Thursday, November 20, 2014

Flyers sputter again in last-minute loss to Wild

by Bob Herpen
Phanatic Hockey Editor 

These days, not even a long-awaited dip into a glorious past could awaken the Orange and Black in the present.

The club feted Eric Lindros and John LeClair as new members of the franchise Hall of Fame before the puck drop, then went out and treated Darcy Kuemper as if he were Henrik Lundqvist after it.

Ultimately, though Kuemper held the Flyers at bay for most of the contest thanks to 37 stops, it was a score inside the final minute of regulation by Jason Zucker which gave the Minnesota Wild a 3-2 victory over Philadelphia on Thursday night.

"We all realized we weren’t playing our game, we weren’t on top of it, and there’s going to be nights like that. But you’ve got to fight through it,” Kuemper said. “Guys stepped up."

Despite a season-worst four-game slide, there is a note of defiance and of hope that things are going to turn around eventually if the effort remains as consistent as the players claim it has been despite the poorly-timed pratfall.

For now, it seems to be baby steps for the Orange and Black, who bore the brunt of a brief and profane outburst by general manager Ron Hextall after a 2-0 loss to the Rangers on Wednesday in Manhattan, and played better but still wound up on the wrong end of the score.

"(We've made) a lot of improvements over the last few games. We played the right way, we had a lot of chances, to score and defensively we played well too. It's obviously frustrating to see (Zucker) score there at the end," said Flyers captain Claude Giroux, -- who did, in fact play better than he had last night where it was a question right up until game time if he'd play due to a lower leg injury.

The Flyers caught a break when Minnesota's Skip Prosser was sent off for closing his hand on the puck deep inside his own zone with 3:56 to play. Shortly into the advantage, Wild blueliner Jared Spurgeon was drilled in the lower leg with a shot and hobbled to the front of the net. That gave Jakub Voracek the space to find Brayden Schenn, who slipped a pass to Giroux in the left circle, and his one-timer zipped inside the near post 26 seconds later.

“As soon as it hit, I felt it break and I tried to get it off, but Zucks and Suts saved me,” Spurgeon said of his broken skate strap, which ended up impeding his effort to cut off the pass through the high slot.

As the clock ticked down inside a minute remaining, Flyers defenseman Andrew MacDonald took a wrong turn with the puck inside his defensive zone, and on a bad carom off the boards, Thomas Vanek chipped the puck to Ryan Suter on the left wing. He got it back due to hard work from Charlie Coyle, and, thanks to a slow reaction on the back check from Matt Read, Zucker was left alone at the right post with 45.4 seconds left to slam home a feed from Suter and give the Wild a 3-2 edge.

"He had the puck and turned back into the play. He should have kept it going up so that play was in our end and Luke (Schenn) just lost his man going to the net," offered Flyers head coach Craig Berube on the miscue that led to the game winner. 

Ray Emery, who ended up losing despite 26 saves, was pulled for an extra skater a short time later, but it wasn't enough to produce an equalizer.

It was a stinging defeat for Philadelphia, which also fell to 1-7-0 this season in combined back-to-back contests. Nonetheless, Berube found silver linings in his team's hustle throughout the night despite a recent 3-6-0 clip which has them sixth in the largely mediocre Metropolitan Division.

"We made mistakes we just can't make and it cost us two goals. Overall, I thought we played well. If we play like that (the rest of the season), we'll win a lot of hockey games," Berube stated. "We've just gotta be focused. Tonight wasn't good enough, we lost, but that's the way you've got to play. That's the competitiveness we're looking for, the skating, the team play. We do our share of that, we'll be right where we want to be."

Though the hosts unleashed 14 shots in the opening 20 minutes, the majority of chances were similar to Wednesday night's loss, characterized by close calls in front and a lack of rebounds. They had Kuemper down in his crease during a brief burst in the final 90 seconds of the first period, but all three shots -- from Giroux, Voracek and MacDonald -- ended up in some portion of the flexible backstop's equipment.

Kuemper looked Hasek-esque approaching the six-minute mark of the second, diving forward to close off the open net which Voracek stard at from his usual perch at the right side thanks to a perfect seam pass from Giroux.

Minnesota finally cracked the scoreboard on the advantage with 9:01 remaining in the middle frame. At the tail end of a hooking call to Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Matt Dumba sped a pass from left to right and though Nino Niederreiter appeared to fan on the one-timer, it still eluded Emery.

The score was the Wild's ninth shot of the contest while the Flyers racked up 21 in the meantime, while it also snapped an 0-for-32 road power-play drought from the start of the season for the visitors.

Mark Streit evened things with 5:29 left before intermission, and one shift after Giroux was finished serving a slashing minor. The Philly captain exited the box and gained possession by taking Wild defenseman Marco Scandella unaware at the opposite blue line and the Flyers largely maintained possession up ice until Vinny Lecavalier whipped a pass into the slot for Streit's shot which bled through Kuemper's five hole.

"We were on the forecheck and Simmer got the puck on the half wall and made a great pass to Vinny," Streit said. "He saw me jumping into the play. I tried to deke the goalie and go five-hole and luckily enough the puck went in."

Marco Scandella took the air out of a crowd just beginning to assert itself, giving Minnesota a 2-1 edge with 1:42 elapsed in the third, left alone at the left point to crank up a rising slapshot which beat Emery high over the glove side.

Kuemper then stretched out at the left post to deny a Streit drive with 5 1/2 minutes played in the third, and like a majority of their chances, the Flyers did not corral a rebound and produce a second chance on net.

A Braydon Coburn shot with 5 1/2 remaining caromed high off Kuemper's blocker and behind the net before a host player could knock it back into the crease.

Notes: Each of the 16 Flyers-Wild contests have failed to produce more than seven combined goals, and Thursday's contest was the 11th decided by two goals or less ... Berube presided over a four-game losing skid from Oct. 11-17, 2013, a streak which began just two games into his tenure after Peter Laviolette was fired ... Zucker's goal was his first in 11 games, while Streit snapped a 12-game scoring drought ... The Flyers scratched defenseman Michael Del Zotto, while MacDonald (10 games, lower body) and Luke Schenn (three games, upper body) both returned from injury ... Minnesota has won a season high four consecutive games ... The Flyers' penalty-killing units have surrendered eight goals in the last 16 chances while a man down ... Philadelphia faces another set of back-to-back games before November ends, on Black Friday and the following Saturday in a home-and-home against the New York Rangers.

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