Slow starts were a problem for the Flyers throughout the regular season and that bugaboo came back to haunt them again Monday night.
The Flyers skated out onto the Scotiabank Arena ice as a goal and a half favorite over the Islanders and promptly played perhaps their worst 20 minutes of hockey since 2019.
While goaltender Carter Hart kept the Flyers in it, he couldn’t prevent a goal from veteran defenseman Andy Greene at the 6:06 mark.
As it turned out, that would be the winning goal. Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Anders Lee added insurance goals at 2:54 and 8:50 respectively of the third period. New York also scored a fourth goal by Devon Toews into an empty net as the Flyers chose to pull Hart with more than seven minutes to play.
Philadelphia wound up getting outshot by a 15-4 margin in that first period and although it rebounded nicely in the second, it wasn’t nearly enough.
The Islanders went on to a 4-0 victory and a 1-0 edge in the Eastern Conference semifinal best-of-seven series, which resumes Wednesday afternoon (3).
Several Flyers wouldn’t characterize it as the worst first period since the turn of the new year but conceded it was the weakest effort since entering the Toronto bubble 10 games ago.
What was missing?
“Obviously when the shots are 15-4, I think everything is missing,’’ Jake Voracek said in a Zoom call after the game. “We got outplayed. They were first on the pucks. We created a few good chances, a two-on-one (Travis Konecny got stopped), a breakaway (by Kevin Hayes, in which the puck slipped off his stick).
“We have to find a way to put those in and follow up in the second period. I think if we scored a goal during the first or second, that game would be different. You can’t win if you don’t score.’’
Claude Giroux seconded the notion this was the Flyers’ poorest first period in recent memory.
“The first period was probably the worst we’ve had in the bubble,’’ Giroux said. “In the second and third, we generated more offense. We’ve got to get going here.’’
Coach Alain Vigneault said his team responded after the first period.
“In the second (period), we were the better team,’’ he said. “We had the zone time, we had the looks, we had the scoring chances. We weren’t able to find that goal that would have tied up the game.
“We’ll analyze the game, look at film and see if there are areas where we can execute a little bit better.’’
Goaltender Semyon Varlamov recorded his second straight shutout for the Islanders.
The Flyers certainly don’t want to fall into a 2-0 hole here. They might be able to take some solace they haven’t lost back-to-back games since January.
“This group has always found a way to respond,’’ Vigneault said. “We’ll respond on Wednesday.’’
Hayes added: “I think we have the right recipe in that room. We know how to respond. I have all the faith in the world in my teammates right now. You can’t lose a series until you lose four.’’
If not for Hart, the first period could have been much worse. On several occasions, he had to stop point-blank scoring tries, including close-range shots off the sticks of Brock Nelson and Pageau.
In the second period, the Flyers woke up and got their forecheck going. They outshot the Islanders by a 15-7 total.
As good as that second period effort was, the Flyers went lax with their defensive zone coverage in the third, leading to the Pageau goal. Then Lee converted a pinpoint pass from Matthew Barzal for a shot which Hart had no chance against.
Vigneault made some line changes on the fly, promoting Giroux back to the top line with Sean Couturier and Voracek midway through the first period.
Other moves were made before the game. Nicolas Aube-Kubel (foot injury) returned to the lineup and James van Riemsdyk was scratched. Shayne Gostisbehere, who substituted for Matt Niskanen (suspension) in Game 6 of the Montreal series, remained in the lineup. Gostisbehere was paired with Justin Braun.
Joel Farabee played on the second line with Hayes and Travis Konecny, with Scott Laughton dropping to the fourth line.
The Flyers looked a little rattled at the start of the game and some of that could be nerves suffered by some of the younger players who are short on playoff experience.
Islander coach Barry Trotz preaches defense and that usually wins for the Islanders. In the past two playoff seasons, his teams are 11-2 when allowing two or fewer goals.