By Sarah Kwak
NEW YORK -- Going into a do-or-die Game 6 on Tuesday night, the Flyers’ hopes of extending their season come down to one word: execution.
Practice it, or face it.
Poor execution, coach Craig Berube repeated over and over again in his postgame press conference, doomed Philadelphia in Sunday afternoon’s 4-2 loss to the Rangers at Madison Square Garden. Missed passes and sloppy turnovers led to squandered opportunities and put the Flyers in a place they became quite familiar with this season. “I think we’ve had our backs against the wall pretty much all year, fighting,” Berube said. “Fighting for playoffs, fighting for a lot of things. And our team will fight again in Game 6.”
They’ll have to, if they have any chance of playing a Game 7.
Here a some more thoughts and observations from Game 5:
• With Flyers defenseman Nicklas Grossmann out with a lower-body injury he sustained in Game 4, Berube turned to 39-year-old blueliner Hal Gill. With his imposing size (6-foot-7, 243 pounds) and 16 years of NHL experience, Gill seemed to be the safer choice over 25-year-old Erik Gustafsson, a 5-foot-10, 180-pound undrafted back liner with only 91 NHL games under his belt. But the years on Gill were glaringly obvious in his first postseason game since May 2012, when he was playing for Nashville. His speed, which never exactly approached Mach 1, is essentially gone. And his physicality wasn’t even much of a factor in the most recent chapter of this eerily soft series between two teams that traditionally pound the feathers out of each other.
• In just 12:02 of ice time, Gill was minus-2, and his misadventures in the defensive zone directly led to the eventual game-winning goal. When a sloppy pass pinballed in between his skates near the Philadelphia blue line, Gill could not recover. Rangers center Dominic Moore swiped the puck from his feet and broke in for an easy goal at 16:20 of the second period.
• As demoralizing as that gaffe was, Berube went right back to Gill just one shift later. It’s the kind of thing coaches do to make sure a player quickly moves past a mistake, but on his follow-up shift, Gill lost a puck battle along the end boards that led to a prime New York scoring chance. Gill skated six more shifts for the rest of the game, none longer than 35 seconds. Afterwards, Berube said Grossmann would again be unavailable on Tuesday. Will the coach go back to Gill or take a gamble on the young Gustafsson?
• After their Game 4 loss, the Rangers kept saying they didn’t make Philadelphia goaltender Steve Mason’s life difficult enough. In his first start in two weeks, Mason stopped 37 shots in Philadelphia’s 2-1 win on Friday night, but many were perimeter shots that New York didn’t pursue hard for rebounds. The Rangers made a point of going after their second and third chances in front of the Flyers net Sunday afternoon, and they were rewarded with their second goal of the game, a third-try rebound that was lofted home by center Brad Richards from a sharp angle. Those are the kinds of goals that New York needs to get used to scoring, and not just against Mason. Nearly every other team that is still alive in the East boasts a better starting goaltender than the Flyers have.
• New York’s power play drought has extended to 15 man-advantage opportunities without a goal, but an impotent power play doesn’t always spell postseason doom. Recall the Bruins, who won the Stanleu Cup in 2012 with an 11.4-percent man advantage success rate. Still, power play success can give a team a much-needed boost, like the surge that Philadelphia enjoyed in the third period after a goal in the final minute of the second period that helped spark the Flyers' offense. Then, playing 6-on-5 during the fink three minutes, Philadelphia captain Claude Giroux cut the Rangers’ lead to one and set up a frantic final 90 seconds.
• Speaking of penalties and power plays, Game 5 in New York featured more of the interesting officiating we’ve seen during this postseason. At least the quick whistle that negated an obvious Rangers goal early in the second period didn’t end up making all that much of a difference.
• The Flyers are really proud of their resilience, their ability to fight and get back into games. It’s a noble trait, but inherent in that trend is the team’s penchant for slow starts. In this series, Philadelphia has struck first only once, scoring on their first shot in the first period of Game 1. But even in that game, New York completely controlled the start and outplayed the Flyers, outshooting them in the opening 20 minutes by 14-6. In first periods all series, the Rangers are outshooting Philadelphia 58-40. So, perhaps, if the Flyers played better at the start, they wouldn’t have to fight back.
• The Flyers play better with a lead. Unlike the Rangers, who have coughed up an advantage twice and came dangerously close to doing it again on Sunday, Philadelphia has been mostly solid when in front. “They’re a way better team [when leading],” Richards said. “Notice both times they’ve been leading in the third period, it’s much harder to get through the neutral zone, a lot harder to get chances.”