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Carchidi Column: Will Tortorella’s Gamble Invigorate Fading Flyers?

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Philadelphia Flyers, John Tortorella

Earlier this week, Philadelphia Flyers coach John Tortorella took two gambles.

If the second gamble works as well as the first one, the Flyers will be in the playoffs for the first time in four seasons.

If not … well, you can call the season a fun and unexpected ride, despite the ending.

Gamble No. 1: Inserting goalie Ivan Fedotov, who stands 6-foot-7 and looks like he belongs in the NBA, after the first period Monday against the Islanders, sending out-of-gas rookie Sam Ersson to the bench.

The move worked. Despite playing in a game for the first time in about a month — back when he was in Russia’s KHL — Fedotov was surprisingly sharp. He made big saves, he cleared the puck on a penalty kill, he showed athleticism.

Oh, and he enabled the Flyers to salvage an important point in a 4-3 overtime loss to the Isles.

Gamble No. 2: After the game, Tortorella blasted his team, saying it played “soft,” that the players embarrassed the Flyers’ uniform in a dismal second period, and that some of them “don’t have a clue how to play.”

Will his words stir up his players, light a fire to perform better, and get them back on track?

Drama builds

We will soon find out. The Flyers have six games remaining and their playoff lives are in the balance.

There’s also a chance Tortorella’s negativity rubs his players the wrong way. Will they continue to sputter — they have lost five straight heading into Friday’s matchup in Buffalo — and fall short of a playoff berth?

No one knows how the Flyers will respond, of course, but it will be great theater.

It should be noted that before their recent five-game slide, Tortorella had gotten the most out of his team.

“No one expected them to be in a playoff spot. No one,” said Pierre McGuire, a former NHL coach and TV analyst who now works for TSN in Canada. “To me, what he’s done this season is the best coaching job of his career.”

Strong words when you consider Tortorella directed Tampa Bay to the Stanley Cup in 2004, and guided the New York Rangers to the conference finals in 2012.

Show their mettle

The Philadelphia Flyers’ playoff chances were in great shape after going 2-3-2 in a recent seven-game stretch against the Eastern Conference’s best teams. After all, Tortorella has not not allowed his team to look past the lightweights — and that’s primarily who was left on their schedule. At that point, the Flyers were 21-11-5 against non-playoff teams.

In their last three games, however, the Flyers have gone 0-2-1, losing to lowly Montreal, 4-1, falling to lowlier Chicago, 5-1, and dropping the aforementioned 4-3 decision to an Islanders’ team that was huffing and puffing to stay in the playoff race.

Suddenly, an almost-sure playoff spot was in jeopardy. In case  you were curious, the Flyers’ five-game skid is at the halfway point of the Phillies’ infamous 1964 collapse.

For those who want the gory details: The first-place Phillies had a 6 1/2-game lead with 12 games left and lost 10 straight, blowing the pennant. In is not only considered the worse collapse in Philadelphia sports history, but one of the worst MLB has ever witnessed.

Surprising outburst

More context: These Flyers have overachieved for most of the season and deserve praise for their overall progress. Hey, I’m not about giving them a Participation Trophy, but I was stunned by Tortorella’s words after the loss to the Isles. (McGuire believes the outburst was directed at the front office personnel, wanting them to get better players.)

In that same game, the Flyers overcame their awful second period by dominating the Islanders in the third, outshooting them, 20-3, and scoring a late goal to manage a point.

Hence, the timing of Tortorella’s outburst just seemed misplaced. That’s why it was refreshing when he gave his words some much-needed context Wednesday.

He said he meant everything he said and that he was pushing his players to be better. If a player is going to quit on him because he’s trying to improve them, he said, “you’ve got the wrong damn coach here and the wrong damn people here.”

Refreshingly, Tortorella also pointed a finger at himself, saying he needs “to get them over the hump,” and added he was “so proud of the team getting here.”

Those words were missing Monday. They were good to hear, especially for a young, hard-working team that is fragile and could use some positive reinforcement as its season is at a crossroad.

Sam Carchidi writes a weekly column for Philly Hockey Now. He and Jeff Hare are working on a TV series on the Flyers’ glory days, tentatively called “Bullies.” Carchidi can be reached at samcarchidi55@gmail.com.

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