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Let’s rewind the clock for a second, back to March 1, a little less than nine months ago.
With the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers tied 2-2 in overtime, Vladimir Tarasenko took a feed from teammate Filip Chytil, skated through the Flyers’ defense, and ripped a shot between the legs of goalie Carter Hart, ending the game.
The crowd at the Wells Fargo Center exploded. Not in anger, mind you — in euphoria. Traveling Rangers fans who had completely taken over the building were celebrating like they were at Madison Square Garden, in the heart of South Philadelphia.
Perhaps the story was overblown in the moment. But nine days later, ownership relieved Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher of his duties, and with it, signified their intention to finally, at long last, attempt to start over and undergo a full-scale organizational restructuring.
Sure, there were other reasons for Fletcher’s ouster — his inability to trade James van Riemsdyk at the deadline two days later, the vociferous booing Fletcher received the next day at a town hall event open to Flyers season ticket holders. But the embarrassment of hearing a Wells Fargo Center crowd explode in glee at a Rangers GWG was real; national media like Elliotte Friedman and Jeff Marek played it up in a big way and made it a leaguewide story, a undeniable example of just how far the once-prestigious Flyers had fallen.
A lot has changed since then. Fletcher is gone, of course. Daniel Briere is now in charge of the team, while ownership has Dan Hilferty at the helm, having replaced former Comcast Spectacor chairman and CEO Dave Scott. The organization announced a full-fledged commitment to a rebuild. And on the ice, the team appears to be making progress as well. They entered Friday with a 10-8-1 record, stellar underlying metrics at even strength, and with a just-concluded five-game winning streak still fresh in the minds of fans. Things have been getting better. That’s beyond dispute.
But when Mika Zibanejad scored just 45 seconds into the 2023 Black Friday game — a long-standing hockey tradition in Philadelphia — the Wells Fargo Center once again roared with New York-fueled approval, showing just how far the Flyers still have to go if they want to truly fix things.
There’s no shame in losing by a 3-1 score to the 2023-24 Rangers, of course. New York hit the ice leading the Metropolitan Division, and in the midst of a stellar 11-1-1 stretch over their past 13 games. With former Flyers coach Peter Laviolette leading the way, the Rangers very much look like a Stanley Cup contender.
But given the opportunity to make their strongest case yet to the fans that this team is different, that things really have improved, and that they can play with the best that the division has to offer, the Flyers instead fell back into all of their worst habits.
“Just way too many odd-man rushes,” John Tortorella noted after the loss. “It’s really been a staple of our team this year, our discipline with that. (It) was nowhere to be found with our backchecking.”
Tortorella wasn’t wrong. Odd-man rushes really haven’t been a problem for the Flyers this season — a surprising truth, given that Tortorella has been strongly encouraging his players to play a more aggressive, wide-open style, particularly on the back end. That means more pinches, more “surfing” up in the neutral zone (as Tortorella calls it), and in turn, more opportunities for opponents to attack in transition with the numbers advantage.
But despite their stylistic tweaks, they’ve largely avoided getting blitzed with odd-man rushes for two main reasons — the defensemen have been surprisingly effective in keeping pucks alive and killing plays, and the forwards have backchecked like hell to protect them in case the aggressive reads fail.
“Well, as d-men, if you’re going to be aggressive, you’ve got to have back pressure,” Travis Sanheim noted after Friday’s defeat. “If you don’t have it, it ends up (leading to) odd-man rushes. Kind of in-between. You want the D to stay up, so you need that. That’s just the way that we play, and we don’t ever want to stop playing that way. We want to be aggressive.”
On this day, however, the backchecking all too often was nonexistent. It led to Owen Tippett being benched for a good ten minutes in the second period, and based on Tortorella’s postgame comments and general air of disgust after the game when facing the media, it’s unlikely he was the only offender.
“The only way we can take a chance checking forward, is to have the support, and it was not there tonight, for no reason,” he fumed.
By the end of the second period, the Flyers had allowed a whopping seven odd-man rushes. The Rangers scored goals on two of them — by itself enough to lock down a victory on a day when Philadelphia put just one puck past Igor Shesterkin.
“I think that we were trying to cheat, instead of erring out on the more cautious side and supporting our D,” Cam Atkinson said. “I know everyone wants to make plays, but at the same time, you have to play defense first, and just have to be ready to track at all times.”
