The Philadelphia Flyers have turned a lot of heads recently. After losing in overtime to the Carolina Hurricanes on Jan. 7, and dropping their fourth game in a row for the third time this season, the Flyers found themselves with a 22-15-6 record. That record had them outside the playoff picture with the number six spot in the Metropolitan Division.
Since then, the Flyers have been on a tear. In the 20 games after Jan. 7, the Flyers have gone 14-5-1. Even more important is that the Flyers are now third in the Metropolitan and right in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race.
The Flyers have shown that they are up to the task against almost any opponent. In fact, they have defeated every Eastern Conference team at least once this season, except for the Tampa Bay Lightning and the New York Islanders.
It is not a huge surprise that the Flyers have failed to beat the Lightning this season. For starters, the teams have only met twice so far. Furthermore, the Lightning are tough to defeat, as they have the second-most points in the NHL.
The bigger surprise is that the Flyers have failed to defeat the Islanders in any of the teams’ three meetings this season.
Historically, the Flyers have had success against the Islanders. There was a period from the 2007-08 season to the 2011-12 season where the Flyers won a remarkable 23 out of 24 games against the Isles. From the point that streak ended to the start of this season, the Flyers amassed a less impressive 16-11-11 record.
So far this season, the Flyers have continued their downward trend versus the Islanders by losing to them in all three contests. What’s even more disappointing is that Philadelphia has managed to do so in just about every way possible.
Flyers’ Results Versus the Islanders This Season
The Flyers’ first meeting of the season with the Islanders was a road matchup on Oct. 27. This was probably the Flyers’ least exciting game of the three. Although they scored first, they conceded the next three goals and never saw a lead again. The result was a 5-3 loss.
In the second matchup on Nov. 16 in Philadelphia, the Flyers seemed like they had the game in control. They jumped out to a 3-0 lead during the first two periods but collapsed in the final frame. The Islanders forced the game to overtime by scoring three goals in the third, including one with just over two minutes left in the game. The Islanders won 4-3 in a shootout.
Finally, in the most recent meeting in Brooklyn on Feb. 11, it appeared the Flyers were going to be the team with the late-game heroics. With the Flyers down by a goal and the net empty, Sean Couturier scored the tying goal with about 90 seconds to go. It seemed the game was destined to overtime until Islanders’ defenseman Ryan Pulock scored less than a minute later. The Islanders added an empty-net goal to win 5-3.
I bring up these painful losses not to anger my readers, but rather to show that the Flyers’ performances against their Metropolitan-Division rival have been unacceptable. Philadelphia needs to step it up against the Islanders and will have one final chance to do so on March 24. First, though, the Flyers must address a few areas of weakness against the Islanders.
The first, and most necessary area of improvement, is Flyer goaltending. Carter Hart was awful in the October game and gave up five goals on 14 shots to record a .643 save percentage (SV%). He was pulled from the game in the second period. Brian Elliott started the next two games and was not much better. He gave up at least three goals in each game and recorded a combined .883 SV%.
The Flyers offense has no trouble scoring goals against the Islanders. In fact, they scored three goals in each of the three games. On most nights, three goals should be enough to win a hockey game. Clearly, the offense has done its part against the Islanders; now the goalies need to do theirs.
The Flyers will need better goaltending in the March 24 game regardless of who is between the pipes. Should Hart get the start, lets hope that he performs a lot closer to his season .909 SV% than he did in October.
Finding the Right Matchups
The next area on which to improve is shutting down the Islanders’ top line. Across the three games against the Flyers, this top line of Mathew Barzal, Anders Lee and Jordan Eberle was responsible for six goals. (Note that in the first game, Josh Bailey filled in for Eberle who was injured.)
The Flyers could have won each of these games had they kept this top line in check. Of course, that is not easy an easy task; the Flyers must be better against them in their next meeting. One way the Flyers can stop this line is by playing their matchups right.
The two Flyers players who suffered the most from poor matchups with the Islanders were Tyler Pitlick and Travis Sanheim.
Both players have a positive plus/minus on the season. Pitlick is fifth on the team with a plus-eight, while Sanheim has a plus-one. Nonetheless, in the three games versus the Islanders, Pitlick recorded a combined minus-four while Sanheim had a combined minus-three. Neither player had a positive plus/minus in any game.
I am not advocating for benching either player against the Islanders. Rather, coach Alain Vigneault should make sure that he is sending out the right places to counter whomever the Islanders have on the ice.
Vigneault should have at least a slightly easier time doing this in the March 24 game, because it will be at home. Per NHL rules, the home team is entitled to the final change before the puck is dropped.
Jakub Voracek Returning to Form
After recording a goal and an assist in the October game, Voracek was held off the score sheet in both of the last two games against the Islanders. To go along with his zero points, Voracek took a combined total of just three shots.
That is uncharacteristic of a player who plays on the top line and currently ranks fourth on the Flyers in points and seventh in shots.
It is also surprising because Voracek has historically played well against the Islanders. Though he was held off the score sheet in two of three games versus the Islanders last year, Voracek recorded at least a point in all four meetings in 2017-18 and in three of four meetings in 2016-17.
Voracek alone is not the reason the Flyers have lost these three games to the Islanders. In order for the Flyers to win on March 24, the whole team will need to play well. Nonetheless, Voracek is an important piece of a puzzle, and defeating the Islanders will be that much harder if he is held off the score sheet again.
The Good News
Enough negativity. The Flyers are a good team and are likely playoff-bound. Furthermore, they are ahead of the Islanders in the standings and after March 24, the Flyers will likely not need to worry about facing the Islanders again.
That is because based on current standings, should both teams qualify for the playoffs, they would not face each other until the Eastern Conference Final. Nothing is impossible in the playoffs, but with strong Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning and Washington Capitals teams, I would not bet on this matchup occurring in the Eastern Conference Final.
Still, there is an important lesson to be told here. In the playoffs, the Flyers will have to face the same team repeatedly. They are going to find out that they have unique weaknesses against that team, and they will need to learn how to adjust. They can get a head start on this by adjusting against the Islanders on March 24.
All stats from Hockey Reference.