Flyers puzzled by fall from playoffs to worst in the East

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By Dan Gelston (AP Sports Writer)

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — The vendor at the Flyers merchandise kiosk on the main concourse scrolled through his phone as disinterested fans breezed by the $70 Stadium Series sweatshirts and $250 jerseys that suddenly seem as unwanted as a face value ticket. Shortly before faceoff, customers! A Flyers fan stops by and spends $5.39 on a foam finger that is supposed to convey the home team is No. 1.

At least one Flyers fan in the stands had a different digit in mind.

The scoreboard cameras caught a man in the first period flipping Gritty the bird.

Yes, even the beloved Flyers furball can’t escape the wrath of agitated fans in what has become one of the biggest debacles in franchise history. The only part of the season more surprising than the unexpected popularity of their rookie mascot has been the dizzying dip in the standings from a year ago. The Flyers crashed from a 98-point team that made the playoffs to the one of the worst teams in the NHL; they fired the coach, the general manager and play in front of a half-empty Wells Fargo Center where tickets bottomed out at $9 a pop on StubHub on Wednesday.

Hey, for a night, the discounted ducats were worth the price – the Flyers snapped an eight-game losing streak with a 2-1 win over Dallas.

But the win was just a rare respite for a franchise barreling toward the Feb. 25 trade deadline on the brink of another shakeup. The suit and tie guys are gone. General manager Chuck Fletcher was hired in November to replace Ron Hextall, who could not turn the Flyers into contenders after 4+ seasons, and he promptly fired coach Dave Hakstol after three-plus seasons without a playoff series win. Interim coach Scott Gordon is 4-7-2 in his brief tenure.

That leaves the aging veterans in the orange-and-black sweaters, and perhaps some of the newer faces, on the market as Fletcher decides if the time is now for a full-blown roster revamp. Former All-Star forward Wayne Simmonds is in the last year of his contract and could be traded before the Flyers lose him for nothing. Simmonds, who has only 19 points this season, is perhaps the most important voice in the locker room and losing his leadership would hurt the Flyers as much as his point production. Just 30, Simmonds could be packaged for prospects and picks to a contender before he hits free agency.

”Right now, you definitely can’t look at the big picture,” Simmonds said. ”Obviously, the big picture doesn’t look good, so you’ve got to start small and we’ve got to start making strides from there.”

Hextall’s inability to turn things around was among the reasons he was unexpectedly dismissed Nov. 26. Philadelphia hasn’t won the Stanley Cup since 1975 and was ready to try to contend after several years of retooling.

They instead enter Saturday’s game at New Jersey sitting 30th in the NHL standings at 16-22-6 (38 points).

How did it get this bad?

– Start in net. The Flyers tied an NHL record this week with Mike McKenna becoming their seventh goaltender to play this season. The Flyers became the fourth team in league history to hit that ignominious milestone and reached it in just 43 games. The Flyers banked on Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth to man the pipes while top prospect Carter Hart gained experience in the minors. Elliott and Neuvirth have been injured most of the season and patchwork effort was a bust, forcing the Flyers to call up Hart (3-4-1) last month to steady the team.

– The farm system had failed to produce stars after a string of bad drafts last decade and expected cornerstones such as Nolan Patrick (No. 2 pick of 2017 draft; 22 games without a goal), and defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere and Ivan Provorov have yielded inconsistent results instead of serving as significant keys to a rebuild.

– The vets have disappeared. Claude Giroux, the last holdover from the 2010 Stanley Cup final team, is again an All-Star. But Simmonds, Jake Voracek, van Riemsdyk and Sean Couturier have been hit by injury and inconsistency.

”When times do get tough, it’s what’s in our locker room that really matters and what really counts,” Hart said.

The 20-year-old Hart will be the anchor and has been an instant fan favorite. He’s been recognized a couple of times in public – he had to smile recounting a photo he took with an employee at a local Lululemon – but otherwise blends in like any other young kid walking a mall.

The Flyers have averaged more than 19,000 fans a game each season since 1996 but the crowd has thinned and ticket prices have hit rock bottom at the same time a $250 million renovation is underway at the Wells Fargo Center. It hasn’t helped that the 76ers, a fellow tenant, pack the place every night.

”The winning side of it is a lot more fun than the losing side of it, but we can only deal with the circumstances that we have and right now,” Gordon said.

Gritty has provided the Flyers a mainstream buzz they would have missed had it not been for his burst of supersized jersey full of fun.

Gritty kicked a field goal at a recent home loss blindfolded both in a nod to ”Bird Box” and a shot at Chicago Bears kicker Cody Parkey. Flyers fans saved their loudest cheers for the skit and accompanying Eagles highlights.

Once play resumed, they could have used the blindfold.

