Positively Mediocre – Thoughts on Flyers 7, Senators 4

Warning: The old man in me is about to come out for a few minutes.

That’s because there is nothing that bothers me more in professional sports today than people who eschew criticism when it is warranted.

It’s the narrative of sports these days. We’ve created a culture where accountability is fleeting and mediocrity is lauded.

I guess this is the direct result of the generation of people who made the participation trophy a good thing at the youth sports level.

Why am I so crabby?

Because of the overt nature today of people to take an outcome of a sporting event and over-accentuate the positive of it. There are times when the negative can be over-accentuated as well, and that’s equally as wrong – but wins and losses in sports need to be put into context.

If a win in particularly good, then fine, it’s OK to say it. If a loss is particularly awful – such as the Flyers home-opening loss to the Sharks on Tuesday – then yes, it’s OK to slide the team’s performance under the microscope.

But when you have a game like Wednesday in Ottawa – a sloppy, uneven, pretty uninteresting game which the Flyers won 7-4 against the lowly Senators – to sit around and spew a steady stream of positivism is what really sticks in my craw.

I was all ready to sit here and say the things that everyone was saying last night right after the game. I was poised to start typing this story at 10:30 PM. I even had this lede to the story written:

When you have one of your most embarrassing performances of the season one night, coming back and earning a much-needed victory the next night is definitely a sigh of relief. And that’s what this was for the Flyers, for it was not a perfect game, it was not a pretty game, in fact it was riddled with inconsistency and choppiness and still had more than a handful of mistakes to be concerned about – not to mention a worrisome injury to a prominent player – but the team can take a big collective sigh after winning this game, because an outcome in the other direction would have set off the alarm bells with a gusto.

That, to me would have been a fair description. That to me would have been keeping things real with the fans of this hockey team.

Instead, we are given, as we too often are in today’s sports world, a narrative laden with saccharine that is dishonest and unaccountable.

It gives me agita. You true, blue Philadelphia area folk know what I mean.

Because after the game, I have to hear Dave Hakstol tell us he’s not going to look at negatives from this game. I have to listen to Michael Barkann on the NBC Sports Network postgame show try and turn every innocuous comment from the locker room into the greatest wisdom being imparted on society since William Jennings Bryan said “You shall not crucify mankind on a cross of gold.”

(Honestly, I felt bad for Chris Therien and Al Morganti who had to sort of go along with the faux positive shtick that Barkann is providing. It might work for Eagles Post Game Live because fans build up all their energy and emotion for one game a week, but it’s really transparent on a early-season, mid-week hockey game in Ottawa. I like Barkann. He’s a good dude who is also very giving of his time to his community. And, outside of this post game nonsense, he’s actually a very good journalist and reporter. But this is too much. I’m not sure if it’s his own doing or a call from the execs at his network, but fans aren’t buying it.)

I even have to hear about the great leadership of Claude Giroux because he guaranteed victory in the game.

Spare me the rhetoric, please.

Giroux, who was really good in the game in Ottawa with a goal and an assist, and who is an excellent captain who is well respected in the locker room, made this “guarantee” in the post game interviews with the media following the loss to San Jose Tuesday:

Yeah, that’s me dying behind Giroux (Thanks to Flyers PR guy Joe Siville for saving me from having a coughing fit on camera and getting me a bottle of water…) But listen to what he said:

“It’s one game. Everyone needs to relax. We’re going to go back to work tomorrow, get a win in Ottawa, and then we’re gonna move on from there.”

Not exactly a full blown guarantee. Not one of those, “Make sure you write this down guys, we’re gonna win tomorrow” moments.

I’ve been there when guarantees were given. They are delivered with far more confidence and bravado. This was just Giroux saying the same thing in public that he probably said a few minutes earlier to his teammates. Relax. It’s the beginning of the season. We’ve got another game tomorrow and we’ll go get that one.

It’s not so much a guarantee, but a “keep your heads up” moment.

But, that’s not a good story. Noooo. Let’s highlight it. Giroux guarantees victory! Never mind they are playing the most dysfunctional team in professional sports today with one of the worst owners ever and a locker room riddled with discord. Never mind the Senators are most likely going to be the worst team in the NHL this season. Never mind that the game was completely disjointed from start to finish.

