Flyers-Coyotes Observations: ‘Can’t Win Them All’
It hasn’t been a story you can turn to often this season, but the “hot goalie” equation certainly caught up with the Flyers on Thursday night.
Against the Arizona Coyotes, the Flyers went against the goalie with the league’s best GAA and save percentage in Darcy Kuemper and he only padded those numbers with 28 saves on 29 shots in a 3-1 win that snapped the Flyers five-game losing streak.
It also marked just the second time the Flyers have lost in regulation at home. Winning streaks in the NHL don’t last forever, especially with so much parity in the league. But now the challenge for the Flyers is to not let one loss sink them and put them into a slide after building some solid ground early.
Here are some observations from the Flyers loss to the Coyotes.
Effort vs. Execution
Aside from the power play in the first that allowed Arizona to get on the board early, there was no real momentum from either side. It was a classic tight-checking first period with very few chances for either side. Both teams had just five shots on goal in the first period. The Coyotes had just seven shot attempts at 5-on-5. The Flyers had 16 shot attempts as their possession numbers improved over the course of the period.
As the game wore on, it was clear the Flyers were the better team from a skater’s perspective. For the game, they had a 60.98 CF% at 5-on-5. The Coyotes are a very good team when it comes to defensive play. While the Flyers may have had them on their heels a bit in terms of possession, there wasn’t much ice available inside where you can get quality scoring chances. In total, Arizona blocked 22 shots in the game. For as good as Kuemper was in keeping the Flyers off the board for most of the night, the play in front of him was excellent.
The Flyers were also just a tick off in the offensive zone. For as much as the team tends to pass a little too much in games where goals are hard to come by, this was a game where they actually had a pretty good strategy for Kuemper. They played for rebounds. They tried to create open space in tight. There just wasn’t much space inside and as the game went on, they started to press a little more.
“What I will say about tonight is I think we had a 10 for effort. We worked extremely hard, we had the puck most of the night in their end. And we get a seven for execution,” Alain Vigneault said. “Making the plays. Maybe not getting on the inside, but we got some real good looks where we didn't execute and weren't able to get it on net. The ones that we did, when you look at all the numbers after tonight, we’ll be double in possession double and double the shots and everything. But we couldn't find a way to beat their goaltender. So, I like the way we worked. But execution wise with the puck, we're a little off and a lot of people say they defended well. We had the puck all night. So that's what happened.”
“The first period was kind of even, I think the second we had a lot of almosts,” Jake Voracek said. “I mean can’t win them all. I think the effort was there which is good. Created a lot, we got to win on Saturday, get on another win streak.”
Power Play Struggles
The score in the last few games has certainly been a bit deceiving. On their five-game winning streak, the Flyers had won games by a score of 2-1, 3-2, 6-1 twice and 4-3 in overtime. In the previous three games, the Flyers had scored 16 goals. You would think that at least some of that offense has to do with special teams play.
Following Thursday’s game, where the Flyers were 0-for-3 on the power play, the Flyers are now 7-for-51 (13.7 percent) since Nov. 2, a span of 17 games. It’s an area that has been slightly overshadowed with the Flyers still getting results in games. The penalty kill has been so good this season and the 5-on-5 play has been effective and the team is winning games, so it doesn’t come up as a bigger issue, but it is an issue.
Just look at the Flyers last five regulation losses. In a 5-3 loss to the Islanders on Oct. 27, the Flyers were 0-for-3 on the power play. In a 7-1 loss to the Penguins on Oct. 29, they were 0-for-4. In a 2-1 loss to Ottawa on Nov. 15, they were 0-for-5 on the power play. In a 5-2 loss to Florida on Nov. 19, 0-for-2. And in Thursday’s loss, they were 0-for-3.
The last three games in that grouping are more significant. The first two games of those five were realistically blowout losses where power plays can come at a time when it would probably not change the overall final result of the game. But there were opportunities in each of the last three to change the course of the game. The Flyers either led 1-0 or trailed 2-1 when each power play occurred in the loss to Ottawa, including a late four-minute power play that offered opportunity to tie the game. In Florida, the Flyers got one power play down by a goal late in the first period and down by two with more than enough time remaining in the third. Again, just one goal could change the course of the game. On Thursday, it was very much the same. All three power plays came when the game was still 1-0. Perhaps even just one goal would have been enough to get the Flyers feeling like they were closer to solving Kuemper than a late goal in the third.
