Flyers Backcheck: Opportunity Knocks to No Answer

Saturday’s 2-1 loss to the Florida Panthers has become the microcosm of the Flyers of this year and last. It’s one step forward, two steps back. With a golden opportunity to keep pace with, or stay ahead of Metropolitan Division foes, the orange and black wrapped up their sunny road trip with another whiff. And that doesn’t even begin to describe the half of it.

Despite an opportunity to pick up his first win of the season, Steve Mason dropped to 0-4-1 in Saturday's loss to the Florida Panthers.
Despite an opportunity to pick up his first win of the season, Steve Mason dropped to 0-4-1 in Saturday’s loss to the Florida Panthers. (Heather Barry/ THW)

The Game of Firsts

The added emphasis of getting off to a quick start appears to have fallen on deaf ears. For the ninth time in 11 games, the Flyers failed to get on the board first when first-year Florida captain Willie Mitchell was credited for his first goal as a Panther. Mitchell’s opening score was deflected past Steve Mason, who was making his first appearance since Oct. 21st, at the 9:07 mark of the first period.

The Flyers not only yielded the game’s first tally once again, they did so against the NHL’s lowest scoring team. Florida entered Saturday night’s contest with 12 goals in eight games. What felt like a harmless mishap turned into a torrential mountain to climb, as Philadelphia struggled to maintain possession early and often.

“We knew we wanted to have a good start and not give them any life and hope and be all over them right away,” said Flyers defenseman Mark Streit. “We just didn’t execute. For us, it’s always the same thing. It’s about skating, moving and we just didn’t skate enough.

“They played well. We have to give them credit, but that doesn’t mean we played a good game. We didn’t play well. We didn’t play good enough.”

Mason, who turned away 28 of 30 shots, was out-dueled by Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo, who finished his winning effort with 36 saves of his own. And although Mason played well enough to win, he is now winless in his first five starts (0-4-1).

But while the makeshift defense that’s received an abundance of the blame for the team’s wrong doings haven’t come close to being let off the hook, they were hardly the reason the orange and black dropped this winnable game in Sunrise. Not when the power play goes 0-for-6 against Florida, and 1-for-19 dating back to Oct. 21st.

“We’re getting opportunities, we’re just not scoring,” said forward Wayne Simmonds. “We’ll go back, look at video, look at what we can improve and go from there.”

As the power play continued to sputter, the Panthers forced the Flyers to play their style of hockey. Through two periods, the Cats outshot the Flyers by a 21-19 margin. The low-scoring tilt has been Florida’s identity through their first nine games of the season. In fact, eight of their nine games have been decided by one goal. The lone exception was their 5-1 loss to the New Jersey Devils on Oct. 11th.

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In the third period, though, Aaron Ekblad extended the lead to two, scoring his first NHL goal on the power play. Ekblad’s blast from the point proved to be the game-winner as Luongo stifled the Flyers until the final 10 seconds of play.

Vinny Lecavalier, who extended his point streak to three games, spoiled Luongo’s shutout bid by scoring with 7.6 seconds left in regulation. But even with Mason pulled for the extra attacker with over three minutes to play, it proved to be the only offense Philadelphia could muster up against the stingy Panthers.

Without Sean Bergenheim (above), Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, and Brandon Pirri in the lineup, the Flyers wasted an opportunity for points.
Saturday’s 2-1 victory over the Flyers was captured without Sean Bergenheim (above), Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, and Brandon Pirri in the lineup. (Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports)

Opportunity Left Behind

As everyone should know, the Florida Panthers are certainly not the same inept team they’ve been known to be in the past. GM Dale Tallon’s offseason efforts cannonballed the free agent market, adding names like Mitchell, Jussi Jokinen, Shawn Thornton, and Derek MacKenzie. But even with the improved roster, the Flyers seemed to be entering Sunrise at the most opportune time.

Florida’s weakened lineup was without the services of four key pieces in Sean Bergenheim, Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, and Brandon Pirri.

Tonight the Flyers faced an already-not-very-good Florida Panthers team that was missing four top-nine forwards. They sleepwalked their way through the first period, were largely unimpressive still in the second, and had some chances in the third thanks largely to their spending about half of it on the power play or with an extra attacker. They scored their first goal of the game with eight seconds left, at which point this 2-1 loss was for all intents and purposes over. — Kurt R., Broad Street Hockey

The subtraction of Pirri from the lineup wiped out the scoring threat of a three-game scoring streak. To fill the void, the Panthers rolled out three different skaters who were making their NHL debut. Vincent Trocheck, Rocco Grimaldi, and Colby Robak all played their first games in the league against the Flyers, and played rather well on limited ice time.