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Ref pushing Blues’ Barbashev gives us some comic relief

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In these trying times, sometimes you just need to see a zany mishap where a hockey player loses a skate blade, and hilarity ensues.

OK, that might be highly specific, but such bits of bad luck usually do provide some real comedy. Even by those standards, this was some good stuff, as Blues forward Ivan Barbashev got a boost from an on-ice official, and it was quite a boost down the ice.

You can watch that moment in the video above this post’s headline, and likely have a nice chuckle.

The Blues ended up beating the Ottawa Senators 3-2 on Saturday, so Barbashev & Co. can share a bigger laugh after the game.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Bruins’ Rask helped off ice after huge collision

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Boston Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask needed help off of the ice – and took quite a while to leave the ice – after a frightening collision with New York Rangers forward Filip Chytil.

Moments after this post went up on Saturday, the Bruins provided an unsettling – if, sadly, not surprising – update that Rask suffered a concussion and will not return to the game.

You can see the collision (and get an idea of how long it took Rask to leave the ice) in the video above this post’s headline.

This is the Bruins’ final game before the All-Star break, and they won’t play again until they host the Winnipeg Jets in Boston on Jan. 29, so at least there isn’t much pressure for Rask to rush back to action too soon.

Rask began the game tied with Tiny Thompson at 252 wins, the most in Bruins’ franchise history.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Erik Karlsson misses Sharks game on Saturday

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Considering how much Erik Karlsson has been heating up along with the San Jose Sharks lately, it would have been fun to see him skate against the Tampa Bay Lightning, a team that once tried to acquire him.

That’s not happening on Saturday, as Karlsson was a late scratch for the game.

The Athletic’s Kevin Kurz reports that Karlsson was “limping noticeably” and favoring his left side following the Sharks’ 6-3 loss to the Coyotes on Wednesday. Kurz also reports that Karlsson hasn’t participated in practice or pregame skates for about a week.

Paul Gackle of the Mercury News points out that Karlsson was held out for most of the third period of Tuesday’s 5-2 win against the Penguins for “precautionary reasons,” yet Sharks coach Peter DeBoer indicated that the 28-year-old was expected to play on Saturday. Instead, Karlsson must have determined that he wasn’t good to go after skating a bit during warm-ups.

Saturday’s game against the Lightning marks the second of a four-game road trip. The Sharks are set to play against the Panthers in Florida on Monday (Jan. 21) and the Capitals in Washington on Tuesday (Jan. 22), then they’ll be off for the All-Star break.

Karlsson was one of the Sharks’ three selections to the 2019 NHL All-Star Game, but we’ll see if what seems like a lower-body injury ends up sidelining him from the event. Either way, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Swede miss at least one of the Sharks’ remaining two games before the break, considering that it’s a back-to-back set.

Marc-Edouard Vlasic is also out with an injury, so the Sharks are limping – can Sharks limp? – a bit into that run of off time.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Hurricanes’ Brind’Amour latest coach to put his team on blast

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Sure, you can have a high-up team executive call you out and compare you to horse excrement.

That’s one thing.

But when your coach, who is nearly a decade removed from playing his last NHL game, contemplates dressing because his team is that bad, that’s another.

And then to top it all off, that coach then apologies to a newly-acquired player on behalf of the team that he coaches.

That stings.

We’ve seen a couple of outbursts this year that haven’t been seen in some time — if ever.

Carolina Hurricanes legend Rod Brind’Amour is the latest to eviscerate his team publicly in what seems to be the in-fashion way to get the message across these days.

Who can forget Jim Lites’ tirade in Dallas?

Or Bruce Boudreau’s rant?

Or David Quinn putting his team on blast earlier this week?

Now you can add Brind’Amour to the list.

“We were so bad, I almost dressed and got out there,” Brind’Amour said after the Hurricanes fell 4-1 to the Ottawa Senators on Friday. “I might have been as good as what we were throwing out there. We just didn’t want to play the way we were supposed to. I didn’t know what I was watching. That’s the first time all year I can say that.”

If that wasn’t the kill shot, Brind’Amour then feeling the need to apologize to Nino Niederreiter certainly was.

The latter was picked up in a trade earlier this week for Victor Rask. In his first game, his new teammates crapped the proverbial bed.

“Good. I thought he was fine,” Brind’Amour said about Niederreiter’s debut. “He had a couple chances. I think the first shift he almost had a breakaway. … I apologized to him for that effort. That’s not our team, and that’s his first game.”

It’s not often you hear about that sort of thing.

The Hurricanes had won seven-of-eight before dropping a 6-2 decision to the New York Rangers and Friday’s loss to the visiting Senators.

The Hurricanes are now nine points adrift from the final wildcard spot in the Eastern Conference.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck