Flyers
The Flyers put up a fight in more ways than one, but they’re starting to take more losses than a true contender can handle. (AP Photo/Derik Hamilton)

It’s getting worse before it gets better. The Philadelphia Flyers lose, 5-3, to the Washington Capitals, their fourth loss in the last six. Despite another game where they cleared 30 shots, the Flyers fell behind big in this one and were unable to complete another furious comeback.

The first period started the exact opposite of the first period in Sunday’s contest between the two clubs. Philadelphia dominated the first 15 minutes of that game; Washington controlled the first 10 or so of this one. Brian Elliott made some great saves, including a 10-bell stop on an Alex Ovechkin backdoor look. But what Elliott taketh away from Ovi, he also giveth. The Flyers goaltender played a loose puck off the glass that eluded Ivan Provorov, and Ovechkin stepped into a one-timer for the game’s first goal.

While it wasn’t a pretty 5-on-5 period for the Flyers, at least their power-play picked up from where they left off. After Kevin Hayes hit the crossbar on a cross-ice feed from Sean Couturier, he tapped a Shayne Gostisbehere rebound to a wide-open Travis Konecny. The birthday boy ripped a one-timer of his own from the slot that tied the game 1-1.

It wouldn’t stay that way for long, which is becoming a theme for the 2021 Flyers. Nic Aube-Kubel gave the puck away at his own blue-line, Erik Gustafsson lost track of his man, and Conor Sheary trickled a breakaway shot through Elliott’s 5-hole. It was the pinnacle of a period full of turnovers and failed clears by the Flyers, a throwback to their first ten or so games of the season. And it left the Flyers trailing by one, a deficit that would stand heading into intermission.

The Flyers needed the same type of turning point the Caps received Sunday (a sketchy goalie interference penalty on Konecny seemed to flip the table), and for a while, it seemed like they had it. Andy Andreoff and Garnet Hathaway got into a spontaneous and pretty impressive fight late in the first period. The Flyers took the final four shots of the first period and looked much better to start the second, killing off another Washington PP in the process.

So naturally, their reward for that play was a goal against. With the Capitals moving ahead in what at first looked like a 2-on-2 rush, Ivan Provrov took Jakub Vrana and Shayne Gostisbehere covered the puck-carrying Evgeny Kuznetsov. But no one picked up the trailing John Carlson, lurking in the shadows of poor in-zone coverage. Sure enough, he stepped up to blast a one-timer against the grain, beating Elliott glove-side. Suddenly, instead of a Flyers tying tally seeming somewhat inevitable, the Capitals took a firm grasp of the game.

Philadelphia just never really seemed to find their stride after that strike. The Capitals furthered their lead late in the second on a Nic Dowd power-move bounced in off the skate of the Ghost. It felt like that would be just a footnote in what was sure to be a dominant finish for the red-hot Capitals. The period ending with their 4-1 lead in tact solidified that.

But something crazy happened in the third period; the Flyers fought back. Ok, maybe it’s not that crazy; the Flyers haven’t had many (if any) blowout losses against teams not named the Bruins so far in 2021. Ivan Provorov sniped his second of the year from the left circle less than two minutes into the frame. Scott Laughton went iron and in from the same spot with 9:15 to play. Washington received one penalty for too many men. What should’ve been another is pictured below. But the Flyers couldn’t capitalize on the PP or with Elliott at the bench for the extra attacker. Nic Dowd iced it from long-range in the final minute.

Flyers
Apologies for forgetting to go full screen here, but you clearly see Hathaway’s stick in James van Riemsdyk’s skates. It even caused him to lose the puck and led to a Caps clear. Come on.

Let’s take a deep breath for a second. The Flyers have 32 games left in their season. This time last year, they were fairly deep into the process of becoming an elite team. Two years ago, they were in the middle of an undeserved winning streak that kept them relevant down the stretch. Yet that 2018-19 team was a mess basically from start to finish, and terrible underlying metrics during that admittedly fun stretch kept them from building on the prior’s year success. Here’s a clear example of what I mean:

Flyers

Hilarious, right? Michal Neuvirth is caught way out of his net in a game the Flyers are already losing by two goals to the eventual Central Division champion Nashville Predators. It’s a complete mess. As I wrote that night, “I’m not sure what’s funnier – the image itself or the fact the Predators got 4 goals in this game and this wasn’t one of them.”

Let’s look at another image of a Flyers breakdown:

Flyers

Safe to say this one isn’t much better. The puck is on the opposite side of the ice as Brian Elliott, who looked like he was in quicksand. Neither defender is on their skates and above in the icing line. Only an overpass by Vrana (standing at the right circle) and a desperation shot block by Ghost saved the Flyers the ultimate embarrassment. It’s still a mess regardless.

