Flyers Fan Reaction (FFR4) Gm 61: PHI 1, OTT 3 – Gone
Well, this feels weird. The Philadelphia Flyers lose, 3-1, to the Ottawa Senators. That part is pretty normal, at least for the 2021-22 Flyers. Even a good Flyers team might have lost the second half of a back-to-back on the road against a goaltender having as strong a year as Anton Forsberg (.918 save percentage, 6.4 goals saved above expected at all situations) is.
What is undeniably weird, however, is the person who was missing. Claude Giroux, one of the greatest Flyers of all time, obviously needs no introduction. Nor does the reason why Giroux didn’t return to the place where his NHL career started just over 16 years ago. “Everyone is going to miss that guy,” said Cam Atkinson. There is one more game until the trade deadline, and an already bad Flyers team could look like a shell of themselves after that. Losing Giroux, Philadelphia’s second leading-scorer and emotional leader, is obviously a massive blow. The potential departures of pending UFAs Derick Brassard, Martin Jones, Justin Braun, and Keith Yandle would further deplete the depth of a Flyers team that has struggled in nearly every facet this season.
That’s been especially true over the last month or so. Remember how in late January and for most of February the Flyers were playing legitimately decent hockey at 5-on-5? How their play-driving numbers had stabilized and the team was actually looking competitive nearly every single night? Well, that trend has ground to a halt. Dating back to Feb. 22, the Flyers have out-chanced their opponent at 5-on-5 just twice in eleven games. In five of those games, they’ve generated an expected goals percentage below 36%. Since that aforementioned cut-off date, the Flyers are 29th in the NHL in Corsi and 28th in expected goals percentage. In other words, they’ve regressed back to playing like one of the worst teams in hockey.
It’s easy to understand why the Flyers looked flat on Friday, and to some extent, it’s fair to write this game off. Not only were the Flyers likely physically tired after playing in Philadelphia 24 hours prior, but Giroux’s final game in Orange and Black was also undoubtedly an emotional night for all involved. Especially since the game went down to the wire and required a gritty but taxing comeback effort for the Flyers to win. And if the Flyers have been falling off over the last month or so in terms of their 5-on-5 process, the Senators have been getting better; they rank 10th in the NHL since Feb. 22nd with a 52.04% Corsi, the signs of a similar “better late than never” pushback that manifested last year when they finished the season on a 9-2-1 run.
Ottawa, 29th in the NHL and actually behind the Flyers in the standings entering Saturday, was undoubtedly the better team Saturday. The Flyers actually started the game fairly strong; they were winning their fair share of puck battles and races, and even held a slight edge in expected goals in the opening stanza. But fatigue clearly set in over the final forty minutes, as Ottawa took the Flyers to the cleaners by both a play-driving standpoint and the eye test. Only a strong performance by Martin Jones (likely playing in his final game as a Flyer) and an expert deflection by Atkinson kept the Flyers even through two periods.
But Philadelphia’s struggling penalty kill yielded a blast of a goal to Josh Norris about halfway through the third. And the team just didn’t have enough in the tank to make another serious comeback push. Alex Formenton’s late short-handed empty-net goal felt like less of a consequential marker and more of the punctuation mark of a sentence that had already been written.
There have been many Flyers fans, especially older ones, who have vehemently criticized Claude Giroux over the years. They questioned his leadership abilities, convinced part of the reason why so many players were lackluster during the last decade was Giroux’s inability to make them better, as thought the Flyers captain could simply power them up like Pokémon cards and Giroux was too cheap to shell out on microtransactions. They felt his performances in big games, especially later in his career, weren’t good enough. That the face of the franchise was responsible for everything, good and bad, that happened to the franchise. And since there was certainly more good than bad during Giroux’s Flyers career, especially while he was captain, that meant their thoughts on Giroux had to be more bad than good as well.
As I touched on in my last article, Giroux certainly isn’t blameless for the Flyers’ failures. His performances in the 2018 and 2020 playoffs were definitely underwhelming (he gets a pass for 2016 as he was playing so hurt he needed surgery shortly after the team was eliminated). But bad teams aren’t bad because of their great players. They are bad either because they do not have enough great players or have too many below-replacement level ones; in other words, a lack of star power around the star or a lack of depth.
The Flyers were the rare team whose failures probably fall more in the latter category than they do the former. The 2017-18 team, for example, had the league’s second-leading scorer (Giroux), a top-four assist getter (Jake Voráček), a Selke finalist (Sean Couturier), one defenseman tied for the position lead in goals (Ivan Provorov), and another one who received Norris votes (Shayne Gostisbehere). Yet their first-round loss to the Penguins was hardly a shock. The team didn’t have another undisputable top-four defender and their goaltending was simply not good enough, among other issues. There is only so much Giroux, a left-winger who played about 40% of Philadelphia’s biggest games during his tenure, can do. Just like any other hockey player.
The people who have long been counting down the days until, or at least not dreading Giroux’s departure, finally got their wish. One day, things will probably get better. But it won’t be because Giroux is gone; it will be in spite of it. And as Saturday night confirmed, the beginning of life after Claude Giroux for the Flyers probably won’t be too fun. And it will take a lot of work to change that; even more than what would have been needed to make the Giroux era in Philadelphia as successful as the captain deserved it to be.
Dating back to 2012-13, this is just the sixth game Claude Giroux has missed. He was healthy scratched for a meaningless game 82 in 2015-16 after the Flyers had already clinched their playoff spot. And each of the last two years, he missed two games due to COVID. Giroux’s durability and availability are definitely key traits of his amazing Flyers career.
With Giroux out of the lineup, the Flyers gave Cam Atkinson an “A” on his sweater for Saturday’s game. Unsurprisingly, the team has not yet named a new captain.
Atkinson’s goal was his 12th in 21 career games against Ottawa. Hat tip to Sam Carchidi for recognizing Atkinson’s scoring propensity against the Senators pre-game.
Perhaps the biggest short-term loser of Giroux’s absence is Morgan Frost. After a couple strong games on Giroux’s wing, Frost returned to the middle on Saturday. His line with Oskar Lindblom and Travis Konecny was absolutely torched (22.04% expected goals share, outscored 1-0). And Frost was in the box for Norris’ game-winner.
3rd: Connor Brown (OTT) – 2 Assists (26, 27), 3 Shots, 60% Faceoffs
2nd: Anton Forsberg (OTT) – .966 SV% (28 Saves/29 Shots), 1 GA on 3.09 Expected Goals Against (All Situations)
1st: Josh Norris (OTT) – Goal (25), 3 Shots
PHI: 3/20, 2 PM vs. NYI (25-24-9, W1)
OTT: 3/19, 7 PM @ MTL (16-36-9, OTL1)
All Advanced Stats are 5-on-5 unless otherwise stated and via Natural Stat Trick
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