Flyers Fan Reaction (FFR4) Gm 31: PHI 2, SJ 3 (OT) – Sandstörmed
(Twenty-twenty)-one point for the road. The Philadelphia Flyers, lose, 3-2, in OT, to the San Jose Sharks, despite the best efforts of Felix Sandström in his NHL debut. The 24-year old Swede set a Flyers franchise record with a jaw-dropping 43 saves in his first NHL start, and the Flyers tied a game in the final six minutes of regulation for the third straight game. The Flyers at least extended their point streak (5-0-2) to seven games. But their win streak (if you can even call it that) was snapped at a modest two.
All things considered, Thursday’s game was about as fitting of a conclusion to the Flyers’ 2021 calendar year as you could draw up. Sub-optimal circumstances, subpar 5-on-5 play, the power-play dropping the ball partly bailed out by a dose of resilience and timely finishing (and in the case of the 2021-22 season, outstanding goaltending) that while avoided total disaster didn’t match what the Flyers were hoping for.
Philadelphia came into this game a tired team, from playing last night (and going into overtime nonetheless) to not arriving at their hotel until 4:30 AM local time. It seems like just about every Flyers game has had some element of fatigue baked into it ever since their 2020-21 season was shut down for two weeks after Super Bowl Sunday due to a COVID outbreak. The insanely condensed schedule the outbreak left behind, highlighted by a 17-game March that never once yielded the Flyers consecutive off-days. It was the stretch that killed their season. Tonight’s game marked the end of the sixth of a whopping fifteen back-to-backs on their 2021-22 schedule. They have been outshot 232-185 in those games. Somehow, they are 2-2-2 in them.
Just as they did in the calendar year of 2021, in which they started 7-2-1 despite surrendering 101 more shots than they took, the Flyers jumped out to an undeserved early lead at SAP Center. An early penalty contributed to the Flyers throwing Sandström to the Sharks early on, giving up the game’s first seven shots. It took nearly eight minutes for the Flyers just to register their first shot on goal. Seven and a half minutes after it, Morgan Frost finished a gorgeous passing play with Oskar Lindblom and Travis Konecny, one of the four new line combinations Mike Yeo put together for Thursday.
The Flyers even took that 1-0 lead into the first intermission. But much like when the 2020-21 Flyers team that was 8-3-2 when their aforementioned COVID outbreak hit, the team knew they had to improve their performance quickly or their success would dissipate. Sure enough, a decent first period that saw the Flyers win the expected goals battle (53.69%) faded into yet another horrible second period. Philadelphia surrendered their 39th and 40th middle frame goals — T-3rd worst in the league — in just two minutes flat.
To be fair to Keith Yandle, San Jose’s clearing attempt off the draw did take a strange bounce off the glass; it’s easy to understand how he lost track of the puck for a costly split second. But not was Yandle slow to attack, he made a poor decision to attempt to play the puck, rather than contain Logan Couture, who eluded his reach and beat Sandström on the ensuing breakaway. Seconds after the power-play ended, Brent Burns capitalized off a team-wide defensive breakdown and buried one of the most wide-open looks of his 1,201 game NHL career.
As they did for the last three months of last season and the month or so before their current point streak began, the Flyers looked incredibly lethargic as the game progressed. This was never going to be the game where the Flyers turned around their poor (but slowly improving) 5-on-5 play. But every point is vital when you lose ten straight yet still hope to make the playoffs. The stain of that losing streak is one thing that will certainly linger into the beginning of 2022; not enough time has passed for the Flyers to clean it up. Yet their sluggish start to the third period, not to mention a brutally timid 1:55 5-on-3 power-play that yielded just two shots, both from above the dots, had whatever die-hearts crazy enough to stay up pulling their hair out. Assuming any remains.
And then in the blink of an eye, everything changed. All it took to tie the game was one perfectly placed through pass by Lindblom and an even better placed shot by Joel Farabee, the Flyers’ leading goal scorer of 2021, to beat James Reimer and even the tally. Of course, it took so much more than that for that goal to be meaningful; headlined by Sandström standing on his head with both plenty of saves and some true ten-bellers and a perfect 4/4 effort from the PK. Not to mention the entire sequence started with a textbook stick check from Yandle that started the counter-attack. All casual fans will remember 2021 as is another year of the same old Flyers. That is probably how this year ultimately should go down. But like on Farabee’s goal Thursday, there is so much more that goes into it.