Two years, two months, one week, and two days separate these two images. A lot has changed in that timespan. And yet somehow not enough has changed as well. For every stride forward the Flyers take, there always seems to be something pulling them back. Add James van Riemsdyk; turn the goal crease into a carousel. Bring in Kevin Hayes, Matt Niskanen, and Justin Braun; lose Oskar Lindblom to cancer and Nolan Patrick to migraine disorder. Emerge as one of the best teams in hockey down the stretch; momentum and home-ice advantage lost by a global pandemic. Win your first playoff series in eight years; Niskanen suddenly retires. Terrible 5-on-5 play finally starts to come around; Carter Hart falls into a massive slump.

Forget making consistent progress; the Flyers haven’t even been able to find their footing on the borderline of the league’s elite for more than two months over the last decade. The Capitals won a Stanley Cup by building a consistent dominant core with strong supporting pieces through an excruciating decade of trial-and-error. If it took them a decade to win the Stanley Cup, how do we expect the Flyers to reach that peak? Can we?

The answer to the latter question is obviously yes. But the former remains at large, with no evident timetable for a solution. For the first time all season, the Flyers have fallen out of a playoff spot by points percentage. They still control their own fate; everybody does right now since they’re only playing teams in their divisions. But as I wrote earlier this season, the East Division is like a high-stakes game of musical chairs. The Flyers, Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Islanders, and Boston Bruins entered this season with Cup aspirations. One of them (at least, but probably just one) won’t even get a shot at achieving those goals. Only one of them didn’t win tonight. Guess who.

The bad news is if the season ended today, the Flyers would not make the playoffs. The good news is it doesn’t end today; it ends May 10, plenty of time for plenty of change. The worst news is I’m not very convinced the Flyers will be able to change that.

I’m too young to remember Gary Thorne’s hockey heyday, but with the NHL returning to ESPN and Doc Emrick retired, I’m very much here for this. Specifically more moments like this, please.

Lindies

Washington’s Lars Eller missed tonight’s game due to family reasons; hope everything is ok there. Peter Laviolette opted to dress 11 forwards and 7 defensemen as a result, but only played 6 of those blue-liners. Jonas Siegenthaler dressed didn’t play a second until after the Dowd empty-netter.

Happy 24th birthday to Travis Konecny! After being healthy scratched earlier in the year, TK looked like a much more complete player, and now his offense is coming back along with that.

Speaking of healthy scratches… Phil Myers. For the second time in two weeks, Myers took in a game from the press box. It’s frustrating to see a player who seemed like a lock to be at least in the top four all year move into (or at least towards) the coach’s doghouse. But it’s not like Myers has been playing great lately. It’s plays like this one on Tuesday that probably have Vigneault upset, and rightfully so. As AV acknowledged, Myers has a lot of potential, but right now his game isn’t where it needs to be.

Besides, you can afford to scratch a player when one of your depth defensive defensemen is playing as well as Justin Braun is right now…

…and when your other depth defensive defensemen is actually playing well, too. In his last nine games, Robert Hagg (yes, that Robert Hagg) has a 57.84% Corsi (11th among D-men, min. 100 5-on-5 minutes) and 52.24% xG at 5-on-5. He’s actually driving play. I don’t know whether to laugh or scream. Probably both.

The Sheary goal marks the 11th time the Flyers have allowed a goal less than two minutes after scoring one. That’s tied with Edmonton for the most in the NHL.

John Carlson became the 10th active NHL defenseman to reach 500 points with his goal. I bet if the Flyers knew if he was going to have this great of a career, they wouldn’t have traded the 1st round pick Washington picked him with for Steve Emminger.

Scott Laughton has been killing the Capitals not just all season, but his entire career. He’s scored 10 goals against Washington in his career; he hasn’t scored more than five against any other team.

He wasn’t the only defenseman to reach an offensive milestone tonight, though. Erik Gustafsson recorded his 100th NHL assist with a secondary helper on the Provorov tally. And staying with the Flyers blue-line, Ivan Provorov snapped a 21-game goalless drought dating back to game two of the season. Good to see him light the lamp again.

I know I said I rarely declare must-win games literally less than a week ago before I decried Tuesday’s contest one. I’m calling Saturday’s rematch the same. With where the Flyers are in the standings, they can’t afford three straight losses to a contender. A Carter Hart bounce-back (I’d assume he starts) is just what the doctor would order for them. Hopefully, it pans out less like tonight’s game and more like a different recent pivotal Caps-Flyers match-up.

3 Stars

3rd: Sean Couturier – Assist (11), 3 Shots, 20:00 TOI

2nd: Alex Ovechkin – Goal (9), 7 Shots

1st: John Carlson – Goal (6), 5 Shots, 21:45 TOI

Next

3/13, 7 PM – WSH vs. PHI

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