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Meltzer: Musings on the road

Flyers contributor's blog as he joins team on Midwest road trip

by Bill Meltzer @billmeltzer

April 1, 2019 (1:15 PM CDT)

Today is an off-day for the Flyers. It comes on the heels of a rough weekend that saw the team mathematically eliminated from the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs on Saturday afternoon in Carolina and then get shut out on home ice by the New York Rangers the next day. Tomorrow, the Flyers begin a two-game road trip to Dallas and St. Louis before concluding the season at home against the Carolina Hurricanes. 

All three teams are in playoff position, with St. Louis (who had a remarkable turnaround from a dreadful first half) having clinched a spot and the Stars on the brink of doing so.

The Flyers' most recent 10 games -- which saw the club go 3-7-0 -- mostly consisted of playoff-bound opponents. While Philly did pick off wins over Pittsburgh (via a late-game comeback and OT victory) and Toronto (a shootout win), they came up short in most of the games. 

It was a reality check of where the team must improve come next year: cleaner breakouts and puck management, playing team defense as a cohesive five-man unit, fewer one-and-done forays up ice with too-easy opposing breakouts/clears, and getting the power play back to the 20+ percent standard that had been the team's norm for most of the 2010s. 

In the second half of the season, the goaltending on the whole has not been the main problem anymore. Since there is time on this off-day to do so, let's talk about some of these things on the macro level of teamwide trends. 

The disastrous first half of the season has been much discussed, along with the changes in the general manager and assistant general manager, head coach and assistant coach in charge of the blueline personnel. Ditto the fact that, due to a slew of injuries as well as subpar overall first-half play in net, the team had to set an unwanted new NHL record by starting eight different goaltenders. 

Lack of goaltending stability in the first few months of the season, along with struggles on both ends of special teams and some key players who got off to very slow starts by their standards were all vital factors in why the Flyers dug too deep of a hole for themselves to climb out of over the remainder of the season.

The Flyers woke up on the morning of Jan. 10 -- prior to hosting the Dallas Stars at the Wells Fargo Center -- with the fewest points of any team in the NHL (35), and 16 points plus a tiebreaker disadvantage below the playoff cutoff line. The Flyers' Dallas game was actually the start of the Flyers turnaround over the next two months, although Philly dropped a 3-2 decision in New Jersey after beating Dallas.

Following the loss to the Devils, the Flyers went off on an 18-4-2 run, including a 10-game point streak (9-0-1) and a stretch over 16 games where the club posted a 13-2-1 record. Overall, the Flyers are 22-12-2 over their last 36 games as the calendar flips to April. 

Oddly enough, the Flyers teamwide analytics for the season are pretty much the exact opposite of what one would expect only going by their record. The underlying numbers through Jan. 9 were actually pretty good. 

Entering the aforementioned game against Dallas, the Flyers had allowed the third-fewest scoring chances in the NHL, according From a Corsi/Fenwick standpoint, the team ranked in the top one-third of the league (9th overall). They led the NHL by far in faceoff winning percentage (56.8 percent). Those stats suggested superior puck possession most nights but paid zero dividends to the bottom line.

Since that time, the Flyers team analytics have actually dropped in terms of yielding more scoring chances and possessing the puck less on average over the course of games. Nevertheless, for two months, they repeatedly found ways to win (at least until near the middle of March). How did they manage that feat?

The number one reason isn't hard to find: goaltending is still hockey's greatest equalizer. There are other reasons, too. Sean Couturier has had a monster season after a slow injury-related start to the campaign. Ditto James van Riemsdyk after the All-Star break. The emergence of Travis Sanheim and Oskar Lindblom under interim head coach Scott Gordon was also a bit part of the two-month surge, and Nolan Patrick had a stretch of above six weeks where he looked to be putting everything together. The PK has been much better since Thanksgiving. The power play, although still inconsistent and in flux, statistically picked up after an awful first half.

Nevertheless, if the turnaround in Philly's second-half record had to be narrowed down to one single reason, it's been a youngster wearing number 79 with an assist from number 37.

Carter Hart, at age 20, has been fantastic on the whole. Brian Elliott, once he finally returned from his lengthy absence, went on a nice run while Hart was out due to an ankle injury, and has played well on the whole this season when he's been healthy enough to be available for duty. 

Cam Talbot, sparingly used but still likely with a good chance of being re-signed, gave the Flyers a solid start in a win over New Jersey and a competitive effort that kept Philly within striking distance on Saturday in Carolina before the Hurricanes scored two late empty-net goals (one while on a penalty kill) to seal the game.

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