FFR2 Round 2, Game 1 - NYI 4, PHI 0: Stranded
I wait eight years to see this team play in the second round and this is what I have to watch?
The Philadelphia Flyers might as well not have shown up in Game 1 of the 2020 Eastern Conference Semifinals; heck, the scoreboard still isn't sure if they did. They lose 4-0 to the New York Islanders, trailing in a series for the first time in a playoff series this year and losing their fifth straight Conference Semifinal game dating back to 2012. Oh, and to pour salt on the wound, the guy who scored the game-winner is the only guy on these Islanders from the Devils team that bested the Flyers on this stage eight years ago.
That guy was no other than 37-year old Andy Greene, who left the Devils for the first time in his career at the trade-deadline, firing a slap-shot through traffic just 6:06 in that Carter Hart could not find until it was too late. It's Greene's first playoff goal since April 7, 2010. I'll give you one guess for which team he scored it against.
I hate everything.
Somehow, Greene's blast was the only Islanders goal of the first period. It really shouldn't have been. New York came out way more aggressive than anyone was expecting, almost emulating Montreal's speed and puck-possession game-plan that worked so well against the Flyers in Round 1. It worked against them just as well in the opening 20 minutes, with the Islanders outshooting Philly 15-4 and out-chancing them 15-4 (with five high-danger chances to the Flyers one). It took a sensational period from Carter Hart, led by a save of the playoffs candidate on Brock Nelson, to somehow keep the Flyers within a goal.
Then again, this was the typical Flyers experience for basically the entire regular season. Struggle in the first and rely on dump-ins early, then gain confidence and controlled entries throughout en route to victory. Carter Hart held up his end of the bargain by keeping the Flyers in it, and his teammates appeared to start chipping in during the second period. My big question entering this series was "could the Flyers flip the switch to their regular season and round robin play," and in that period, they proved the answer was yes. The Flyers generated over 60% of 5-on-5 shot attempts and expected goals in the 2nd, with only an even better period from Seymon Varlamov keeping them off the scoresheet.
So when the puck dropped in the 3rd period, there was legitimate and reasonable hope the Flyers would continue their excellence into the 3rd and break through the Islanders' shell. But any dreams of a comeback took a hard dose of reality less than three minutes into the period. A hard forecheck by Ross Johnston prevented Travis Sanheim from getting to the puck, freeing it up for Leo Komarov. Komarov flipped a saucer pass around Sean Couturier that trickled right into the wheelhouse of another New York deadline pickup, JG Pageau, who punched it over the shoulder of Hart for a huge insurance marker.
Things went from bad to worse a few minutes later. Mat Barzal showed off the incredible pacing and puck control I heavily mentioned in the series preview, feathering a beautiful backdoor pass to captain Anders Lee to all but put the game out of reach. Alain Vigneault pulled Carter Hart with about eight minutes left, a bold decision I actually liked to see, but it was "rewarded" with an empty-netter by Devon Toews just 12 seconds after Hart arrived at the bench.
Most people will look at this game as an overall disappointment, there's no doubt about that. The failure of the big guns to score again and being so heavily outplayed out of the starting gates makes that unavoidable. However, I'm willing to bet there will be a fairly big contingent of fans that see hope in the second period. They'll remember all of the pressure and all of the close calls, and know that Varlamov won't make every save if the Flyers keep doing that over an extended period of time.
I wish I could share their optimism. For many people, the biggest question about the second period is can the Flyers sustain that pressure over 60 minutes. Unfortunately, I think the second period, despite definitely being the Flyers best segment of Game 1, asks a far darker question. Go back and watch the highlights; in fact, watch the whole period if you have NHL.TV (and the time to do it; if you're a college student like me, the answer is probably no).
My darkest fear about that second period is the Flyers played it exactly how the Islanders wanted them too. A majority of Philly's chances came from the outside on point shots, deflections, and rebounds. Sure, there were a couple of times where Flyers players broke into the middle, but most of those shots were among New York's twenty-two blocks. This is what the Islanders have done so well for two years running; lull everyone into a false sense of complacency with endless outside looks that eventually will slip through the goalie, but by the time one does they've already scored three of the counter-attack thanks to their great transition play and relentless forecheck.
Rather than something to build on, that second period may mean the Flyers have to go back to the drawing board. If that's the best period they can manage against the Islanders, even if they replicate it two or three times every game the rest of the series, I think they might not make it to September. The Flyers flipped a switch alright, but I'm not sure it was the right one to counter the Isles's stifling defense. Wednesday afternoon will be a huge measuring stick for the Flyers' chances in this serious, showing either their resilience to adapt and counter the Isles' stinginess or their inability to break through like so many teams before them, and maybe like two others after them.
Nicolas Aube-Kubel returned to the Flyers lineup after missing the last three games with a lower-body injury. NAK started the game at third-line right wing with Giroux and Laughton, but G was quickly moved up to first-line left wing, with Grant moving back up to 3C. The results were actually solid, with the trio leading all Flyers' lines with a 75% 5-on-5 Corsi and finishing second in time-on-ice behind Farabee, Hayes, and Konecny.
However, the returning of NAK meant that JVR came back out of the line-up. I'm going to be blunt: Vigneault's use of the fourth-line is dangerously close to being Hakstolian. Though Nate Thompson and friends actually had their first decent game of the playoffs (he and linemates Raffl and Pitlick were about break even from a quality and quantity standpoint, often playing against the Barzal line nonetheless), they're still a ticking time bomb and have nowhere near the upside of JVR. In a series where the Flyers are going to have a tough time scoring, I don't see the logic in scratching your 5th-leading regular season scorer, even if he's had a rocky playoffs so far.
One decision I was pleasantly surprised by: Vigneault stuck with Gostisbehere on the third pair over Robert Hagg. The Ghost-Braun pair was Philly's best in Game 1; 67.95% Corsi, 64.93% xGF, and they were the only pair not to be the ice for a goal against.
Varlamov's 148:38 shutout streak is the second longest in Islanders playoff history.
You can really see the frustration mounting in Travis Konecny right now. TK looked like he had a sure goal on a 2-on-1 feed from Hayes in the first, but his shot was blocked by the edge of Andy Greene's skate before it could head towards the (mostly) open net. That play was definitely the turning point of the game; the Flyers likely enter the second tied 1-1 if that goes in, and considering their dominance in that period, there's a decent chance they roll to a solid win. Oh well.
Greene's goal made him the second oldest Islander ever to score a playoff goal; 38-year old Ed Westfall holds the record with a goal in the first round of the 1979 playoffs.
An underrated key to the Islanders victory; despite all of the Flyers territorial dominance in the second period, New York stayed out of the box the whole frame. In fact, the Islanders' only penalty was a Mat Barzal high-stick when he caught Derek Grant trying to whack a puck out of mid-air in the final 5 minutes, when game was already settled. New York was only an average disciplined team in the regular season (16th most PIM), so maybe that's something the Flyers can exploit the rest of the series.
1st - Semyon Varlamov (NYI) - Shutout (29 Saves) on 2.33 xGA
2nd - Jean-Gabriel Pageau (NYI) - Goal (5), 51.36% xGF
3rd - Andy Greene (NYI) - Game-Winning Goal (1)
Game 2 - 8/26, 3 PM
*Advanced Stats via Naturalstattrick.com