Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: The Flyers haven’t had a goalie capable of winning a Stanley Cup since…. (fill in the blank with “before the new millennium”, “a young Ron Hextall,” “Pelle Lindbergh’s Vezina Trophy year” or, if you are especially given to hyperbole, “Bernie Parent during the Nixon administration”). Year-in and year-out, targeting the Flyers’ goaltending is low-hanging fruit for hockey pundits.
To be fair, there is legitimate reason this spring to question the stability of the Flyers goaltending heading into the team’s first round series against the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins.
Brian Elliott missed 25 games after undergoing core muscle surgery before returning for the final two games of the regular season. He was rusty and shaky – especially in the first period, but also on a third-period game-tying goal scored from near the left corner – in his first game. He looked better in his second outing, a 17-save shutout, but was scarcely tested.
“You try to feel good. Try to feel a little bit more confident when you’re out there. Just tried to limit my movements and try to stay compact. Just the little things that I was doing before the injury. So just trying to keep that mind frame going. Two games is not a lot, but you build off that for sure,” Elliott said after the regular season finale.
If Elliott falters or gets injured in the playoffs, Plan B is the athletically gifted but serially inconsistent Petr Mrazek. Michal Neuvirth, arguably the most naturally talented goalie on the roster, has never been able to stay healthy and has been streaky during his healthy spells in the NHL. Neuvirth is currently shelved again with a lower-body injury (widely suspected to be a recurring groin pull). Although he’s officially day-to-day, Neuvirth has yet to return to practice with the team since getting reinjured on March 28; his first game back in the lineup.
As the old hockey saying goes: If you’ve got three goalies, you don’t have any. Counting rookie Alex Lyon, the Flyers actually have had four goalies appear in 10 or more games this season.
Nevertheless, the Flyers’ goalie crisis this year down the stretch was primarily injury-related. If Elliott is able to play to the form he showed in November (.920 save percentage) and December (8-4-1 record, 2.15 GAA, .927 SV%), the Flyers will be fine in goal. That’s a big “if”, given the formidable Penguins attack, some defensive depth concerns and Elliott’s short ramp-up time before the postseason.
In the broader picture, though, the “Flyers never have the goaltending” narrative is a lazy one. It’s also false.
There have certainly been years where inconsistent or leaky goaltending was one of the primary culprits in the Flyers’ falling short of their aspirations in the playoffs. Ilya Bryzgalov’s 2012 roller coaster road was a prime example, along with Michael Leighton’s playoff Cinderella story in the 2010 Eastern Conference Finals playing like a rags-to-riches-to-rags saga by the time Patrick Kane scored his bad-angle Stanley Cup winner to end a series in which neither Leighton nor Chicago counterpart Antti Niemi were effective.
There have been several other years where the goaltending essentially ended up being a neutral factor in a playoff outcome. John Vanbiesbrouck allowed only 9 goals in six games against Toronto in 1999 – including a 2-1 overtime loss in Game 5 – yet was an all-too-convenient scapegoat because of two short-side goals he yielded. In 2002 against Ottawa with Roman Cechmanek in goal, the Flyers team won Game 1 in overtime, 1-0, and then scored one goal for the rest of the series). There have also been a couple years where the goaltending has actually been just fine and it has been failings in other areas that cause Philly’s playoff ouster.
Brian Boucher’s stellar rookie run in 1999-2000 was one such year in which goaltending was the least of Philly’s playoff concerns. Robert Esche had far more good games than bad one in the 2004 playoffs, as the Flyers came within one win of the Stanley Cup Finals. Martin Biron basically stole the team’s 2008 playoff series against Montreal, leading the Flyers to the Eastern Conference Finals against Pittsburgh.
Playoffs included, Steve Mason’s 2013-14 season was one of the more underrated full seasons that a Flyers goaltender has put together in the last decade. He had a few hiccups in December and January along with the entire team. Otherwise, Mason’s play was excellent both before December and from February onward. In the playoffs, he nearly stole a seven-game series against a markedly superior New York Rangers team.
In 2016, Mason played well in Game 1 against the Washington Capitals, despite a 2-0 loss. He faltered badly in the second and third periods of Game 2. In Game 3, things turned ugly for the entire team. On the brink of being swept, then-rookie head coach Dave Hakstol turned the reigns over to Neuvirth.
For the next three games, Neuvirth was brilliant. He almost singlehandedly willed the team to a Game 7. Only an unstoppable Caps’ goal in a 1-0 defeat in Game 6 — coming on heels of Neuvirth authoring a a beyond-belief 44-save road shutout in Game 5 — prevented the series from going to the limit.
Entering this year’s playoffs, the Flyers aren’t the only team with question marks in goal. Pittsburgh’s Matt Murray is coming off an inconsistent season in which his save percentage dipped significantly and his goals against average went up correspondingly. On paper at least, the Penguins may be able to get by with merely ordinary goaltending from Murray. The Flyers will likely need a couple notches higher than that from Elliott to author an upset.
If it doesn’t happen, though, don’t simply churn out the same old story about the Flyers goaltending letting them down yet again. Dig a further beneath the surface.
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