A trend that is quickly starting to define this season’s Flyers team does not lend itself to those with a weak foundation or a history of anxiety problems. Heading into last night’s tilt with the New York Islanders, the Flyers had notched an incredible eight wins when trailing in the third period. Perhaps even more astounding was the fact that seven of these victories had come in a matter of 21 games. For you math geeks out there, that’s one out of every three games in a stretch that makes up just a shade over a quarter of an NHL season. After nearly doing so in Thursday’s home shootout loss to the Predators, the Flyers were back at the Wells Fargo Center Saturday night with an all-important division showdown with the white-hot Isles.
Winners of eight of their previous ten contests, the Islanders had gone from the undoubted disappointment of the league to arguably its most dangerous team. Lead by the sensational John Tavares and a formidable supporting cast of scorers, New York looked as if they were regaining the form that saw them put a scare into the top-seeded Penguins in the first round of last season’s NHL playoffs. The Flyers were fortunate enough to beat the Islanders in their two previous contests by identical 5-2 margins. That said, anyone who follows the big picture of the NHL season knew heading into Saturday’s matchup that this was a rejuvenated bunch, beaming with confidence.
Despite a solid buzz at WFC, the game started about as poorly as one could have imagined. The Islanders struck first just under eight minutes into the game when, after a turnover by Nicklas Grossman, the Flyers inexplicably left Tavares open in front and he rammed home a centering pass by Steve Mason. Then, with Philadelphia on a power play, Frans Nielsen out-muscled Jakub Voracek along the boards and hit a streaking Cal Clutterbuck for a shorthanded goal to make it 2-0. It was the 8th shorthanded goal allowed by the Flyers this season, putting them one shy of the Edmonton Oilers for the most yielded in the NHL. While it was still early, the Flyers were in a dangerous hole against a confident bunch. Fortunately, a very unlikely savior was able to stem the tide and get the Orange-and-Black untracked.
Defenseman Andrej Meszaros, more known for a disappointing series of injuries over the last few seasons than his offensive prowess, was able to give the Flyers something to feel good about heading into intermission. With just over five minutes left, a streaking Meszaros snuck a seemingly harmless shot through the five-hole of Kevin Poulin to get the team on the board. Then, with under two minutes in the frame, Meszaros used a beautiful shot-fake to create space and lifted a wrister over Poulin’s shoulder to even the contest at two. It was Meszaros’ first mutli-goal game since 2011, also against the Islanders, and it put a positive spin on what was really a miserable period by Philadelphia.
The Flyers took the lead early in the 2nd period when Adam Hall tipped home a Mark Streit point shot for just his second goal of the season. The fourth-line center, after a clean faceoff win, made his way to the front of the net and was able to keep his stick low enough to not have the goal waved off on his deflection. Sitting at 3-2, the Flyers were now leading in a game that they looked to be the inferior squad.
Philadelphia got a break a little later in the period when Tavares’ apparent second goal of the game was washed out due to an Islanders forward interfering with Mason. However, the relentless Islanders really turned up the intensity for the remainder of the second frame.
First, at the tail-end of a New York power play, Brock Nelson tipped home a Calvin de Haan point shot to even the score at three. The harmless wrister changed directions like a pinball and there was little Mason could do as the puck soared past his glove hand. The Isles kept the pedal to the metal and, just under three minutes later, Brian Strait blew a slap shot from the point past Mason and gave his team the lead. On the replay, one could see that both Grossman and Mark Streit did their netminders no favors, providing the necessary screens for the point shot to make its way into the net.
Sensing his team needed a shot in the arm, Craig Berube decided to pull the newly extended Steve Mason in favor for Ray Emery. After the contest, the Flyers head coach justified his move saying he pulled his netminder, who had performed quite well all things considering, to ‘wake the team up’. He defended his goalie, saying he was a ‘victim’ of the team’s sloppy play and anyone watching the game could realize there was little any netminder could do on any of the Islanders four goals. The Flyers were able to hold off the blitzkrieg offensive attack by New York until the relief of the intermission horn finally sounded. They trailed by just one heading into the third period. Or in simpler terms, the Flyers had the Islanders right where they wanted them.
With a new sense of urgency and purpose, Philadelphia dominated play from the start of the final 20 minutes of regulation. The Flyers came at the young Islanders in waves and were able to pin their speedy foes in their own zone for extended stretches of time. After several prime chances at tying things up, the Flyers’ top line finally broke through and Jakub Voracek blew one past a lunging Poulin to even the contest at four.
This was a beautiful goal by the team’s top trio. Kimo Timonen fed Claude Giroux in the high slot with room to operate. Giroux then fired a no-look backhanded pass right on the money to Voracek who blasted home the layup goal for his 14th on the season.
Now tied at four, the Flyers were looking to cap off the comeback with a win in regulation against the now-reeling Islanders. With their opponent gassed from a long road trip and a back-and-forth affair, Philadelphia appeared poised for the knockout blow. The decisive tally would serve as poetic justice from a member of the team who had been part of one of the highlights of the NHL season for all the wrong reasons.
After starting a transition opportunity for Claude Giroux, Michael Raffl sped up the ice behind his line-mate. After Giroux had a shot muffled by a defender, he stayed with the puck knowing he had support on the play. For the second time in the 3rd period, Giroux used a no-look pass to set up one of his wingers and Raffl, who had been denied in the team’s prior contest by Carter Hutton’s incredible diving save, cashed in this time to give his team a 5-4 lead.
After the game, Raffl was asked his missed opportunity in the Nashville game was on his mind while heading toward the net for his goal against the Islanders. In a moment of blunt honesty, the young Austrian winger exclaimed, “It’s not easy to forget, let’s put it that way.” as far as his missed opportunity against the Predators.
Matt Read would add an empty-netter to seal the team’s 9th 3rd period comeback win of the season, tying a franchise record. The win kept them in 2nd place in the Metropolitan Division and provided a huge boost as they head to Long Island to play the Islanders in their barn on Monday.
The team will take the two points for sure, and make no mistake Saturday’s win was as entertaining a spectacle as one can ask for from a hockey game. That said, and the demeanor of coach Berube after the contest was all one needed to see, this is not a recipe for postseason success. The Flyers showed they can dominate a skilled team like the Islanders for 20 minutes and steal a win they might not have deserved. The best teams often don’t play dramatic contests like this because they are able to play the same way over 60 minutes. The Flyers hung their goalie out to dry for the better part of the game, and it took a drastic move like pulling him to light a fire under them.
The Flyers have a daunting stretch ahead of them that should give a better idea of just how close this team is to contending. Before the Olympic break, starting on February 9th, Philadelphia will be running the proverbial gauntlet of contenders of all shapes and sizes. Conference foes such as the Blue Jackets, Bruins, and Red Wings along with Western conference juggernauts like the Sharks, Ducks, Kings, and Avalanche all make up the lion’s share of the team’s pre-Olympic schedule. If the team wants to emerge from this brutal stretch still in solid position to make the playoffs, they will have to put together three period efforts that match the final 20 minutes of their win over the Islanders. Hopefully this win was more of a wake-up call than a ‘feather in your cap’. Because if the team tries to depend on third period magic and individual heroics against the likes of some of their next opponents, they will come out on the losing end.