Sixty minutes. You’ve got to play for sixty minutes. It’s a cliché in the hockey world. But the funny thing about clichés is – and the reason why they hang around – they’re true.
And that’s a lesson the Flyers have to learn if they want to repeat last year’s run at the Stanley Cup.
One period, two periods. But never three periods. That’s how things have been going for the Flyers lately.
Chris Pronger described an up-and-down game in which his team matched the opposition – and then some – in the first, gave up control in the second, and then grappled for the lead in the third before coming out on the losing end.
“We’re playing teams that are battling for their lives. They’re going to be desperate and play with a lot of determination and desire,” he said. “We’ve got to match that if we want to win any hockey games.”
Fellow defensive specialist Kimmo Timonen agreed that the Flyers just didn’t play the whole game.
“You’ve got a 2-0 lead, everything’s going your way – you’re all over them. You think it’s going to be an easy game, but it wasn’t,” he said. “We can’t really take a period off this time of year. Every team’s coming out hard – especially these teams who are fighting for a playoff spot.
“They’re going to work sixty minutes hard, and if we’re not ready for that, we’re going to lose games.”
Well for at least the first twenty, the Flyers not only matched Buffalo, but outworked them. Around the midpoint, the Flyers found themselves down two skaters, facing a 5-on-3 Sabres advantage. Mike Richards led by example with high-intensity shift to kill the penalties.
Soon after, the Flyers were on a power play of their own, and Richards sent the Buffalo defense scrambling with a pass from the point to the opposite faceoff circle, where Matt Carle sent it out front for an easy put-in by Kris Versteeg.
James van Riemsdyk capped off that dominant first with a pretty backhand shot over goaltener Ryan Miller’s shoulder.
That dominance didn’t carry over to the second.
With Chris Pronger just returning to the ice from the penalty box, a few quick passes found Sabre Drew Stafford in front to beat Sergei Bobrovsky.
Not content to watch their lead dwindle, the Flyers came out with a couple of hard-checking, determined shifts.
But one bad bounce later, a Tyler Ennis shot from below the goal line redirects off a sprawling Patrick Kaleta – whom Sean O’Donnell had just introduced to the ice – and past Bobrovsky.
This time, the Flyers weren’t hungry for revenge, they were just deflated, and Buffalo notched another goal before Peter Laviolette took a timeout to remind his team that there was hockey to be played.
They came hard after that, with some physical play – which left them shorthanded – and a Kimmo Timonen shorthanded goal – the 100th of his NHL career.
They played with the Sabres from then on, but only one of the two teams managed a goal in the third. A moment of soft coverage by the Flyers allowed Thomas Vanek to hit Jason Pominville in stride for the go-ahead goal.
One empty net tally later, and the Sabres found themselves walking out of Philly with a 5-3 win and two more points in the standings.
Those moments of weakness in the second spelled doom for the Flyers today.
In the past, the Flyers’ weakest moments have been the opening minutes of a game – falling behind and forcing themselves to play catch-up the rest of the night.
Lately, that hasn’t been the case.
Over a stretch of four losses in the last five games, the Flyers have netted the first one in each.
So they may be starting with that intensity, but they’re getting a little too comfortable in those leads and failing when it counts, with opponents outscoring them 9-2 in the third period over the last five games.
Peter Laviolette knows that his team is capable of better – their consistent first place ranking is evidence of that – and knows that they’ll find a way back to that before it’s too late.
“This team got to this point by a certain recipe – a certain identity – in how they play the game. We’ve got to continue to work at that, get back to that, get to that,” he said. “Wins will start to come our way.
“I promise you this, wins will start to come our way.”
With a coach that determined backing a team that skilled, I wouldn’t expect anything less.