Earning a point on the second half of a back-to-back is never something to scoff at; especially in a different time zone against a Sharks team (like Philadelphia) just one point out of a playoff spot. But the Flyers ultimately got what their performance deserved. A yawn of an overtime kicked into high-gear just a bit two quickly for the Flyers to catch up, as Cam Atkinson couldn’t quite knock the puck away from the Sharks at the red-line to send the Flyers away, with Tomáš Hertl scoring on the enusing 2-on-1 with less than thirty seconds remaining in overtime. It was just like the effort they displayed in early April to try to hang in the playoff race. The same one they showed early this season to try and get the Alain Vigneault era back on track; valiant, yet ultimately not quite enough.
The final Flyers game of 2021 could’ve easily mistaken for a game in March or May or November. It’s a special kind of frustrating. Most teams either generate envy, excitement, or empathy from the rest of the league. The Flyers don’t seem to have any of them. Chuck Fletcher tried to change things with the team’s most active offseason probably since 2007. However, his biggest addition has played just four games. And the overall tone surrounding the team, at least from an outsider’s perspective, is probably Fletcher’s greatest nightmare; the same as it was before. The Flyers have been one of the league’s most confusing teams for years and years; pinballing from good to back and back again at a dizzying speed is their biggest habit. And the first 31 games of this season haven’t been much different.
In theory, not much should change when a new year begins, both in hockey and across the world. But mentally, it is seen by millions of people (or at least pushed to be seen by millions of people by big-company advertisements) as a time to reset and break bad habits. Ultimately, it is the universal time to start becoming the person (or hockey team) you have always wanted to be. It gives the Flyers a concrete opportunity to erase the elements that have plagued them over the last 364 days. It’s a chance to foster the flame that their point streak is providing into something much more sustainable (preferably with Corsi and expected goals ratings over 50% for nerds like me).
That’s not to say switching to 2022 immediately means the Flyers will break the puck out with ease. Or maneuver through the neutral zone. Or even just keep their opponent under 34 shots on goal more often than not (although that last one shouldn’t be that hard to solve; even for the Flyers). But maybe when the puck drops in L.A. on Saturday night, the Flyers can just take the next step to becoming the team they want to be; the team they can still be.
The last time the Flyers were playing this time of year (in the distant past of 2019), I wrote almost the exact same words after the final horn sounded to mark the end of a miserable loss in the same building the Flyers will be playing their first game of 2022 in. Those Flyers looked sluggish, sloppy, and appeared to have lost all of their momentum from a pre-Christmas hot streak. They lost their next three games, then won 19 of their next 26. No team in the NHL was better from January 8, 2020 out. Five months later after a pandemic stopped the world dead in its tracks, the Flyers returned to the ice as dominant as ever. Two weeks later, they won a playoff series for the first time in eight years. At the end of the day, you really just never know.
What the Flyers will remember of 2022 is obviously yet to be determined; that’s what the next 365 days are for. There are so many opposing and supporting forces at work; this 5-0-2 run, ranking 31st in expected goals percentage, the prospect of finding out what this team can do at full strength at some point in the next few months, Claude Giroux’s expiring contract, and the undeniable resilience that is both relied on too often and yet is always welcome to be utilized, just to name a few. Seemingly too many to believe the next year of Flyers hockey will bring too much more of the same old. The status quo may finally be shifting. 2022 should tell us the direction.
It seems like every day it gets harder to tell where the Flyers’ bad luck ends and where the errors they have agency in begins. The latest example: the Flyers placed Sean Couturier on IR, ruling him out week-to-week with an upper-body injury. Couturier simply hasn’t been his usual dominant self this season, especially leading up to the Christmas break; Couturier had just three points in nine December contests. And his underlying numbers for the whole season are closer to average than amazing; that’s even accounting for the Flyers’ team-wide play-driving struggles.
