Before the NHL’s COVID-hiatus set in last March, the Philadelphia Flyers were the hottest team on the planet. They were cycling pucks with ease in the offensive zone, putting up more goals than all but five teams, stifling opponents’ shot attempts better than any team in the league, and getting key saves from their goalies when called upon.
Once the playoffs started, however, the team looked different. All of a sudden, they found themselves perpetually pinned down in their own zone, surrendering loads of high-quality scoring looks, and having a hard time generating any of their own.
Although Philadelphia’s struggles in last year’s postseason were written off by many as an effect of the pause, or their matchup against against a very defensively stout Islanders squad, many of the same problems have plagued the Flyers through the early part of 2021 as well.
Unfortunately, it appears as if the Canadiens and Islanders did not merely catch the Flyers unaware, but discovered a weakness in the team that the rest of the league (or, rather the rest of the East division) has been able to copy this season. They can be fairly easily outmuscled.
This team is not particularly heavy (James Van Riemsdyk is their biggest player, listed at 217) and have very few guys who have earned the reputation of being big hitters. This was not a huge problem last year, when the Flyers were able to use speed and skill to get clean zone entries and keep the puck out of their own end, but once teams started hemming them in, it became a problem. The result is a team ranked 18th in Corsi for at the time of this writing.
The Washington game on Sunday really helped hammer this point home. Although the Capitals weren’t exactly tossing bodies all over the ice, they were able to use their size and strength to keep the Flyers off the puck, at times looking like a middle-schooler stiff-arming his 1st grade brother. When they did manage to control the puck, the Caps, apart from a few odd-man rushes, were able to get defenders back, deny easy zone entries, and retrieve the puck when the Flyers dumped it in.
Teams have had enough success clogging up the neutral zone and denying the Flyers clean zone entries that the trend is not going to go away, they are going to have to adapt to it. The best way to do this, is to play a more physical brand of hockey, either by dumping the puck and relying on an aggressive forecheck to create turnovers in deep, or using the natural size of forwards like Kevin Hayes and Van Riemsdyk to protect the puck as you skate in along the wall. The Flyers have had a hard time doing either so far this year, but when they have been able to do so, the results have been favorable.
Watching this team so far, they seem to be at their best when they’re playing fast and playing physical. For instance, the Flyers have had three games this year where they outhit their opponent: opening night against the Pens, against Buffalo on January 19th and against Boston on February 3rd. They are 2-0-1 with a +5 differential in those games, and they have probably been the best 60 minute efforts the Orange and Black have put up so far.
Perhaps the secret to success for the Flyers is to start using their body a little more, instead of trying to make every play with their skating and stickwork. Maybe finishing checks, picking the occasional fight and generally playing with a bit of an edge could be just what the doctor ordered to break the Flyers out of their funk.