FFR2 Round 2, Game 7 - NYI 4, PHI 0: Eulogy
Updated: Sep 12, 2020
This season was a success. Game 7 was a failure. Both of these can be true.
In their final game of the 2019-20 NHL season, the Philadelphia Flyers lose, 4-0, in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals to the New York Islanders. The Isles are moving on to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 1993, meeting the Tampa Bay Lightning in the playoffs for the second time in the last five years. As for the Flyers, their season comes to an end. For the tenth straight season, they fail to reach the Eastern Conference Final. For the 44th straight season, they fail to win the Stanley Cup.
This is only the second Flyers season I've covered, but I can already tell the last article of the season is the hardest one to write. Steve Dangle has said the same about his LFR YouTube series, which this blog is partially inspired by. As Jim Halpert told Michael Scott, "Sometimes, goodbyes are a bitch." There's no easy way to handle the end of a season, especially one that came closer to achieving the ultimate goal than any since 2010.
The Flyers came into Game 7 riding on luck and momentum, knowing they would need more than that to advance. They got more in the return of Sean Couturier, who followed the exact same pattern that lead to his 2018 playoff heroics - knee injury, miss one game, return for the next. Derek Grant took a seat for the first time in the playoffs to make room. On the other side, the Islanders made one minor change (subbing in Michael Dal Colle for Leo Komarov) and one major change, starting Thomas Greiss over Semyon Varlamov, who allowed 5 goals on 30 shots in Game 6.
For ten minutes, the Flyers looked like they had brought their A-game. Just one minute in, Couturier's return nearly paid immediate dividends. He cut off a Greiss pass along the boards and threw a perfect pass to Jake Voracek, whose redirection beat Greiss but glanced off the right post. Not wanting to lag behind, Giroux also caught iron with a redirection early in the second. The Flyers best players actually played like their best players in Game 7 - the Giroux-Couturier-Voracek line posted a strong 73.33% Corsi and 61.57% xGF at 5-on-5.
But when the breakdown came, it never closed up. One simple pass to Devon Toews at the left point, the same type of pass that spelled the beginning of the end for the Islanders in Game 6, had the exact same effect on the Flyers in Game 7. Scott Laughton, Toews' man, got beat. James van Riemsdyk tried to come over to compensate, and left his man wide open in doing so. Toews fed the puck to a pinching Scott Mayfield. This time, Mayfield's stick stayed in tact, and he fired an absolute snipe top right corner past Hart to go from goat to GOAT. 1-0 New York.
Just minutes later, another one of the Islanders' secret blue-line weapons creeped in from the other side. Derick Brassard, who had the primary assist on a goal that put the Flyers in a 2-0 hole in the last Game 7 Philly played in six years ago, proved lightning could strike twice. Big Game Brass took advantage of a top-line turnover and put on an absolute clinic, dancing around Giroux and saucing a beautiful cross-crease pass. Hart was screened and never saw Brassard turn to pass. The net result was Andy Greene staring at a wide open net, and just like Benoit Pouliot six years ago, he didn't miss. Two-zip.
The Flyers found themselves in penalty trouble late in the first and early second period, and although their PK got the job done, it killed any chance for the Flyers to gain momentum for a good ten minutes. Trailing by two goals against the Islanders' elite defense (this is not a recording), the Flyers desperately needed to score the next goal.
But it was quickly becoming clear that it even getting a shot felt like a David vs. Goliath situation, and unfortunately it seemed like the Flyers forgot their slingshot, fading from a below average six shots in the first period to an unacceptable three in the second. It didn't always feel like the Islanders were dominating, but there was just nowhere for the Flyers to go on seemingly every rush. The Islanders do such a good job of maintaining their structure, frustrating a team for shift after shift until they can cause the inevitable breakdown to create their chances.
Sure enough, that's exactly what happened. A steal from behind off Claude Giroux's stick by Brock Nelson combined with Ivan Provorov being, I don't even know, probably off on the concourse getting a snow cone, set the Islanders up for a 2-on-1 rush. Just like in the third period of Game 4, Josh Bailey found Nelson for a one-timer that was so wide open it didn't even matter he was on his strong side. Hart lunged as quickly as he could, but even the Flyers unflappable youngster couldn't cover up this breakdown. Just like that, the Islanders had the all important third goal, effectively sealing the Flyers fate.
Somehow the Flyers came out even flatter in the third period than they did in the second, managing just two shots in the first half of the frame. After that, they started to turn things on a little bit; a great shift by the second line resulting in some scoring chances here, a Scott Laughton fight win over JG Pageau there, and another really early goalie pull that the analytics back up, as Hart headed to the bench with 6:36 to play.
It didn't matter. The Flyers had one good chance at 6-on-5, but the apparently unstoppable Thomas Greiss fell back and got a piece of it. Eighteen seconds after Hart left the ice, he returned to his crease in despair while Crowd Chant played in the background of Anthony Beauvillier's skate down the Islanders bench to celebrate his empty-net goal. The Islanders had done it. Final score: New York 4, Philadelphia 0. Series over. Season over.