Before the break, Fletcher admitted Couturier has been playing hurt during that stretch; “Sean’s been battling with various upper-and-lower body issues all year,” he told the Flyers media. It explains at least a good chunk of his fairly underwhelming season. The Flyers and Couturier clearly feel it’s better to get Couturier back (or at least closer to 100%) rather than trotting out his (still effective) C-level performance 19-25 minutes a night. Just as I wrote last night, the Flyers don’t have enough time or points banked to wait for full health (which isn’t a guarantee). Couturier’s injury amplifies that message.
There’s a reason I specifically mentioned 34 shots against as a barometer of interest for the Flyers. In 19 of their last 23 games, the Flyers have allowed at least that many shots. It’s even happened more often (4 games) than not (3) during their seven-game point streak. Since Yeo took over on Dec. 8, the Flyers are tied with his old team the Wild for the second-most shots allowed per game at 35.4. Even without Ryan Ellis and Couturier, the Flyers have to be better in that regard.
It brings back Phillies related trauma (don’t even get me started about their 2021) to see a team take the most convoluted path to a mediocre outcome. That’s what the Flyers have done with short-handed goals so far this season. The Flyers are tied for 3rd in the NHL in short-handed goals for. They’re also tied for 2nd in the NHL for most short-handed goals allowed. They have five of each. Go figure.
Hertl’s OT goal preserved two things for San Jose; an eight-game point streak for Hertl, and an undefeated record in 3-on-3 (4-0) for the Sharks. Like many, I’m surprised to see them near a playoff spot approaching 2022 after having the fourth worst combined record in 2019-20 and 2020-21. Props to veteran players like Timo Meier and Erik Karlsson for righting the ship. And don’t sleep on Reimer, who’s tied for sixth in the NHL with a .928 save percentage (min. 10 games played). He wasn’t very busy tonight but played a solid game overall.
The only sad thing about Sandström debuting Thursday is that Martin Jones didn’t play in his return to SAP Center. Jones’ time in San Jose didn’t end well; he recorded a below-average .896 save percentage in each of his last three seasons in San Jose. But anybody, especially Sharks fans, would be remiss if they didn’t remember Jones’ first three years with the team; especially his first season, when Jones took the Sharks to the 2016 Stanley Cup Final, posting a career-high .918 save percentage in the regular season and a .923 mark in 24 playoff games.
The next two seasons he recorded .935 (6 games) and .928 (10 games) playoff save percentages next two years. His decline was both a reason for and a symbol of the Sharks’ overall decline over the last couple of seasons. It really seemed to complicate his legacy in San Jose. The fact he backed up the LA Kings in their 2014 Cup run, which included a reverse sweep of the Sharks in Round 1, probably doesn’t help either; especially with how close Jones came to leading the Sharks to their first title. But it was good to hear him applauded nicely during a tribute video at the first TV timeout.
As briefly mentioned earlier, Sandström’s 43 stops are the most ever by a Flyer in his debut; Michel Belhumeur held. the previous record, making 42 saves in a 7-3 loss to the Rangers on Nov. 15, 1972. At the 2015 3rd round pick’s peak prospect hype, his signature attribute was his outstanding athleticism. He did show it off Thursday, most notably on a crucial outstretched left pad stop on Alex Barabonov’s uncontested backhander early in the 3rd. But the 24-year old looked incredibly calm and technically sound from start to finish. Even though the Flyers didn’t win, he should still get the POG Starter Jacket for his incredible effort. Sandström simply couldn’t have played any better.
Finally, just wishing a happy and safe New Year to everyone reading this. Thanks to everyone who checks out these articles; it means a lot to me. Here’s to plenty more Flyers wins for me to write (and you to read) about in 2022 and beyond.
3rd: Felix Sandström (PHI) – .935 SV% (43 Saves/46 Shots), 3 GA on 4.27 Expected Goals Against (All Situations)
2nd: Brent Burns (SJ) – Goal (3), 5 Shots, 3 Blocks, 24:41 TOI
1st: Tomáš Hertl (SJ) – Goal (16), Assist (9), 3 Shots, 21:54 TOI
PHI: 1/1/22(!), 10:30 PM vs. LA (14-12-5, L1)
SJ: 1/2, 1 PM @ PIT (17-8-5, W7)
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All Advanced Stats are 5-on-5 unless otherwise stated and via Natural Stat Trick