results, including myself.”
Weise, with one goal in his last 11 games, has been a healthy scratch over the past three contests and Lehtera, still looking for his first goal in a Flyers sweater, has sat out in three of the team's last five games.
“Two big bodies that can get in on the forecheck,” Laughton said of Weise and Lehtera. “We’re definitely building chemistry as practice went on, and I guess talk and see where we’re going to be in the offensive zone and things like that. I think it comes with communication. I’ve played with both of them in a couple of games and it’s just figuring out where everyone likes to be.”
DOA in OT
Following their Black Friday loss to the Islanders, the Flyers have dropped six straight games decided after regulation, four in overtime and two by shootout. It’s the longest such winless streak since March 3-April 4, 2015, when the Flyers lost seven straight after regulation.
Historically, the Flyers have been brutal in shootouts, but more recently, the breakdowns have occurred defensively during the five-minute 3-on-3 session.
“You've got to be communicating a lot and I think that may be one of our downfalls,” Wayne Simmonds said. “Sometimes we don’t talk a lot. We’ve got a lot of younger guys and communication is like having an extra guy out there on the ice sometimes. A lot more communication will do this team really, really good as well.”
“We’ve made mistakes that have led to point-blank opportunities,” Hakstol said. “Those have to change. Those have to be cleaned up immediately."
Over the past few games, Hakstol has also gone away from the trio of Jakub Voracek, Claude Giroux and Shayne Gostisbehere that has been OT gold in previous seasons.
“Are those combinations that we’ll go back to? Absolutely,” Hakstol said. “They were together up until the last two games. There were reasons for that. We’re creating and have created enough opportunities to win games in overtime. We've got to make sure we don’t start pressing to win those games.”
The Flyers are currently tied with the Ottawa Senators with six overtime losses.
Projected lines, pairings and goalies
Claude Giroux-Sean Couturier-Jakub Voracek
Danick Martel-Nolan Patrick-Wayne Simmonds
Michael Raffl-Valtteri Filppula-Travis Konecny
Jori Lehtera-Scott Laughton-Dale Weise
Ivan Provorov-Andrew MacDonald
Shayne Gostisbehere-Robert Hagg
Brandon Manning-Travis Sanheim