Before I talk about anything else, hats off and congratulations to the New York Islanders. Anyone who watched any lengthy portion of this series could tell you that the Islanders were the superior team on the ice, regardless of how much they even knew about hockey. This is their first trip to the ECF since 1993, and they absolutely earned it. Somehow, the Flyers actually won the shot quantity battle in this series (50.06% Corsi), but the Islanders schooled them in the quality battle (59.12% xGF) in all situations. Those numbers swing a little bit farther in the Flyers favor if you just look at 5-on-5, but there's more to a playoff series than just even strength. A huge reason the Flyers lost this series was because of their special teams, especially a perfectly imperfect power-play that finished the series 0 for lucky 13.
And that's all, folks. The end of the line. After 85 games - 69 nice regular season games, three dominant round robin games, six concerning first round games against the Canadiens, and seven disappointing games in Round 2, the Flyers time is up. What a shame. The odds on favorites to win the Cup at the pause (per Moneypuck.com's model). The number one seed in the Eastern Conference. Out in the second round to the seven seed that I honestly think would have missed the playoffs entirely had the regular season finished as scheduled.
But that's hockey. That's sports. That's life. Things don't always go your way. As another Philadelphia icon Rocky Balboa said, "It's not about how hard you can hit, it's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. That's how winning is done!" The Flyers may not have won this season, and this Game 7 defeat sure hits like a ton of bricks. I don't doubt that they'll get back up when next season starts, however. But the wait for it is going to feel like forever, especially with the start date still up in the air.
This team took a lot of hits this season. Not many teams can recover from the emotional toll of a teammate being diagnosed with something as serious as cancer midseason. Not many teams can go from bubble team through the first 41 games to best in the league for the next 28. Not many teams have a finalist for three major awards. Even though their efforts ended in vain this time, there's no guarantee the same thing happens next season, whenever that may be. The important thing is that after each hit, they kept getting back up, kept fighting, and made it farther than almost anyone predicted than to a year ago.
Well, except me. I actually predicted they would make the third round - so close! At least that aged better than by back-to-back Leafs are winning the Cup takes.
To be honest, I always saw the 2020-21 season as the year the Flyers are really built to go for it. They should have enough cap space to re-sign Phil Myers, Nicolas Aube-Kubel, Robert Hagg, and Nolan Patrick (their only four RFAs with NHL experience). Between Andrew MacDonald's buyout penalty going up but David Schlemko's going down and Radko Gudas' retained salary coming off the books, the Flyers will save about $500K without lifting a finger. With retained salary or by moving a roster player (cough cough Shayne Gostisbehere cough), they may even be able to supplement the roster, even with a flat cap.
The summer after will result in a huge cap crunch. Carter Hart, Travis Sanheim, and Phil Myers will be RFAs. Scott Laughton will be a UFA. Someone good will be lost to Seattle. The Flyers will make moves this summer with that in mind, but that's still a long way in the future. By that point, prospects like Morgan Frost, Wade Allison, Egor Zamula, and others may be ready to or already have made an impact at the NHL level. Hopefully Nolan Patrick wins his battle with migraine disorder and returns to the ice in the near future. It's certainly setting up to be a sunny one in Philadelphia.
For now, though, this loss is gonna sting. The last one always does. What makes this one much tougher is how much more the world has changed since the start of the season than in the typical year. Adding an extra three months to the league calendar (four for the two finalists), combined with a global pandemic and massive outcry for social justice reform and ending racism will do that. Personally, ending this season 700 miles from where I started it will do that. A lot will change between now and whenever next season starts. That's just the way it is.
Before wrapping up the 167th FFR and the final one of the second season, I want to go back to where this season began. No, not the home opener in Philly. Not even the season opener in Prague. September 30, 2019. The Philadelphia Flyers vs. Lausanne HC.
"A team that is 3-3 in the (Swiss) National League just beat the Flyers 4-3. For 30 minutes, this game wasn't even close. Lausanne ran the show early on. Carter Hart, probably the Flyers best player during the USA part of preseason, uncharacteristically struggled.
It's easy to understand the Flyers taking Lausanne lightly, easy to understand the difficulty of playing on a larger rink in a different time zone on the other side of the world. But many teams have faced these same circumstances and still prevailed. The Flyers looked like a team that hardly cared for the first half of the game. With the way the last seven years have played out in Philadelphia, motivation shouldn't be an issue with this team.
All of the worst traits of the 2018-19 Flyers reared their ugly head once again Monday afternoon. A 1-3-3 preseason record that was full of uninspiring play makes it seem like (Alain Vigneault and Chuck Fletcher) hardly made any progress so far.
This game is either the best or worst thing that could have happened to the Philadelphia Flyers. If Alain Vigneault and the front office truly believe the message they have been selling the fanbase on all summer, then they will push the Flyers to the limit over the next three days, longer if they have to, until performances like this are practically non-existent. The best teams operate that way, and if the Flyers are ever going to be elite on the ice, they also need to be elite off it.
