The Flyers have not done much this week to help their own cause in the battle to move up closer toward playoff position in the Eastern Conference standings. Back-to-back losses in regulation to Tampa Bay and Montreal -- the first time Philly has lost back-to-back games since early January -- has made the Stadium Series game against the Penguins a virtual must-win.
That is especially true with the NHL trade deadline looming on Monday and the stretch drive beginning immediately thereafter. In order for the Flyers to be successful on Saturday, here are five keys:
1. A BETTER START: We'll get into the specifics momentarily but, as a big-picture concern, the Flyers can ill-afford to fall into a multi-goal hole early in Saturday's game. The first 10-and-a-half minutes in the Tampa and Montreal, both of which saw the Flyers fall into 3-0 deficits on nine shots, made the rest of the night a constant uphill battle.
The reality for the Flyers is that, although the team won three straight games following a loss to Pittsburgh that ended a 9-0-1 point streak, there was deterioration of the Flyers' overall play in the games that followed what was actually a pretty strong performance in the Pittsburgh game. The Flyers got away with it for a few games, but the Flyers paid heavily for some bad habit that crept in once they again ran into top-notch opponents in the Bolts and Habs.
2. BETWEEN THE BLUE LINES: The first and second goals against in the Montreal game were eerily similar - the Flyers executed their layered neutral zone forecheck poorly, got back on their heels and the Canadiens attacked with speed and, eventually with numbers, off the rush. Pittsburgh is another team that plays with pace. The Flyers must take away time and space off the rush, and that starts with denying clean entries. It also entails being much crisper and smarter with the puck.
3. PUCK MANAGEMENT IS CRUCIAL: Turnovers, defensemen trapped up ice, lost puck battles and some soft play in the trenches in which they got outworked factored directly into backbreaking goals in the last two games. Even junctures of the comeback win in Minnesota, the third period at home against Detroit and much of the rematch at Little Caesars Arena the next night saw some of the same issues arise.
The big difference in the latter game in Detroit was that Carter Hart stole a win. In the last two games, Tampa and Montreal, miscues ended up in the Flyers net. Pittsburgh, of course, is eminently capable of doing the same if the Flyers are not efficient on generating breakouts, getting their own entries with pace or at least putting pucks behind the Penguins' defenders and forcing the Pens to go 200 feet with Philly up on its skates on the forecheck.
For the most part, the last time the Flyers played the Penguins, it was Philly that had a territorial edge. On that night, Penguins' goalie Matt Murray stole the show (aided in one instance by an atrociously hasty whistle that wiped out a slam-dunk rebound goal on a puck that was never covered).
The Flyers actually generated a new franchise single-period shot on goal record (28) in the second period of that game but ended up with nothing to show for it except a 2-0 deficit heading into the third period. However, a similar relentless forecheck and waves of attack by Philly on Saturday would more likely than not produce a favorable outcome this time around.
4. HART BOUNCING BACK: The last two games were not primarily the fault of Carter Hart. Among the three goals in his abbreviated outing against Tampa, two were deflected pucks, the second came off a turnover and poor netfront containment of a rebound off the post, and the third was a 2-on-1 rush (albeit a stoppable high short-side shot from above the dot).
Neither of the first two goals in his short outing against Montreal were easy saves. However, the first goal was another one from above the dot. Hart may have been partially screened by his own defenseman, but it's save he had often been making.
The third and final goal by the Habs was one in which Hart attempted his preferred RVH technique of sealing the short-side post. (Basically, it's a reversal of the traditional vertical and horizontal pads. In other words, Hart's horizontal pad was his post-sealing leg with his skate up against the post). In this instance, on a very flat angle shot, the puck hit his skate blade and somehow found an opening in the tiny gap that's left over the skate and between the pad and post. Hart said afterward that he'd never before had a puck get through on that sort of play.
Fluke goals, unfavorable bounces and team defense breakdowns aside, Hart was not sharp in his last two games. He normally tracks pucks like a hawk and covers his angles extremely well. The last two games, he was committing early (specifically on a penalty kill in the Tampa game where Hart, uncharacteristically, committed quickly to the ice and was flopping around but not scored upon), his glove-side posture wasn't optimal on at least one goal and he was perhaps a little further back in his net.
Hart will be fine in the long haul. He is the real deal both in terms of physical ability and mental toughness. However, the Flyers need him back on the top of his game right now.
5. CAPTAIN MUST SHINE: For the first time in two full calendar years, Flyers captain Claude Giroux has gone four straight games without recording a point. While the decision to move Giroux back to center has been to the benefit of Nolan Patrick -- who has found himself in more favorable matchups with opponents keyed on Giroux and Sean Couturier's separate lines -- Giroux has struggled a bit of late and his line with James van Riemsdyk and Travis Konecny was not clicking.
In Montreal on Thursday, Flyers interim head coach Scott Gordon moved the slumping JVR down in the lineup at five-on-five (he remained on the top power play unit) and moved up left winger Michael Raffl for his ability to win puck battles. At times, depending on the game situation, Gordon will also sometimes re-stack a line with Couturier and Giroux together (often with Jakub Voracek as the right wing).
For the Flyers to go on another run like their recent 12-2-1 wave of success, they will once again need to get back to having various players stepping up offensively on different nights and also back to getting strong goaltending. However, the team's No. 1 catalyst is still its captain, and the Stadium Series game is a vital one for Giroux to set a winning tone for the team.