Alexander Ovechkin celebrates his game-tying goal while I bang my head against the wall.
Sunday afternoon, the Philadelphia Flyers traveled to Washington to take on the Capitals. They had good reason to beat their division rivals. As well as badly needing two points to leap over the logjam for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, Philadelphia aimed to avenge its worst defeat of this difficult season: a 7-0 embarrassment on home ice, on November 1, by a Washington squad playing without Alexander Ovechkin.
Surrendering a power-play goal midway through the first period, Philadelphia steadied itself and did not allow Washington to build on its lead. And with less than a minute to go in the opening stanza, Claude Giroux one-timed a perfect serve from Michael Raffl, knotting the game 1-1.
Shortly after the seven-minute mark of the second period, Raffl, playing the best game of his young career, gently dished a pass to a rushing Mark Streit, who rifled a wrister low into the far corner, giving the Flyers a 2-1 lead. Playing cleverly and confidently, Philadelphia shut down the passing lanes, and goaltender Steve Mason made numerous solid saves, leading Philly into the third period with a one-goal advantage.
Most hockey fans would feel pretty comfortable with their team holding a 4-1 lead 3:32 into the third period. Maybe even most Flyers fans.
Not me. I know better. I’ve seen it too often. And when Philadelphia failed to score during a flurry of pressure in the Washington zone several minutes later—despite my audible warning to them through the television that the lead isn’t big enough—I knew they were in trouble.
I always feel the noose around its neck when Philadelphia holds a three-goal lead. Sure enough, Braydon Coburn’s clearing pass lands on a Capital's stick, and after some nifty tic-tac-toe passing, Washington defenseman Mike Green uncorks an eminently savable wrist shot from 10 feet inside the blue line, giving the Caps life with 8:40 to go.
Five minutes later, Dmitry Orlov slaps the puck past Mason, who suddenly has forgotten how to cut down an angle as if he were hockey’s version of Archie Graham and moving beyond the blue of his crease will irrevocably transform him into an aged Burt Lancaster.
Bad clearing passes, the inability to win defensive face-offs and, most importantly, a disappearance of aggressiveness and urgency have quickly imperiled a hard-earned victory. The ice now tilted toward Philadelphia’s net, complete collapse seems only a matter of time. And I fully expect it.
That time comes with 38 seconds remaining in regulation. With Caps goalie Philipp Grubauer pulled for an extra attacker, Joel Ward corrals Mason’s wrap-around, whips the puck between the top of the circles and Ovechkin lasers a snapshot low to Mason’s stick side.
It’s almost an anticlimax that Washington wins the shootout. Once again, Philadelphia has snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
I’ve been feeling unavoidable doom about three-goal leads in this town since April 25, 2009, when the Flyers, down 3-2 to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, jumped on their cross-state rivals and seemed sure to force a Game 7—only to quickly suffer a disintegration of focus and killer instinct that ended their season in front of a stunned home crowd.
Trailing the Flyers by three goals early in the second period, Pittsburgh pot stirrer Max Talbot cleverly goaded Daniel Carcillo into a pointless fight 15 seconds after Philadelphia scored its third goal. And although Talbot did not defeat Carcillo, his fighting spirit invigorated the Penguins, producing a Ruslan Fedotenko score 14 seconds later that quickly quieted a belligerent crowd.
Rattled, distracted or perhaps already chalking up Game 6 as a victory, Philadelphia quickly unraveled. Mark Eaton tallied Pittsburgh’s second goal less than two minutes later, and before the buzzer sounded, Sidney Crosby, the scourge of the Wachovia Center, had tied the game. In 13 minutes of play, the Flyers had gone from total control to utter chaos.
Technically, there still were 20 minutes to play, but the game—and Philadelphia’s season—was over. Pittsburgh took a 4-3 lead early in the third, and a dazed and flustered Flyers squad could only muster a mere five shots before Crosby put them out of their misery with an empty-netter.
Certainly, this was far from the first time a Flyers team had blown a three-goal lead. (Just 13.5 weeks prior to its Game 6 collapse, Philadelphia took a 3-0 lead into the final period against the Thrashers, only to surrender three straight goals, before finally defeating lowly Atlanta.) Yet this season-ending playoff game was surely the most conspicuous and catastrophic.
That Game 6 implosion to the Penguins has served, for me at least, as a harbinger of three-goal debacles-to-come. The three-goal advantage feels like Philadelphia’s kiss of death. Rather than be supremely confident of victory, as in the old days (the old days herein defined as the moment Philadelphia drafted Bobby Clarke, to the dark day that Dave Poulin was prematurely traded away), I now dread when the Flyers mount a three-goal lead.
I cringe and worry and sweat out the inevitable. I have witnessed it too many times—this franchise that, in the old days, played 60 minutes of hockey, and played it smartly, now clinging confusedly to a three-goal lead. As if it, too, dreads the inevitable; as if it doesn’t know how to handle its present success.
Or worse, as if it feels that its job is done—which has seemed the case on more than one occasion.
Without plowing through six seasons’ worth of box scores for the 29 other teams, I have no comparative data to back this up, but I feel confident in asserting that the Philadelphia Flyers seem to be the most adept franchise in the NHL at blowing three-goal leads.
Since the beginning of that fateful 2008-09 season, Philadelphia has held a three-goals-or-more lead 28 times (including playoffs). However, six of those leads occurred very late in the game (all but one achieved by empty-net tally), when too little time remained for the Flyers to collapse. Of those 22 three-goal leads that it held for a viable length of time, Philadelphia squandered seven of them (including the aforementioned Game 6)—an appalling proportion that, although it might not equate to “inevitable” as I earlier described, certainly justifies my impending sense of doom.
Furthermore, in only two of those seven games did the Flyers manage to recover and eke out a win (one by shootout) that should have come much easier. Worse yet, five of those seven meltdowns occurred in the third period, when Philadelphia should have emerged from the second intermission with killer instinct—like a team serious about contending for the Stanley Cup.
Five wins-turned-losses, and nearly another two, in less than six full seasons appear intrinsically to be of little concern, yet it speaks to a recurring flaw in Flyers hockey over recent memory: the failure to consistently put 60 minutes of solid effort into games. (Philadelphia has had plenty of difficulty protecting two-goal leads as well, but the list is too comprehensive, and the occurrence too common throughout the NHL, to detail them here.)
Despite one massacre by, and one cave-in against, Washington so far this season, goal-starved Philadelphia has played energetically, if not always dynamically, under coach Craig Berube. However, the vast majority of Philadelphia’s 14 wins have come against sub-.500 teams. And itself yet to break .500 as the season’s halfway mark approaches, Philadelphia can ill-afford to throw away points by blowing leads large enough to assure the Flyers victory.
Berube is going to have to drill that will to win into the Flyers' heads—something no other Philadelphia coach since Mike Keenan has been able to do with regularity.
Killer instinct—you need it to win the Stanley Cup.
And the Philadelphia Flyers will need it to make the playoffs.