Claude made a guarantee!!!

Stop it. Please.

And then there was the unrequited love for Calvin Pickard in goal. The guy was fine. He made a bunch of nice stops, probably let in a couple he shouldn’t have, but on the whole was OK. Not bad for a guy who had only one NHL start last season.

But, he wasn’t a world beater. He did allow four goals to a terrible team. He doesn’t exude new goaltending confidence for the Flyers. He was OK. He did a job. He battled and kept the team in the game.

But, let’s all heap praise on Pickard. Let’s all write about how great it was that he got in and backstopped the team to a victory.

Let’s not focus on the fact that this guy could be shipped right back to Toronto if Michal Neuvirth is healthy. Let’s not lose sight of the fact that the organization has six goalies on two teams, and that’s unsustainable, so Pickard is likely to be no more than a footnote in Flyers history.

Let’s not focus on the fact that the Flyers have now allowed 17 goals in the last three games – we’re just going to accentuate the positive.

And then Hakstol doesn’t help by giving us this post game:

“I’m not going to take any negatives out of this. This is a hell of a push back win on a back-to-back coming off a real miserable night in our own building. We’re going to take the two points. We’ll take the positives out of the game and the guys will get a day off tomorrow, we’ll regroup and build for Saturday.”

This response was to a question about the penalty kill, which after a solid start in the first two games, has now turned back into the dumpster fire that it was last season and has allowed five goals in the last two games. They have now killed only 68.4% of the shorthanded situations they’ve been in. Last season they finished at 75.8%, which was 29th in the league.

Yeah, it’s only four games. Statistics tend to get skewed by an outlier game or two this early, so it’s not time to slam them yet, but it’s not a good trend.

Needless to say, this kind of “We only focus on the positive” thing really has permeated sports and it drives me nuts. Can professional athletes making a pretty sweet living financially not handle criticism? Do they all have to be treated with kid gloves?

I don’t need coaches to be jerks and piss off the entire team at all times. There is room for being understanding and not being heavy-handed. But those times should be reserved for when the team deserves it and has earned it, and not just because you beat a bad team in a bad game the day after getting utterly destroyed by a good team.

Sorry, doesn’t fly for me.

Now, there were some positives last night, I will agree on that. I’m not such a malcontent and I’m not so jaded that I don’t see it.

1. Scoreaceck

Jake Voracek had his first career five-point game last night. It was nice to see Jake get going after seeming to struggle through the first three games, especially at 5-on-5 play where his Corsi For rating was an abysmal 30.6% through the first three games.

Flyers fans shouldn’t have worried about that number too much, as Voracek historically drives the play far more than he chases it. So, that number was bound to improve, but, he’s never been a great defensive player in his own end, so you’d like to see offensive production from him that’s not just on the power play, and, well, he provided it last night:

That goal was all Voracek. He got the defenseman to go down, He opened up as if he was going to pass (which he usually does) and got goalie Craig Anderson to cheat just enough that he was able to fire the puck through the fie-hole for the goal.

The Flyers needed Voracek to get going, and going he got.

2. No. 1 Power play

This unit is flat out clicking. The Flyers have scored on 25% of their chances so far this season. Again, it’s early, it’s a small sample and all that, but extrapolated over a full season, that 25% number would have been second-best in the NHL last season.

There are so many options here and it helps that the Flyers have three different players on the ice who can control the play once the power play is set up in the zone. Shayne Gostisbehere flourishes as the point man. Voracek and Giroux are wizards with the puck on the half wall.

But the biggest change in the Flyers power play this season is sliding Sean Couturier down onto the left post with Wayne Simmonds on the right post. It has forced teams to use both defensemen to mark men and opened up the box for Giroux and Voracek to make nifty passes across the zone, rather than have to always work around the zone through Gostisbehere.

Add in the fact that there are a lot of quick passes, or one-touch passes, and the Flyers power play is lethal.

Giroux’s goal last night is evidence of that:

While this was a rebound goal and not one rooted out of pretty passes, you can see the Sens are forced to mark both Couturier and Simmonds, meaning if there’s a rebound, Giroux and Voracek have a lot more space to operate, and on this one, Anderson had no prayer at getting over to stop Giroux.

