FFR2 Round 2, Game 4: PHI 2, NYI 3 - The End is NYI
How does a team come so close yet end up so far.
The Philadelphia Flyers lose, 3-2, in Game 4 of the 2020 Eastern Conference Semifinals. As a result, the New York Islanders seize a stranglehold on the series, taking a 3-1 series lead. On Tuesday, the Flyers will be facing elimination for the first time in the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
For me, this a much harder loss to cope with than in Game 3. On Saturday, the Flyers were flat out beaten over the final forty minutes after a strong start. The Islanders were clearly the better team overall and deserved to win the game, full stop.
But Game 4 was much closer. In fact, you could argue that Flyers severely outplayed the Islanders. The Flyers posted a strong 62.38% Corsi and 59.63% xGF. They tied or won the shot quantity battle in all three periods and won the shot quality battle in two of them. They outshot the Islanders 38-33. They were even in penalty differential.
Heck, the Flyers even had the motivation edge thanks not only to the series deficit but by seeing Oskar Lindblom dress for the first time since December 7 and take warm-ups with his teammates. Lindblom didn't play in Game 4, and his status for Game 5 is unknown. AV said a few weeks ago his target return was "September," but there's a big gap between September 1 and 30. It always seemed like Round 3 was the projected return date but it looks increasingly like the Flyers will be watching that round from their couches.
Not only did the Flyers outplay the Islanders, the star players who have been so maligned during these playoffs showed up. Travis Konecny and Claude Giroux were two of the best Flyers on the ice. Giroux was tied with Joel Farabee for most shots by a Flyer (5) and Konecny was his usual spunky self, taking coincidental unsportsmanlike penalties with Casey Cizikas in the game's early moments. It was great to see them wake up, and if that momentum continues into Game 5, the Islanders might actually have a reason to watch out.
But even if it does roll over, even if Carter Hart returns to the crease and stands on his head, even if the referees start calling penalties and the Flyers special teams return to February form, even if Alain Vigneault dresses Shayne Gostisbehere and Morgan Frost and Oskar Lindblom, the odds that any of it will matter are slim to none. NHL teams with a 3-1 series lead are 277-29 all-time (.905 winning percentage). In 172 of those series, they've sealed the deal in Game 5 (.562 winning percentage). Playoff teams, especially teams that make the second round, don't lose three games in a row often.
The Flyers just had three too many defensive breakdowns in this game. A nightmare failed clear by expert puck-handling defenseman (psych) Robert Hagg set up Nelson for a prime slot chance that he did not miss. Bad pinches by Matt Niskanen set up a breakaway for JG Pageau and a two-on-one for Nelson and Josh Bailey. Ivan Provorov supplemented his partner's mistakes with a bad step-up on the first play and by somehow letting not one but two cross-crease passes get through. Both shots beat Brian Elliott, starting for Hart because it's the second half of a back-to-back, with Pageau's trickling under him much like New York's first two goals in Game 3.
Offensively, the Flyers did a lot of things right. They moved the puck D-to-D. Their forecheck was much better. The top-six went from liability to lighting it up. The fourth line of Grant, Thompson, and Pitlick posted a PERFECT 100% Corsi (10-0) and xGF (0.19-0.00). Sean Couturier found the puck luck that eluded in the Flyers in Game 1 by deflecting a Justin Braun point shot to tie the game in the second. Instead of a melancholy performance with the goalie pulled, Ivan Provorov scored a 6-on-5 goal with 65 seconds left to pull the Flyers within one.
But that was as close as the Flyers would come. The Islanders also started their backup tonight, but if Elliott was solid, Thomas Greiss was a superstar. Greiss dragged the Islanders to their first Round 2 appearance in 23 years in 2016 (.923 save percentage, 2.13 goals saved above average) and was in that same form all night long. He robbed Voracek in the last minute of the second, preventing him from scoring the same type of goal that Leo Komarov tallied that propelled the Isles to victory on Saturday. He robbed Jake again seconds into the third. He stoned Giroux on a couple of chances. He made some nice saves on shots through traffic. Greiss won the battle of the backups, and he certainly didn't win it cheaply. He has been just as good, if not better, than Varlamov in this series.
