Gameday 01: A Midwinter Start

On this date last year the Pittsburgh Penguins were in between wins: a 4-3 shootout win over the Coyotes in Arizona, followed by a 7-3 pasting of the Minnesota Wild at PPG Paints Arena. Tristan Jarry, now the Penguins’ starting goaltender, won both games for the Penguins, and things were going so well at that point that even such notables as Alex Galchenyuk, Dominik Simon, and even Andrew Agozzino were getting on the scoreboard. By that point in mid-January 2020 they were comfortably in second place in the Metropolitan Division. But, even while they were able to creep into first place at one point in February, they languished as February became March, and were overcame in the standings by both the Washington Capitals and, tonight’s foe, the Philadelphia Flyers.

We all know happened then. In March, the COVID-19 pandemic exploded in the United States, forcing the NHL as well as everyone else to pause and stay home. It would not be until August that the NHL would resume its activities, but this time only in Canada – Edmonton and Toronto to be exact. The Penguins were given the chance to make a push for the Cup, but yielded pitifully to the bottom-ranked Montreal Canadiens in the. Canadiens goaltender Carey Price stood on his head and handed the Penguins their asses. Another lost season for the two-headed monster of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin; one season closer to the end.

On a somewhat brighter note, although the Flyers did qualify for the…Qualifying Round by virtue of their second-place finish in the division, and although they did end up as the number one seed in the Eastern Conference, and they did dispatch the Canadiens in the first round of the playoffs, the Flyers were eliminated in the second round by the New York Islanders and sent back to the golf courses before the weather got bad. In the past forty-five years, Stanley Cups won: Pittsburgh: 5; Philadelphia: 0. Hell, since being expanded into the League with the Penguins, the Flyers only have two Cups in eight chances while the Penguins are five-for-six. Due to their being in the same state, the relationship between the Penguins and Flyers is often considered a “rivalry,” but perhaps only in name.

Like their peers in Brooklyn/Long Island and Columbus, the Flyers have been on the outside looking in of late, stuck behind the Metro Division domination of the Pittsburgh/Washington duo for the last ten years. They’ve spent more time spinning their wheels in the mud than genuinely improving and meeting the task of felling Crosby or Alex Ovechkin, but even when they get the chance to improve, like, say a second overall pick, they can’t even get that right. Already five players from the 2017 draft have moved ahead of Nolan Patrick in point shares, although it should be noted that Patrick missed all of last season with migraine issues, which is obviously not in his control. Nevertheless, 2018-19 Calder winner Elias Pettersson probably would have been nicer to have instead.

One problem for the Flyers is that they don’t have one guy they can rely on to score goals. Claude Giroux scored 34 in his career-best year in 2017-18, but his average per year is 20. The Flyers’ leading goal scorer last year, Travis Konecny, scored 24 last year…and the year before that…and the year before that…and that’s really all in his four-year career. In 2018-19 Sean Couturier, the Selke winner for best defensive forward (perhaps a clue), scored 33 goals after scoring 31 the year before, but his average is only 17. Jakub Voracek has only ever scored 23 in a year. Kevin Hayes had 25 for the Rangers in 2017-18 and 23 last year, but no more. Only James van Riemsdyk eclipses them all with a career-best 36 in 2017-18, but he scored half as many last season. When they last went to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2010, they had two thirty-goal scorers, and that’s all they’ve really been able to muster since. The last Flyer to score 40+ goals was Jeff Carter in 2008-09.

There hasn’t been consistent results for the Flyers over the last several years, and that’s got to be tough to reckon with if you’re one of the veterans on this team hoping to make the Conference Finals or beyond. Last year the Flyers were generally pretty good – tied-seventh in goals scored, eighth in fewest allowed, eleventh-fewest shots taken but tied for fifth in shooting percentage – except in one key aspect: they allowed the fewest shots against in the League, but had a very average team save percentage. The supposed new savior in net, Carter Hart, had some pretty good basic stats, a .914 save percentage and a 2.42 goals against average, but had a pretty pedestrian 4.46 goals saved above average. Maybe he takes another step forward and starts carrying the Flyers in a way that the guys in front of him haven’t seemed able to? He could just do that, considering he’s 21 years old and the defense limited chances so effectively last season. But again, they need to convert on their chances in the offensive end.

The Penguins will be without one of their key chance preventers in the bottom-six for at least another month as Zach Aston-Reese continues to recover from offseason shoulder surgery, but everyone else on the roster is supposedly at 100%. I don’t think it needs to be said, but keeping everyone at or near to 100% for as long as possible is one of the keys to a successful season for the Pittsburgh Penguins. The farm system is just about out of productive prospects, so injuries to a few key producers could really derail their Cup hopes come May. The team has put a lot of faith in Tristan Jarry in goal, having shipped off two multiple-Cup-winning goaltenders in the last three seasons to make way for him. There’s reason to be optimistic about the roster, but every player must at least meet their expectations. This doesn’t feel like a particularly volatile team, but things can go sideways in a hurry in a shortened-season. Then again, the last time there was a short season, the Penguins flourished, so who knows?