This will be the Flyers’ strong suit (of course) all season long.

3. Laughts

Scott Laughton is really starting to come into his own. He was moved up to the third line last night, filling the James van Riemsdyk void, and he responded with another excellent game, scoring two goals (one was an empty-netter).

Laughton has been one of the bright spots on the fast-fading penalty kill, but aside from that, he plays with grit and intensity and isn’t afraid to get into hard areas of the ice.

He’s turning into a bit of an underrated player for the Flyers, and that’s OK. He does a lot of little things really well, things that don’t show on the scoresheet, but now he’s starting to show up there as well as he has three goals through the first four games.

If he’s a guy that can add secondary scoring for the Flyers, that will be a nice bonus for this team:

4. The Fourth line

Much maligned, both Jori Lehtera and Dale Weise had excellent games last night for the Flyers. Weise had two points for the first time in more than a year and Lehtera actually looked serviceable.

Michael Raffl, the third member of the line, continues to play well, and he set up Robert Hagg’s goal by slowing the game down mentally:

All told, the Flyers fourth line, no matter who it’s consisted of this season, has been pretty strong through four games.

Weise isn’t anything special, and probably won’t incite much excitement in the fan base based on just one game, but he came into the lineup and did what Jordan Weal didn’t do in his one game audition – play well in limited action.

Enough so, that he probably earned another start in the lineup on Saturday.

Overall, if this line can provide the kind of spark in their limited minutes that they have so far, then the Flyers will take it.

As for Hagg, he now has two goals this season. That’s some unexpected offense from him, but it’s the result of being more active in the offensive end. He’s hunting pucks in the high slot and finishing, which is a good thing too for the Flyers.

5. But there’s more to be negative about….

I won’t go bananas angry over these things, but it’s just more evidence that everything wasn’t as rosy as it some would like you to believe last night.

  • Too many penalties – the Flyers were pretty undisciplined last night. Thankfully for them, so were the Senators. It probably didn’t help matters that the referees were micro-officiating last night, intent on calling a lot of penalties in a sloppy game, but one of the best ways to improve your penalty kill is to not allow them to have to kill too many times. Better discipline is needed here.
  • Speaking of the penalty kill, and I know we mentioned it earlier, but the problem from this perspective is how passive it is down low. I think the Flyers have been more aggressive in challenging power plays through the neutral zone, are taking away time and space at the point and are disrupting set-ups better, but once the other team has the power play in place, that’s when I think there is too much standing around. Killing penalties is about will and determination. That’s missing on the back end.
  • Speaking of the back end, what’s up with Ivan Provorov? He had another bad game last night. He’s really been in a funk the first four games. I’m confident he’ll find his way out of it eventually, but when it’s bad, it’s bad.
  • Travis Sanheim is another one. I’m not sure why, but he loses his feet too often and then he’s not physically hard on the opposition in front of the net. Not to mention, he is turnover prone. Again, these are the same glaring mistakes from last season. I know it takes time, and we should all be patient, but I’m starting to wonder “what if” this just is his game?
  • I’m one of Andrew MacDonald’s most fervent defenders. Not because I think he’s a great defenseman, but because I think the level of animosity toward him is ridiculous. He’s blamed for everything, even if it isn’t his fault. That said, he’s not had a good start to this season at all. He looks worse right now than he did before he was sent down to the AHL a few seasons back. I’m wondering about his health. He did seem to come back really quickly from his pre-season injury that was supposed to keep him out the first 8-10 games of the season. It’s kind of showing. Kudos for being a team-first guy and trying to play through it – like Wayne Simmonds did last year – if in fact that is the case – but it’s not helping. He doesn’t look good.
  • Nolan Patrick got hurt. It’s hard to tell what it is. He took a stick up high in the first period, but played a few shifts after that. He took a hit – albeit not a huge one – and went shoulder first into the glass, but again, it didn’t look like much. He eventually went down the tunnel in the first period and didn’t return. It might not be anything major. He might be in the concussion protocol, which is seven days. Or, it could be something else. Regardless, if he’s out for any extended period of time, that’s not good for the Flyers.

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