Flyers
Miles Wood and the Devils outplayed the Flyers for the second straight game and were once again rewarded with a 5-3 victory that officially eliminates the Flyers from 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs contention. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Worst half-birthday present ever. The Philadelphia Flyers lose, 5-3, to the New Jersey Devils. Thirty-five seconds later, the Boston Bruins won 5-2 over the Buffalo Sabres. That combination is the final blow it takes for the dream to die. For the light to go out, fading into darkness. For the last meager trace of hope to die. And for the Philadelphia Flyers to officially miss the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

After a boring game but exciting comeback win Sunday and an exciting game but avoidable loss Tuesday, the Flyers combined the worst qualities of those games in their third of four straight against the Devils. The theme of the first period was obvious: discipline. Or for the Flyers, the lack thereof. Philadelphia lost the penalty margin 3-0, and unsurprisingly, also lost the goal differential. Granted, the penalty kill actually held their own on the first two kills. But a simple shot from Yegor Sharangovich squeezed through Alex Lyon’s left arm, an ugly way to start the scoring. On the third PP, a full-on Flyers breakdown at the blueline, a beautiful pass by Damon Severson, and a much prettier finish by Sharangovich than on the first goal combined to double New Jersey’s lead before intermission’s end. Bad goal + breakdown = 2-0 deficit after twenty minutes.

To their credit, the Jekyll and Hyde Flyers found their game to start the second, registering the period’s first six shots. Joel Farabee added to the energy, responding to Travis Konecny and Connor Carrick punching each other during a scrum by scrapping with the Devils’ defenseman a few minutes later. Then, a miracle happened. With Ivan Provorov in the box for a trip, a linesman-endued failed keep by Ty Smith at the let point led to a Scott Laughton breakaway. Coming into the night, the Detroit Red Wings were the only other team in the NHL without a short-handed goal. Now, they’re the only ones — Laughton out-waited Blackwood and flipped it over his right pad, scoring for the first time in 25 games to cut the lead in half.

And then the Flyers went back into Hyde mode. Jesper Boqvist fired a warning shot right off the right post, and then the Devils broke back in with a purpose seconds later. Boqvist took advantage of the Flyers’ defensive “coverage” and a nice feed from Nick Merkley to restore the Devils’ two-goal edge. It’s the sixteenth time this season the Flyers have given up a goal within two minutes of scoring one.

Flyers
Nice job there, boys.

But the Flyers didn’t let that totally phase them. Just a few minutes later, Sean Couturier made a nice low-to-high pass to Justin Braun. Braun kindly returned the favor with an excellent shot-pass that Coots tipped into the wide-open cage with ease, pulling the Flyers back within one. Despite a late too many men penalty on the Devils, that’s where the score stood after forty.

The second period was basically a dead heat (48.51% Corsi, 50.12% xG for the Flyers at 5-on-5, score and venue adjusted). Philadelphia certainly had a lot of puck possession in the third period but failed to translate that into quality chances. The Flyers were clearly hoping to win a war of attrition, but the danger of that strategy is that one mistake can all but cancel that plan out. And sure enough, in the blink of an eye, Pavel Zacha beat Justin Braun in the neutral zone, then beat Lyon (with the help of Sanheim’s stick) for his third goal in as many games. An absolute dagger. An early goalie pull only led to an early empty-netter from Jesper Bratt than normal, snapping an eight-game goal drought.

At least Travis Konecny scored for the first time in nine games with a PP marker at 18:10? Not like it matters, of course. When the final horn sounded, the final wave of disappointment and heartbreak washed over the Flyers organization and their fanbase like a tsunami. A season that started with high expectations, so much early excitement, a roster expected to be among the game’s best, and a 7-2-1 start has officially ended sooner than anyone ever imagined three short months ago.

This year’s Flyers were supposed to be different, but also some of the same. They were expected to build on last year’s success, but also take the next step forward towards winning their first Stanley Cup since 1975. The youth was expected to continue growing. Chuck Fletcher was expected to buy at the deadline. Almost none of it happened. Even Murphy’s Law thinks the 2020-21 Flyers were unusually unlucky. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t change reality.

Heading into the season, teams were finally starting to fear the Flyers, especially with their strong early record, even if their underlying numbers suggested it was all smoke and mirrors. Then a COVID outbreak hit, and shortly after, everything fell apart. To be clear, the Flyers didn’t miss the playoffs entirely because of the outbreak. But the trickle-down effect it caused cannot be ignored. Not only did it halt the club’s momentum, but it also left them without the vast majority of their forward core for three games (they went 1-1-1). It caused a massively condensed schedule in March: 17 games in 31 days, without a single stretch of consecutive off-days and hardly anytime to practice.

That gauntlet exposed their defense, which failed to find a stabilizing presence alongside Ivan Provorov after Matt Niskanen’s surprise retirement in November. Forward support was often nowhere to be found. Team defense struggled mightily, and (somewhat) as a result, so did the goalies. Philadelphia’s .877 team save percentage is the lowest mark for any club since at least the 2007-08 campaign; no defense is the sole reason for such ineptitude between the pipes. The result? The Flyers didn’t just start losing — they began getting utterly embarrassed on a near-weekly basis.

It all started with a 9-0 beatdown to a Rangers team coached by their AHL head coach, assistant coach (both former Flyers coaches!), and NHL assistant GM. Then they took a 6-1 butt-kicking by the Islanders three days later. An 8-3 loss to the Rangers (and the same coaching staff) followed eight days after the 9-0 thrashing. They ended with March 6-1 loss to end the Sabres’ historically bad losing streak. It was their second 6-1 loss to Buffalo in 2021, and somehow neither of them was their worst defeat to the Sabres this season. They lost their game 6-1 as well. Tuesday’s loss, which ended a similar stink-stretch for the Devils.