So. What now?
I thought that if the Flyers could just win a round this year, I would be satisfied with their success once they eventually faced elimination (almost every team, even usually the Cup winner, faces elimination at some point). Maybe that changed during the nine-game winning streak in the winter. Maybe that changed when they won their way to the one seed. Maybe that changed after seeing them fail to live up to their potential in ten consecutive playoffs, with Carter Hart and the random clutch goal (never from G and TK, but usually from guys like Myers and Beezer) bail them out. Maybe that changed at some point during the freaking global pandemic that is the whole reason I've spent all of August (and will hopefully spend all of September) covering Flyers games!
But at some point, it changed. Don't get me wrong, I'm not short-sighted enough to realize this year is already a success for the Flyers, especially considering where they were a year ago today. On August 31, 2019, the Flyers were coming off an 82-point season, a total regime change, an NHL record most goalies used in a single season, questionable offseason acquisitions, and hoping that Carter Hart was the answer to our prayers. This team is young enough and talented enough that they should be back to this stage plenty of times in the future, potentially better equipped to be in a better situation after four games in the second round.
You just never know, though. We all thought the step forward in 2018 was the real deal towards consistent progress. We all thought the step forward in 2016 was the real deal was consistent progress. We all thought Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Simon Gagne, and Chris Pronger would lead the Flyers on another deep playoff run after 2010. Setbacks are like hiccups in this sport - random and more frequent than you'd like. And you never know when one hiccup is going to turn into full on apnea (just ask the last team that previous core beat in a playoff series).
The future will still be bright no matter what happens on September 1. But for the Flyers to avoid another frustrating and gut-wrenching setback, they will need to come out stronger than they have in any Stanley Cup playoff game this year. Come out swinging or go home swearing. There's simply no other option.
In his Flyers career, Brian Elliott is 2-4-0 in the playoffs with an ugly .875 save percentage. To be fair, Elliott was almost certainly playing hurt in the 2018 playoff against Pittsburgh, was good in the round robin against the Caps, and certainly wasn't the reason the Flyers lost. But with two extra days off the ice, it's hard not to second guess Alain Vigneault's decision to go with the veteran over Carter Hart (though I did agree with the move pregame).
The Islanders have absolutely owned the back two periods of regulation in this series, outscoring the Flyers by an embarrassing 11-1 margin.
The last team to overcome a 3-1 series deficit was the 2019 San Jose Sharks (feat. Justin Braun) who also rallied from a 3-0 deficit in the third period of Game 7 to defeat the Vegas Golden Knights in the Western Conference Quarterfinals.
One game after being the team's biggest strength, the van Riemsdyk-Laughton-Pitlick line was the Flyers' biggest weakness up front (38.89% Corsi, 29.91% xGF, and outscored 2-0). JVR was the best of the trio, creating some great scoring chances (including the one that led to Voracek's last second bid in the second) and earning a brief promotion to the top line when Couturier had an equipment issue in the middle of the third.
In the Game 3 FFR, I wrote how the Islanders' took away the Flyers "we can't lose when leading after one" card. On Sunday, they took away their "we don't lose back-to-back games" card, handing Philly consecutive losses for the first time since January 4. With their hand exposed, the Flyers need to quickly find a weapon for Game 5, or else the Islanders will call jackpot any period now.
1st - Brock Nelson (NYI) - Goal (4)
2nd - Josh Bailey (NYI) - 2 Assists (10, 11)
3rd - Mat Barzal (NYI) - 4 Shots, 57.14% Corsi, 78.12% xGF
Game 5 - 9/1, 7 PM: It could be the end. But it doesn't have to be.
*Advanced Stats via Naturalstattrick.com
*3-1 Series Lead Stat via Who Wins (http://www.whowins.com)