Brian Elliott got the start for the Flyers on Thursday, and overall his game was fine. He wasn’t tested near as much, seeing just 17 shots. The first goal by Phil Kessel is one Elliott said he should have stopped. The rebound goal by Conor Garland late is one where Elliott wasn’t going to be able to do much and that was more than enough for the Coyotes on this night.
On the other side, Kuemper was his usual self, making 28 saves and maintaining his league-leading numbers. I point this out because it feels like Kuemper is one of these really solid NHL goalies that no one knows about. Maybe that’s the market he plays in and the overall lack of national exposure that the team gets, but he’s been consistently playing to this level for the last two seasons. This was more than just running into a hot goalie. This was a goalie who has been playing well all season and continued that with Thursday’s game.
Losing to a Good Team
Much like with Kuemper, I think the overall lack of exposure hurts the Coyotes in terms of respect around the league. Sure, this team has been at the bottom of their division for the last several seasons. They have missed the playoffs in seven straight seasons. They finished with just 56 points in 2014-15. They had 70 points in both the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons.
But last season started a turnaround for the team. The Coyotes won 39 games, their highest win total since their last playoff appearance in 2011-12. The win on Thursday night has now vaulted them into first place in the Pacific Division. This is a good team.
So from the Flyers perspective, this is not like a loss to Ottawa or to Dallas or to Calgary. Ottawa is still among the lower teams in the league, though more competitive this season, and handed the Flyers a 2-1 loss that snapped a seven-game points streak. Dallas came into Philadelphia in October with a ton of struggles and snapped out of it with a 4-1 win. Calgary also entered with a lengthy losing streak and rallied for a shootout win. Those are games where you wonder how the Flyers didn’t take advantage, not a hard-fought loss to a top Western Conference team this season.
Give Rick Tocchet and company a lot of credit. The Coyotes don’t really have a lot of star power or national exposure and have been one of the great success stories in the NHL so far. They have certainly earned their place in the standings.
Avoiding a Streak
In years past, the Flyers would go on this roller coaster ride where they would start to pile up some wins, have a streak come to an end and then struggle to get back on track and remain consistent with the results.
This is the Flyers first regulation loss in over two weeks. They have done a good job this season so far of stringing together results to build a margin in the standings. It’s obviously better to be in a playoff position throughout the season instead of constantly chasing. And that’s where the Flyers need to get back on track.
The Flyers are hosting the Ottawa Senators on Saturday afternoon and the message following the first regulation loss in eight games was echoed around the team. There were positives in the way they played on Thursday and they need to stay the course and make improvements where needed.
“Recognize what you did well, adjust a couple of things you need to improve on and get ready for the next one,” Matt Niskanen said. “I don’t think you need to over analyze it just because we lost one. Guys should be confident because we have been playing some pretty good hockey and get ready for Saturday.”
“It wasn’t only in the past I think we have done it a couple times this year as well. When we get a few in a row then we went on a losing streak,” Voracek said. “We got to learn from it and have a great effort on Saturday. If we are going to play the same way we did today, we should be able to find a way to win the game.”
I really like Voracek’s response here, because it doesn’t mask some inconsistency issues that still remain about the team. The Flyers have a 16-8-5 record this season, so the regulation losses have been spaced apart a bit more and there is a constant flow of points. But look at some trends this season that indicate that there is a snowball effect to one loss.
After two wins to start the season, the Flyers ran into a solid goaltending performance and lost in a shootout to Vancouver. That started a four-game losing streak with three regulation losses. The Flyers won three games in a row after that before a frustrating night against the Islanders on the road. They didn’t perform any better against Pittsburgh two nights later.
The Flyers won four games in a row early in November and had points in six straight when they lost a close game in a shootout to Washington. That was the first of four straight losses that included the Flyers last regulation loss.
So now there is this loss to Arizona and the Flyers need a quick response on Saturday to get back on track.
Kevin Durso is Flyers insider for 97.3 ESPN and Flyers editor for SportsTalkPhilly.com. Follow him on Twitter @Kevin_Durso.