And now tonight’s loss, the culmination of them all. In a vacuum, not the worst one, but the last one that matters, which makes it the worst of them all. The culmination of Carter Hart’s regression, the disastrous defense, an offense that dried up to the point of scoring five goals just once in 37 games since their COVID outbreak. They have not won a game by more than one goal in 60 days. It exposed Alain Vigneault’s inability to push any of the right buttons this season after possessing near-flawless decision-making last year. Same for the Flyers’ inability to just be close enough to the playoff picture for Fletcher to add at the deadline. Instead, he sold his only free-agent signing of last offseason and the team’s fourth-longest tenured player. All of it has brought the Flyers to the humbling reality they find themselves wallowing in tonight.

But when they wake up tomorrow morning, the tears have to fade. A lot of work must be done for the Flyers to do what’s important: moving on from this mess. Chuck Fletcher will need to be aggressive in the offseason. Adding a top-pair defenseman on the right-side and upgrading at backup goalie is the bare minimum. More changes may be necessary for the Flyers to break the unshakable funk that has plagued them nearly constantly for the last decade. The club has not made consecutive playoff appearances since a five-year run from 2008-2012. Ever since, they have alternated between making and missing the playoffs, winning just one playoff series during the stretch.

That inconsistency and lack of success have prevented them from making the gradual progress that it takes to win a Stanley Cup. The Flyers will have to fast-track things this offseason, which rarely works. But short of a full-on rebuild, it’s basically their only option. Hart and Travis Sanheim (who’s arbitration-eligible) needing new contracts as RFAs make filling their holes even harder. Losing a player to Seattle complicates things, but could also help the dollars make more sense for bringing in new talent. Excuses simply won’t be tolerated by anyone at this point. It’s time for that “bias for action” Fletcher was brought in for to shine. It did in the 2019 offseason, and the Flyers are banking on an encore this summer.

It’s hard to have faith in that considering how everything they banked on happening this season turned out. But this plan is their only chance of re-establishing the legacy of consistent success this team was once known for, at least in the foreseeable future. That success predates my love for the club, which started seven years ago. It won’t be easy, but they’ll just have to do it anyway. The alternative is even darker than this nightmare season.

There are six games left this season that will serve as the calm before the offseason storm. I don’t know if I’m looking forward to what comes next, to be honest. I’d say it can’t be worse than this season, but Flyers fans have gotten sick of hearing that countless times during the murky period that’s followed the death of franchise founder Ed Snider in 2016. But there’s nothing left to do except to hope that what is now hopeless will not be in the future. So that’s what I’ll be doing until the lights turn back on in October.

Lindies

Not going to devote a full section to it like I did earlier this season for Konecny and Phil Myers, but let’s talk about the Kevin Hayes scratch. I’m not sure what to call it exactly — Alain Vigneault said Hayes isn’t 100% but also hinted that the scratch is at least somewhat performance-related. Look, Hayes hasn’t been near as dynamite as he was last year — no one on this team has. His underlying numbers have actually been better this season, but with no goals in his last 16 games, I can understand the frustration. And if he’s not 100%, then sure, no need to risk further injury this late in the year.

But here’s the problem I have. Tonight was supposed to be Kevin Hayes’ 500th NHL game. He’s played 428 of his first 499 under Vigneault; 310 for the Rangers, 128 for the Flyers. If AV scratched Hayes for performance reasons to delay a pretty significant milestone, that makes my blood boil. It reminds me of some of the bad (if not petty) things Mike Babcock did, like preventing Mike Modano from reaching 1,500 games played (he retired on 1,499 after a late-year healthy scratch) and scratched Jason Spezza in Toronto’s 2019 home-opener. There’s just no need to do this kind of thing, especially in a season that’s already over.

Flyers broadcaster Keith Jones wondered if Vigneault might not have been aware of the pending milestone. Frankly, that’s not an excuse; it’s his job to know things like that. I’m obviously not privy to the specifics of Hayes’ situation, so all of this is just speculation. But I just don’t know why AV couldn’t have left it at “he’s not 100%, so he’s not playing tonight.”

Fun fact: Travis Sanheim (2013-2016) and Egor Zamula (2017-2020) both played for the same junior team, the WHL’s Calgary Hitmen. That’s gotta be up there on the list of coolest junior team names.

Yegor Sharangovich didn’t have so much as a single NHL power-play point before his two PP goals tonight.

Here’s what the Flyers forward lines looked like with Hayes out of the lineup. On defense, Samuel Morin checked in for Robert Hägg.

Claude GirouxSean CouturierJakub Voracek
Joel FarabeeJackson CatesTravis Konecny
James van RiemsdykScott LaughtonWade Allison
Oskar LindblomNolan PatrickCarsen Twarynski

Bad news for anyone hoping for a Cam York call-up (myself included): per NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Jordan Hall, York is day-to-day with a lower-body injury. York did not play during the Lehigh Valley Phantoms’ 2-1 OT loss to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins last night. With a week and a half to go, it’s still possible York gets healthy in time to receive a look in the NHL. But this injury certainly hurts his chances.

Speaking of bad Flyers injury news… like his team’s, Carter Hart’s season is officially over.

3 Stars

3rd: Jesper Boqvist (NJ) – Goal (3)

2nd: Damon Severson (NJ) – 2 Assists (14, 15), 21:30 TOI

1st: Yegor Sharangovich (NJ) – 2 Goals (13, 14), 4 Shots

Next

5/1, 7 PM – NJ vs. PHI

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Advanced Stats via Natural Stat Trick