Coming to the rink each day is a pleasure when a team is going through winning times, such as the 10-1-2 stretch the Flyers put together in February and the team's NHL-wide top three record from Dec. 4 until the beginning of March. Everyone has a smile on their face, there's a lot of laughter and in-game setbacks seem manageable.
In times of adversity, however, a team discovers its true level of unity. Without being in denial about the issues underlying a winless skid, the club has to avoid falling into negativity and finger-pointing. They also cannot get distracted by the inevitable doom-and-gloom outside opinions and hyperbolic outrage expressed on the internet or by TV and radio pundits.
As long as the team itself keeps plugging even after disappointing outcomes, stays unified and is honest with itself about what needs to be done to right the ship, things eventually sort themselves out. There is also an uncontrollable element of puck luck within hockey but, when a team plays the right way for long enough, the breaks eventually turn back in its favor.
Winless in the last five games (0-4-1 thus far in March), the Flyers reported to the Skate Zone late on Friday morning. Coming off back-to-back games against the Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins, and facing a Saturday 1 p.m. matinee at the Wells Fargo Center against the Winnipeg Jets, the team had an optional practice.
From a physical standpoint, much of the team needed a rest. From an emotional standpoint, exiting two hard-to-swallow losses in games where they played well for lengthy stretches but had just enough breakdowns and missed opportunities that they did not win against elite-grade opposition, the Flyers needed to get reset. Thus, most of the key facets of getting ready to play the next game were things addressed off-the-ice rather than via an intensive practice.
While the things that get said and the activities that take place behind closed doors are only privy to those inside the room, it is a certain that the off-ice message delivered was one of the Flyers reaffirming unity, taking a deep breath and moving forward again just at it did in turning the page after the club's 10-game winless spell (0-5-5) back in November to early December.
Here are three crucial themes that NHL team leaders and the coaching staff typically emphasize during tough times. The Flyers are no exception.
1. Build on what was done well.
In the modern-day NHL, teams make extensive use of video on behalf of players as well as for pre-scouts of the next opponent. Video can be used to illustrate negative points to correct - multi-player breakdowns that led to opposing goals, individual poor decisions with the puck, etc. - but it can be used to emphasize things that were done well. When a team is going through the adversity of a multi-game winless spell, there is often more benefit to be gained from stressing the positive plays than dwelling on the all-too-familiar ones that sealed a recent loss.
In Wednesday's game against Pittsburgh, the Flyers had the better of the play for the majority of the game right up to the point Pittsburgh tied the score at 2-2. From that point on, small lapses had huge consequences. Even so, the way that the Nolan Patrick line repeatedly dictated the play when out against the Derick Brassard line and the way that the Sean Couturier line held the Evgeni Malkin line (until a late empty net goal against) to a stalemate or even to a slight Philadelphia advantage was something that could be positively emphasized moving ahead despite the sting of the 5-2 loss.
Thursday's game in Boston saw the Flyers make further improvements. After an awful night on the power play against the Penguins, the Flyers quickly cashed in on the front end of a four-minute power play to grab an early 1-0 lead. The Patrick line, although not flawless, had another good game. On what was a tough night offensively and puck possession wise for the Flyers top line, the Flyers had lower lines perform well with the Bruins somewhat depleted due to key injuries.
Overall, the Flyers played well enough in Boston to have earned at least one point. Breakdowns in the final half-minute of the first and third periods prevented that, but all that can be done moving ahead is to try to replicate the positives for lengthy stretches and clean up some of the preventable areas (failed clears, not getting pucks in deep, not canceling out sticks in front) that top opponents tend to turn into backbreaking goals.
2. Don't feel sorry for yourselves.
Every team goes through peaks and valleys over the course of a season. There is no benefit to lamenting disappointing outcomes. Most NHL coaches, including Dave Hakstol, focus heavily instead on process - the collection of details and decisions, shift-in and shift-out, with and without the puck, and spanning all 200 X 85 feet of the ice, that are within a team's control.
Regardless of an opponent's place in the standings and the on-paper factors that make certain matchups seemingly favorable or particularly tough (rested team vs. tired team, an opponent on a long homestand or late in a prolonged road trip, key injuries on both sides, recent outcomes against the same opponent, etc.), there are no built-in excuses for failing to compete.
