After losing 4-3 in overtime and being pushed to the brink of elimination, the Flyers find themselves in a difficult position. They now have to win two games in a row against a very defensive minded team who has frustrated them through five games. If you're looking for reasons why the Flyers are suddenly one game away from their off-season, there are plenty; injuries, poor goaltending, a poor power play, and any number of other excuses.
But beyond all of that, you have to first look at Peter Laviolette. After doing all the right things last year, the coach has made more than a few poor decisions this post-season. First, he scratched Nikolay Zherdev for Games 1 and 2 despite Zherdev consistently moving the play forward among the NHL's elite over the last four years.
Then, Laviolette over-reacted to a poor twelve minute stretch by Sergei Bobrovsky and relegated his starting goalie to being a healthy scratch in favor of Michael Leighton. This move proved incorrect when, after Brian Boucher faltered, Leighton gave up the game-winning goal in Game 5 because... he was playing like Michael Leighton. This isn't blaming Leighton for the goal, but simply pointing out that only Michael Leighton plays this far back in his net on a shot from 62 feet away.
Now, obviously, you can't blame Peter Laviolette for Andrej Meszaros missing Matt Carle on his breakout pass, or for Zherdev being unable to tip the puck past the Sabres' defender and out of the zone. But his decision to dress Michael Leighton directly contributed to the rebound and goal given up. Simply put, in order for Michael Leighton to be successful, he has to stay back in his net. Sergei Bobrovsky is the exact opposite. With Bobrovsky in net, the puck does not bounce off the left pad directly to Tyler Ennis' stick, as Bobrovsky would have been further from his crease.
Perhaps the biggest example of Laviolette mismanaging his team was his decision to dress Zac Rinaldo last night. With Andreas Nodl and Jeff Carter absent from the lineup, the Flyers were suddenly short a top-9 forward. Instead of dressing Phantoms-MVP and two-way forward Ben Holmstrom, or fan-favorite dangler Eric Wellwood or organization-hyped power forward Mike Testwuide, Peter Laviolette decides to dress agitator Zac Rinaldo.
What does Zac Rinaldo bring to a hockey team? Well, as Phantoms beat-writer Tim McManus stated, Rinaldo had more suspensions than goals this year and finished the regular season with two game misconducts in his final two games. Including one for intent to injure.
On the bright side, Rinaldo only played 1:56. On the down side, Rinaldo took up a roster spot on a team that has struggled to score lately and was missing one of their best players. As a result, the Flyers highly-touted offensive depth was shrunk drastically. Six forwards received over nineteen minutes in ice time (Richards, Briere, Giroux, van Riemsdyk, Versteeg, and Leino) while four forwards received thirteen minutes or less (Carcillo, Powe, Betts, and Rinaldo).
Where's the depth if you're going to replace your leading goal scorer with a goon who can only take 3 shifts? What does that accomplish? Nothing. It is a waste of a roster spot. Even if Ben Holmstrom would have gotten less than ten minutes of ice time, he could have played while Darroll Powe was getting stitched up or in place of Dan Carcillo on a key defensive zone draw. Instead, the Flyers had only 11 forwards for the final 43 minutes of last night's game. Terrible, inexcusable decision.
The poor lineup decisions don't stop with Rinaldo, however. Laviolette dressed Danny Syvret (as he should have, since Syvret has played better than Sean O`Donnell) but... refused to play him. Syvret finished the night with 2:59 in ice time and didn't leave the bench for the final 36:19 of the game. For more than half of last night's game, Laviolette only used sixteen of his eighteen skaters.
With such a shortened bench, one would think Laviolette had a plan and specific roles for where players were used. This wasn't the case. In nearly 50 minutes of five-on-five time, the Flyers only had 11 defensive zone faceoffs. And of those 11, three were the result of an icing. That means Laviolette had 8 opportunities to get his defensive players out in the defensive zone.
Instead, he gave Blair Betts and Darroll Powe the same number of 5-on-5 defensive zone faceoffs as he gave Claude Giroux and Danny Briere. With so few defensive zone faceoffs, it's difficult to imagine an excuse to start Danny Briere in the defensive zone as often as Blair Betts. On the flip side, of the 18 offensive zone faceoffs the Flyers had last night, James van Riemsdyk was only given two and Zherdev was only given one. Both Blair Betts and Darroll Powe were given as many offensive opportunities as Zherdev and only one fewer than van Riemsdyk. How does this make sense? The answer is: It doesn't.
For defensemen, defensive specialist Sean O`Donnell was given seven offensive zone faceoffs while Danny Syvret was floundering on the bench. Even if Laviolette was sheltering O`Donnell from his own zone, there is no excuse for choosing O`Donnell over Syvret in the offensive zone. In five playoff games so far - and over 73 minutes of ice time - O`Donnell has gotten exactly one shot on goal. Syvret, in less than 40 minutes of ice time, has gotten four shots on goal. If you are starting your third defensive pair in the offensive zone, there is no excuse in choosing O`Donnell over Syvret for those opportunities.
Lastly, with the benefit of having last change, Peter Laviolette is able to see who is on the ice for the Sabres and send his players out accordingly. But a quick perusal of the head-to-head ice time shows that Lindy Ruff was able to get the better matchups. Tomas Vanek most often faced O`Donnell, Meszaros, Hartnell, and Briere. The Sabres' best scorer faced the Flyers' #4 and #5 defensemen and two of their least-defensive forwards more than any other. That isn't the matchup you want.
On offense, Laviolette was unable to keep Danny Briere away from Tyler Myers, nor was he able to keep Briere away from the duo of Paul Gaustad and Rob Niedermayer, the Sabres' two best defensive forwards. Dan Carcillo and Mike Richards most frequently lined up against Nathan Gerbe, Drew Stafford, and Tim Connolly, three of their better offensive players, but they spent less than half of their ice time against them.
So far this series, Peter Laviolette has been out-coached. He's made mistake after mistake, and now the Flyers find themselves down three games to two. He benched Nikolay Zherdev - once again - despite Zherdev being one of the best players in the NHL at generating offensive opportunities. He over-reacted by benching his starting goaltender in favor of a below-average NHL goalie who gives up juicy rebounds due to his technique. He dressed an agitator rather than someone who can contribute on the ice. He shortened his bench by refusing to play his fifth-best defenseman. He misused his forwards by starting his offensive players in the defensive zone. He misused his defensemen by keeping his offensive defenseman on the bench in favor of the defensive defenseman. He did not worry about matchups, and thus did not best position his players to succeed. He let the Sabres' best offensive player run wild against some of the Flyers' worst defensive players.
Peter Laviolette is a good coach and he deserves a lot of credit for all he's done since taking over as Head Coach. But these last five games, he's made mistake after mistake. There are many reasons why the Flyers are facing elimination, and their head coach is at the top of the list.