Flyers’ mistakes, slumps will be amplified now that they’re in the playoff hunt

The Philadelphia Flyers dropping back-to-back games in regulation to the New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins this weekend isn’t a complete disaster. They’ve built up enough of a cushion in the standings — thanks in large part to ineptitude from the New Jersey Devils and New York Islanders, in particular — that they are still in a prime position to qualify for the playoffs with a strong final seven weeks. At 30-22-7, they still have a five-point lead for third place on the Metropolitan Division field.

But that success also means expectations have been raised for this group. Not even coach John Tortorella, who was quick to tamp down any talk of the playoffs earlier in the season, is shying away from his desire to play into the third week of April anymore.

“There’s a short-term goal, obviously it’s staring us right in the face,” he said on Friday.

Those newfound expectations, though, bring greater scrutiny. And there are certainly some facets of the Flyers’ play, as well as some individual players, that weren’t nearly good enough in Saturday’s 2-1 loss to the Rangers or Sunday’s 7-6 defeat to the Penguins.

The goaltending on Sunday is a good place to start.

Cal Petersen was recalled from the Phantoms just before the All-Star break, with a chance to reestablish himself as an NHL-level goaltender. He got off to a decent start in a 3-2 win over the Seattle Kraken at home on Feb. 10. And while Petersen deserves credit for that win, he wasn’t tested all that much. He was forced to make just 17 saves, while the inept Kraken were credited with just four high-danger scoring chances, per Natural Stat Trick.

He was much busier against the Penguins, who, to be fair, had a distinct energy advantage in the first period in jumping out to a 2-1 lead. But Petersen failed to keep the Flyers in the game late, when they kept clawing their way back before eventually coming up one goal short. He let some stoppable shots get by him, including a couple on the short side that simply can’t go in.

Tortorella said on Friday that Petersen “is going to play some very important games. I think where Cal is in his career, where his career was, and now he’s getting another chance at it, it’s a huge situation for him to show people (he can still win NHL games.)”

But Petersen was so poor on Sunday that it’s fair to wonder if he’ll actually get another start. Felix Sandstrom remains with the Phantoms, and although like Petersen his AHL numbers are poor, the team might tempted to give him a shot. Ersson will surely start on Tuesday against Tampa Bay and Friday in Washington before his backup, whoever it is, could play in the second of the back-to-back on Saturday at home against Ottawa.

It isn’t just the depth in goal that wasn’t effective over the weekend, though. It was the depth at forward and defense that failed the Flyers, too.

Certainly, leading scorer Travis Konecny missing both games with an upper-body injury hurt the attack. But the Flyers had plenty of chances to score more than one goal in the Rangers game, and couldn’t get a key play at the right time to salvage at least one point from the game. Cam Atkinson, Morgan Frost and Sean Couturier all missed on prime opportunities when the Flyers needed someone to step up and make a play.

Had Konecny not gotten hurt in Friday’s practice, Atkinson would have been a good candidate to come out of the lineup on Saturday with Tyson Foerster returning from his foot injury. Sunday’s game was Atkinson’s 11th straight without a point, while his 10:08 in ice time was more than only Nic Deslauriers.

Frost has just one assist in his last five games, generated only two shots on goal over the weekend (both in the Rangers game), and played just 12:14 against the Penguins.

Couturier, too, looks like he’s hit a wall lately. Over the course of the two games, his expected-goals share of 36.6 percent was better than only two players: Atkinson, and Olle Lycksell, who was recalled from the Phantoms again and only played on Sunday.

Couturier made a pretty pass to Foerster on the Flyers’ final goal on Sunday on the power play when they had a six-on-four advantage with Petersen pulled for an extra attacker, adding to his earlier assist on Travis Sanheim’s goal when he won a face-off, but his production is still down. The captain missed two games on Jan. 13-15 due to injury; since then he has just one goal and five assists in 15 games, even with the pair of helpers on Sunday. It’s entirely possible Couturier is trying to tough it out through some sort of physical ailment.

And speaking of physical ailments, there’s defenseman Jamie Drysdale, who got hammered by Pittsburgh’s Jansen Harkins in the second period and immediately left the ice, seemingly favoring his left shoulder — the same shoulder that he injured on Oct. 28, 2022, when a torn labrum forced him to miss the remainder of that season.

Drysdale’s absence meant that Marc Staal had to play 16:12 on Sunday, well over his season average of 13:07 coming into the game. Staal looked particularly gassed on Drew O’Connor’s goal early in the third period to give the Penguins a 5-4 lead. First, he nearly took too long in bringing the puck out from behind the net and then flubbed a lead pass. He was much too slow in chasing the puck down in the corner when it came back the other way as he was at the end of his shift, and was caught drifting toward the bench when Foerster turned it over, leading to O’Connor swiping in a feed from Evgeni Malkin.

Any prolonged Drysdale absence will only hurt what is already one of the worst power plays in the league, too. Although it was poor just about all game on Sunday before Foerster’s late score, Drysdale had been getting more comfortable as the quarterback of the top unit in recent weeks, leading to more zone time and shot attempts. It seems doubtful at this point that the Flyers have anyone that can effectively, and consistently, run a power play.

It wasn’t all bad over the weekend. Scott Laughton continued to play his best hockey of the season, with a short-handed goal and two assists, increasing his point streak to a career-best seven games. Foerster, after an injury scare himself when he got hit in the knee with an Owen Tippett shot, potted a pair of goals and continued to show growth as one of the potential building blocks of the rebuild. He now has six goals in his last six games, sandwiched around his four-game absence, and was probably the Flyers’ best forward over the course of the two losses. Samuel Ersson was outstanding in the loss to the Rangers, going toe to toe with Igor Shesterkin, who was just a little bit better on the other end. Sanheim, who scored twice on Sunday, has points in six of his last seven games.

But others, veterans and young players alike, will have to do more, particularly if guys like Konecny and Drysdale are out for any extended period.

“More responsibility comes to you when you’re in that 20, 25 games (left) situation where you’re still playing meaningful games,” Tortorella said on Friday. “But it adds responsibility, it adds pressure. It’s right where you want to be as an athlete — if it’s the right athlete that we have here.”

Who’s right, and who maybe isn’t? Check back in a few weeks.

(Photo: Charles LeClaire / USA Today)

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