Among the five games in the current winless streak, the most disturbing one was the first. The Flyers were riding high after their stellar February and had a home game against a desperate Carolina team. Philly was markedly outcompeted for two-plus periods and fully deserved its 4-1 loss. Lack of competitiveness had nothing to do with the shootout loss in Tampa or the most recent defeats by Pittsburgh and Boston.
The loss in Florida saw a red-hot and rested Panthers team that is currently enjoying an unusually long stretch at home - Feb. 22 to March 17 with only a single 37-minute flight to Tampa Bay (a 5-4 overtime loss for the Panthers on March 6) to break up the entire stretch - play a Flyers team that was on its third game in less than four nights and second consecutive afternoon game. This was a match where the Flyers needed to play smart, disciplined hockey and avoid having to chase the game. Philly failed to do that and paid the price. Although the Flyers tried to push back during stretches of the game, the Panthers parried and then countered to put the game out of reach.
3. Opportunities lie ahead.
The Flyers can only worry about themselves. They can't be too focused on what other teams are doing. Nevertheless, despite the five-game winless skid and the darkening of their push for first place in the Metro Division, the Flyers are still not in bad shape in terms of being in immediate danger of missing the playoffs or even of falling to a wildcard spot.
First of all, if the Flyers take care of their own upcoming business, there's nothing the teams behind them can do but try to hold serve and maintain the same gap. Secondly, all of the Flyers' pursuers face their own severe tests ahead.
The fourth-place New Jersey Devils have had their own recent struggles. Now the team is about to embark on a slate of seven games that is every bit as tough as the seven-game stretch the Flyers are currently five games into ahead of playing Winnipeg and the Vegas Golden Knights. The Devils' next seven opponents: Nashville Predators (road), LA Kings (road), Anaheim Ducks (road), San Jose Sharks (road). Pittsburgh (road), Tampa Bay (home).
Currently, the Flyers are still three points (plus a tiebreaker advantage) ahead of the Devils with both teams having 14 games left on their schedules and no remaining head-to-head games.
The fifth-place Columbus Blue Jackets struggled mightily in February while the Flyers were surging. Thus, even with the Blue Jackets on a current three-game winning streak to shave six points off the gap, they remain four points (plus a tiebreaker disadvantage) behind the Flyers with 14 games left. A head-to-head game against the Flyers next week looms large. Although the remaining Columbus schedule is not as tough on paper as New Jersey's, it still features one game apiece against opponents such as Boston, Pittsburgh and Nashville.
Currently two points (but with a tiebreaker advantage) in back of Columbus, Florida has been taking full advantage of its long span at home. They hold three games in hand over all the teams they are most closely pursuing in the East. However, there's a slew of tough challenges ahead for the Panthers. First of all, they have yet to play divisional opponent Boston even once yet this season. All four games - two at home, two on the road - remain on the docket. Secondly, the Panthers will have to take two separate trips to Canada during the last 11 days of the month; something that often wears down the legs of even the hardiest teams. On the back end of the second trip, the Panthers will find themselves facing a 3-in-4 gauntlet that includes games against Boston and Nashville.
Lastly, the Flyers still remain just two points behind second-place Washington, albeit with the Caps holding both a game in hand and a tiebreaker edge. A Flyers win against Winnipeg on Saturday paired with a Pittsburgh Penguins road loss in Toronto on Friday and a Capitals loss in San Jose on Saturday would put the Flyers back in a points tie (but third place via tiebreaker) with the Caps and two points behind Pittsburgh (plus a tiebreaker disadvantage) with both the Flyers and Penguins having 13 games remaining.
Despite the current skid, the skies will brighten for the Flyers. Whether or not they get outside help - if they achieve what is still within their control. To do so, it is vital for a Flyers team that has already shown itself to be a resilient bunch to do it again.
There's a reason why the "Rocky Balboa" speech about how winning is done - no matter how hard you get hit, pick yourself up and keep moving forward -- and the fundamental points of Jason Kelce's Super Bowl championship parade speech about ignoring the critics and doubters to pull together resonates across all sports.
Right now for the Flyers, no one matters except the group that's together on the ice and the locker room.