The Flyers long have had a tendency of doing this. And “this” doesn’t necessarily mean “forgetting to adhere to a gameplan that can work and has worked in the past,” though that certainly is also true. It’s the fact that over the last decade, the Flyers have made a habit out of ending runs of legitimately strong play — sometimes over weeks or even months at a time — by completely flopping in a high-profile game. That’s what Black Friday felt like after the impressive five-game winning streak, with Wednesday’s 3-2 loss to the Islanders as the unappetizing appetizer, and today’s defeat at the hands of the Rangers the flavorless if familiar main course.
“They’re a good team, but at the same time, when we don’t stick to our gameplan, when we’re diving in, instead of helping our D out… that’s what we’ve been doing to teams (recently),” Atkinson pointed out. “Maybe we just weren’t ready to start that game.”
And perhaps this speaks to why so many Rangers fans snapped up tickets that in past years would have been purchased almost exclusively by fans wearing Orange and/or Black. They’re excited about their team, enthused by their deep roster, hot start and championship aspirations. Flyers fans, by and large, still aren’t — even on a day that the organization goes out of its way to request for the schedule every year, one that many locals have turned into a family tradition.
The thought on Friday morning hours before puck drop was that a better-than-expected start to the season, combined with all of the organizational changes made over the past nine months, would lead to a packed house full of pretty much only Flyers fans on Black Friday. It took only 45 seconds for that dream to vanish.
And to be clear, this isn’t a critique of Flyers fans. There are very good reasons for them to be skeptical that the announced rebuild is anywhere near completion, and those reasons were on display Friday.
After Sean Couturier (the team’s only goal scorer on the day), Philadelphia’s centers were Noah Cates (a 3C at best who has struggled mightily so far this season in terms of offense), Scott Laughton (a better winger than center and a bottom-sixer on a true contender) and Ryan Poehling (a 4C/13th forward who wasn’t issued a qualifying offer by his last club in the summer). The talent weakness down the middle — exacerbated by Tortorella’s continued insistence upon scratching the only non-Couturier center who maybe could perform at a top-six caliber level — is glaring.
It also shows up on the power play, which was just as much to blame for Friday’s loss as the odd-man rushes, going 0-for-6 and now standing at an ugly 10.6 percent success rate on the season — fourth-worst in the NHL.
“Oh, I’m not going to talk about the power play now,” Tortorella dismissively grumbled.
And the defense corps also is lacking, a roster flaw which becomes truly impossible to ignore when Travis Sanheim — who along with Sean Walker has been carrying the group so far this season — has a rough game, which he very much did on Friday, gifting Chris Kreider the Rangers’ second goal with an awful turnover off a defensive zone faceoff win.
“Obviously, I’ve got to be aware. He’s the best in the league at jumping off faceoffs,” Sanheim acknowledged. “Maybe a little bit more awareness that it’s him there, and maybe be a little bit more patient and see where he’s jumping, whether it’s inside or outside.”
Look, it’s not like the Flyers aren’t trying, both on the ice and organizationally, a big difference as compared to previous seasons. Despite their flawed execution on Friday, the skaters never stopped pushing, and ultimately outshot the Rangers by a 37 – 19 margin. They outhit New York 20 – 9, with Garnet Hathaway in particular serving as a crowd-pleasing wrecking ball, fighting twice and regularly crashing into Igor Shesterkin in an attempt to rattle him.
Cates took a puck to the face and returned with 30 stitches keeping his mouth together. Hilferty made an appearance at ice level after the game despite the outcome, a gesture that his predecessor Scott never would have made. Even the arena staff pulled out all the stops, dropping Gritty from the rafters in a turkey costume at the 6:32 mark of the first period, to try and add to the holiday spectacle for the young fans in the building.
But Black Friday served as a reminder that hard work from all involved isn’t going to be enough to fix what ails the Flyers.
They’re still on the outside looking in of the Eastern Conference playoff race after dropping two consecutive games to Metro rivals. They’re still flopping in the kinds of games that casual fans might check out in the hopes that the team might be turning some sort of corner. They’re still letting Mika Zibanejad (two goals) treat them like his personal plaything. They still have those glaring roster flaws.
And they’re still struggling to win back a fanbase that reached its collective breaking point over the course of the previous two seasons.
Are the Flyers making progress? Sure.
But they still have a ways to go.