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The trio of youngsters combined for four shots and three hits, with Trochek winning 50% of his faceoffs. The memories of their first NHL tilt was preserved due in large part to the effectiveness of Florida’s workhorses in Mitchell and Dmitry Kulikov. The two defensemen both logged over 25 minutes of ice time, while keeping an even plus-minus.

Florida’s defensemen were just as good as Luongo. They’re a big reason why the Panthers’ record is a surprising 4-2-3 and why they’ve allowed an NHL low five 5-on-5 goals in nine games. Their defensemen also scored their only two goals against the Flyers. Willie Mitchell scored on a shot from the point 9:07 into the game for 1-0 lead, then 2014 first overall draft pick Aaron Ekblad scored his first NHL goal 15:38 into the third on a 5-on-4 for a 2-0 lead. “Obviously this is not the Florida of old,” Flyers right wing Wayne Simmonds said. “They’ve got a good, young team. Skilled. Fast. They play the game really fast.” — Randy Miller, nj.com

Whether the Flyers took the Panthers lightly, or just couldn’t get up to play in front of a crowd that was easily south of 10,000, it doesn’t change the fact that they ended their short road trip 0-for-Florida. The wasted opportunity is magnified when looking at the injury-ravaged Columbus Blue Jackets’ five-game losing streak, as well as the Washington Capitals and New York Islanders being losers of three straight respectively.

Despite the blown opportunity in Sunrise, Vinny Lecavalier extended his point streak to three games.
Vinny Lecavalier extended his point streak to three games on Saturday. But does that justify Philadelphia’s latest mixing of lines? (Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports)

Lecavalier and Chemistry

Saturday’s contest in Sunrise marked the return of center Vinny Lecavalier, who last played in mid-October. The former Lightning captain had scored in two straight before suffering his latest injury, leaving opportunity for the second line to develop chemistry in his absence.

With Lecavalier returning to the lineup after a seven-game absence, Flyers coach Craig Berube shuffled three of his line combinations at even strength. Lecavalier centered R.J. Umberger and Simmonds. Brayden Schenn played left wing on a line with Sean Couturier and the offensively scuffling Matt Read. Pierre-Edouard Bellemare returned to the fourth line with Zac Rinaldo and Chris VandeVelde. — Bill Meltzer, Hockey Buzz

Lecavalier’s return not only demoted the younger of the two Schenn’s, but appeared to disrupt the mojo Schenn was gaining skating alongside Wayne Simmonds and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare. The domino effect that Lecavalier’s return caused didn’t just effect Schenn since Schenn wasn’t even centering the second line. And because Lecavalier is limited to playing exclusively down the middle, Bellemare’s positive play was rewarded by a demotion of his own – to the fourth line.

If the Flyers are asking for consistency out of Schenn, who scored the overtime game-winner against the Kings on Thursday, bouncing him from line-to-line doesn’t exactly place him in the most optimal situation to do so. Is it any surprise that Schenn’s three-game point streak was snapped on Saturday? And considering Bellemare’s decline in ice time as a result of being shoved back to the bottom line in favor of Lecavalier, the 15-year veteran is proving to be a liability – and that doesn’t even include his whopping $4.5 million cap hit through the 2017-18 season.

“I think every year, no matter if you had a great year the year before or not so good of a year, I think you start with a clean slate and it’s a new year,” said Lecavalier on Oct. 15th. “I believe in my game and what I can bring to the team. I have confidence in that.”

It’s not necessarily Lecavalier’s game that should concern the Flyers per se. After all, the former Stanley Cup winner did pot 20 goals in what was considered a down year last season. It’s the disruption in chemistry established among his teammates, as well as Jason Akeson’s role being even more reduced.

Credit Lecavalier, however, for extending his point streak to three with his third period goal against the Panthers. And truth be told, no one associated with the Flyers wants to see him struggle. If not for his massive $22.5 million contract, for the fact that he’s a likable player who’s respected throughout the league.

In the meantime, the Flyers will have to find a way to make Lecavalier’s insertion in the lineup work. He’s here to stay. And if the Flyers don’t tighten up and make the proper adjustments, so are the disappointing losses such as this one.