Their errors are correctable. But these aforementioned flaws must be attacked by the players and coaching staff alike as soon as possible, or else they will manifest and kill another promising season. Just like last year."
Those were just some of the words I wrote exactly one year and five days ago. At the time, I don't think anyone could've dreamed they'd go this far in the playoffs, let alone see it as anything close to a disappointment. Expectations do change over time, and it's ok to be frustrated that the Flyers usually looked more like the team in Lausanne than the one that rattled off nine straight wins and swept the round robin from the moment the puck dropped against Montreal onward through the New York series. This certainly isn't the ending we wanted. But it's important to put a little perspective on it, to remember how far this group has come. And also how far they still have to go.
Thank you for everything, 2019-20 Flyers. For those who never suit up again in Orange and Black, I'll miss you. Even you, Nate Thompson. I'm sad right for the present, but excited for the future. Next year, the Flyers promise to make us all feel even better. That sounds awesome.
"But at the end of the day, you have to show it" - Alain Vigneault.
Since I mentioned the RFAs earlier, the Flyers main unrestricted free agents are Brian Elliott, Justin Braun, Tyler Pitlick, Derek Grant, and Nate Thompson. I highly doubt the last two are resigned (after all, they were acquired as trade deadline rentals), but there's a case to be made for each of the first three coming back. Cap space will be at a premium, however.
Sean Couturier played Game 6 on a sprained MCL, the same one he tore during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Scott Mayfield is the first player whose first career playoff goal is a Game 7 winner since Dan Girardi in the 2012 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Ottawa Senators.
This was the fourth time in franchise history the Flyers failed to score a power-play goal in a series, the first since the second round of the 2003 playoffs against Ottawa. The only one of those four series the Flyers won was the first round of the 1980 playoffs against the Rangers. The Flyers have never failed to score a power-play goal in a seven-game series (Brian Smith).
This was the first time in franchise history the Flyers were shutout in a Game 7 (Sam Carchidi).
The NHL will announce the Jack Adams Award winner for best coach Monday, the Bill Masterton Trophy for perseverance and dedication to hockey on Wednesday, and the Frank J. Selke Award for best defensive forward on Thursday. Alain Vigneault, Oskar Lindblom, and Sean Couturier are finalists for the respective awards.
Here's how unpredictable the NHL is in a nut shell: for the second straight year, and third time in the last four seasons, five of the top six teams in the league failed to reach the Conference Finals (Tampa Bay was the lone exception this year).
The Flyers will have the 23rd pick in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft, which will take place at a date to be determined. The Flyers have seven picks in this year's draft - their own selection in every round except the 3rd (dealt to San Jose in the Braun trade), as well as Montreal's 7th (acquired for the Flyers 2019 7th).
Islanders general manager Lou Lamoriello surpasses Bill Torre, architect of the Islanders dynasty that won four straight Cups from 1980-1983 (the first one at the Flyers' expense), for second most playoff series wins of all-time with 29. Only Glen Sather, architect of the Oilers dynasty that immediately followed New York's, winning Cups from 1985-1988 (they actually won two at the Flyers' expense) and 1991 has more with 41.
Final word count for Flyers 2020 playoff articles (not counting round robin or general playoff previews): 38,403, comprised of 13 FFRs and two series previews in a span of 25 days (an average of about 1500 words per day). I need a nap.
A special thank you to Natural Stat Trick, who I reference at the bottom of every article, for providing the advanced stats that I use to p̶r̶o̶v̶e̶ ̶I̶'̶m̶ ̶s̶m̶a̶r̶t̶e̶r̶ ̶t̶h̶a̶n̶ ̶I̶ ̶a̶c̶t̶u̶a̶l̶l̶y̶ ̶a̶m̶ tie my points together.
I don't know how much content I'll be able to produce moving forward. I love "covering" the Flyers, but these articles don't write than themselves, and unfortunately neither do my school assignments. There will definitely be previews for the Conference Finals and Stanley Cup Final, but beyond that, offseason articles will likely be more scarce than last summer.
But to all of those who did read (even though I know there aren't very many of you), thank you. Please remember to follow on Twitter (@BackOTNet) and SHARE this with anyone you know who likes hockey! I'm going to toot my own horn for just a second here - 329 articles and over 400,000 words (maybe even over 500,000) written in two years deserves more than a few dozen followers. I'm not God's gift to writing by any stretch, but I know there are way more people out there who will read this - I just need to find a way for them to see it.
Lastly, thank you to everyone who worked so hard to put together the bubbles and ensure the NHL could safely return to play. I always said I would rather have the Flyers return and lose than the season to just end, and even in defeat, that still holds true. Best of luck to the Golden Knights (my bandwagon team, circa 2017-18), Stars, Lightning, and even the Islanders the rest of the way.
1st - Brock Nelson (NYI) - Goal (7), 2 Assists (7, 8)
2nd - Scott Mayfield (NYI) - Game-Winning Goal
3rd - Thomas Greiss (NYI) - Shutout (16 Saves) on 2.13 xGF
NYI - Round 3, Game 1 @ TB (9/7, 8 PM)
PHI - Offseason