Can Dave Hakstol take the Flyers on another second-half run?
WINNIPEG -- Dave Hakstol stood in the visitor’s locker room in Bell MTS Place on Sunday afternoon, moments after experiencing something he never did in his final decade as head coach at UND.
His Philadelphia Flyers lost 7-1 to the Winnipeg Jets, a margin of defeat UND faced six games into his college coaching career in 2004 and never again.
Hakstol’s response to the loss, however, may ring a bell to those in Grand Forks.
There was no wild range of emotions. He was honest and thoughtful. He was critical of the areas where the Flyers failed, yet measured in looking at the big picture.
It has been a tumultuous two weeks for the Flyers organization, which fired general manager Ron Hextall, assistant general manager Chris Pryor and assistant coach Gord Murphy.
They quickly hired a new general manager in Chuck Fletcher, who was in attendance Sunday afternoon, and a new assistant coach in former UND defenseman Rick Wilson.
After the loss to the Jets, the Flyers were sitting in 15th of 16 teams in the Eastern Conference with 27 points.
That means they’ll need to go on a big second-half run in order to reach the playoffs for the third time in four years under Hakstol, who is now the fourth-longest tenured coach in the NHL and third-longest tenured Flyers coach of all time.
Fletcher also will be watching closely as he decides who he wants to coach his team longterm.
If there’s one thing Hakstol has proven during his life as a head hockey coach, it’s that he can navigate challenging times and build teams that are at their best at the end of the season.
Just go back to his first season at UND in 2004-05, when his team lost that six-goal game. It came against rival Minnesota in Ralph Engelstad Arena.
There were plenty of more road bumps along the way that season. UND lost to Anchorage at home (it had previously been 20-1-2 all-time vs. UAA in Grand Forks). It got swept at home by Denver. It was a mediocre 16-13-3 in late February.
Off the ice, there were fans saying that UND hockey was doomed without Dean Blais at the helm and that Hakstol’s hiring was a mistake.
But Hakstol blocked it out and his team stuck with the process. Suddenly, they went on a late-season run. They reached the NCAA tournament, losing just once in their last nine games.
They blew out Boston University and Boston College in the Worcester regional (that is still, to this day, the last time BC has lost in Worcester).
Then, in the Frozen Four, UND manhandled that same Gopher team that drubbed them in October. UND played for the NCAA national championship that season and lost to Denver in a game it outshot the Pioneers 45-24.
That pattern continued.
In 2005-06, UND started 18-13-1, then went 11-2 en route to a second-straight Frozen Four.
In 2006-07, UND started 9-11-1, then went 15-2-4 en route to a third-straight Frozen Four.
In 2007-08, UND started 9-8-1, then went 19-2-3 en route to a fourth-straight Frozen Four.
In 2008-09, UND started 9-10-1, then went 15-2-3 down the stretch.
In 2009-10, UND started 13-11-5, then went 12-1 en route to the NCAA tournament.
In 2010-11, UND had a strong 18-8-2 start, but still caught fire and went 14-0-1 en route to the Frozen Four.
In 2011-12, UND started 12-10-2. Despite being so inundated with injuries that it couldn't fill out a full lineup, it went 14-2-1 down the stretch and won a third-straight Broadmoor Trophy as Western Collegiate Hockey Association playoff champs.
In 2012-13, UND started 13-8-6, then had a modest improvement of 9-4-1 down the stretch.
And in 2013-14, UND started 4-7-2 before running off a 21-6-1 mark en route to the Frozen Four in his current town, Philadelphia.
Hakstol has also brought this trend to the NHL. His team started last season 8-11-7 and had a 10-game winless stretch. They had one of the six best records in the NHL the rest of the season and surged to the playoffs, where they lost to the Penguins first round.
“You just have to play good, solid consistent hockey,” Hakstol said. “There’s no magic to the game in any way, shape or form. What we did over the start of the hockey game and the first 25 minutes is play simple hockey. When you play north hockey and give yourself an opportunity to be in good situations, you have a chance to create and you don’t give up a lot.
“As soon as you start pressing and trying to do a little too much, it usually leads to giving the puck away too easily. That’s when bad things happen. That’s when penalties happen. That’s when opportunities against happen. You just have to have a real, simple, clear mindset.”
The Flyers also have to find some better goaltending.
They’ve had a myriad of injuries at the position, leading to an .879 team save percentage, by far the worst in the NHL.
Backup goalie Michal Neuvirth played in just his second game of the season against the Jets -- and first since October. He was yanked after allowing three goals on 13 shots.
“It’s tough coming back when you haven’t played much hockey, really, over the last 10-12 months,” Hakstol said.
Starter Brian Elliott hasn’t played in almost a month, but he is on the team’s current Canadian swing. The Flyers play the Flames on Wednesday, the Oilers on Friday and the Canucks on Saturday.
Hakstol hopes the Flyers can get healthy (forward Sean Couturier also is day to day), move on from the 7-1 loss to Winnipeg and get some momentum.
He’s seen it happen before.
“We played well coming into this game,” Hakstol said Sunday afternoon. “We had five of our last six points. We felt good about our game coming into today. It was a real disappointing last 35 minutes of the hockey game for us.”