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Flyers 1, Panthers 0: Morning Observations

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The Flyers finally earned their first win of the season against the Florida Panthers by a score of 1-0. Who stood out and who struggled?

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Morning Observations is a new feature, where we will break down the previous night's game with an analytical eye.

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  • Aside from Michal Neuvirth's shutout, the Philadelphia penalty kill was the big story after the game, and for good reason. Not only did the Flyers prevent the Panthers from scoring on six separate power play opportunities, they smothered Florida in terms of shot creation. In about twelve minutes of PP time, the Panthers only generated five shots on Neuvirth, and 13 total shot attempts. For comparison, the Flyers' power play took seven shots on Roberto Luongo and generated 17 attempts in only six minutes with the man advantage.
  • Claude Giroux was on the ice for four minutes of shorthanded ice time, and I believe his presence was a primary reason for the unit's success last night. Giroux was dominant while shorthanded, forcing turnovers and even generating chances in the Florida zone. It shouldn't be a surprise to see Giroux flexing his muscles on the penalty kill - according to www.stats.hockeyanalysis.com, Giroux has the 5th best Corsi For percentage (total shot attempts) in the entire NHL among forwards since 2010. He's truly one of the best in the business.
  • Michal Neuvirth spent most of training camp battling injury, struggling in preseason games, or a little bit of both. His shaky showings even had some fans questioning whether he was truly an upgrade over Ray Emery. I assume the pool of skeptics has shrunk dramatically after tonight's win. Neuvirth looked particularly strong in terms of positioning, directing rebounds to the corners and staying square to shooters even while dealing with traffic in front. While I hope Steve Mason comes back soon, both because he's been a great goalie in a Flyers uniform and because it will hopefully mean a positive resolution to his personal issues, Neuvirth looked fully capable of filling in for a bit.
  • While I understand that R.J. Umberger was impressive in camp and even had a great opening night performance versus the Lightning, it's hard to justify keeping Sam Gagner out of the lineup once R.J. is back healthy. Against the Panthers, Gagner brought high-end speed and puck handling ability to the Sean Couturier line, which had been relatively unimpressive through two games. His controlled entry around Dave Bolland in the first was made possible only through some slick moves in the neutral zone, and ultimately led to Brayden Schenn's goal. If the Flyers are serious about unlocking Sean Couturier's offensive potential, skilled players like Sam Gagner are the ideal linemates.
  • Radko Gudas was the other player to make his regular season debut, and his performance was a bit mixed. While Gudas stood out on the penalty kill, he made a number of mistakes with the puck on his stick at even strength. In fact, one of his best plays at 5v5 (a key block) was only necessary because of an earlier turnover by... Gudas. But he hit a lot of Panthers, so the crowd at Wells Fargo seemed to like him. Gudas in many ways is what fans mistakenly believe Luke Schenn to be - a limited defenseman with poor puck skills whose primary talent is a propensity for well-timed, crowd-pleasing bodychecks.
  • The Mark Streit-Nick Schultz pairing continues to be a major concern for me in the early season. Streit had a very shaky start to the game, looking every bit the 37-year old defenseman that he is. But he did seem to settle in as the night progressed and started to make more crisp passes in the defensive end. On the other hand, Nick Schultz was a mess. With Andrew MacDonald plying his trade in Lehigh Valley, Schultz has taken the title of "most passive defenseman in the neutral zone," which is even more glaring now as Dave Hakstol preaches aggressiveness from his blueliners. There's a reason why Schultz's pairing seems to spend so much time in their own end - it's because the neutral zone is open while the pair is on the ice, allowing opposing forwards space to build up speed and hit the Flyers' end with possession.
  • It felt like every time that the fourth line of Chris VandeVelde, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Ryan White hit the ice, they would spend the majority of their shift in the defensive zone. The raw possession stats back up the eyes, as each finished with a 5v5 Corsi For of less than 30%. VandeVelde and Bellemare at least provided value on the penalty kill, logging heavy minutes. White, on the other hand, would be my choice to go to the press box once Umberger is healthy. He had a surprisingly strong season last year, but it's a bit of a numbers game for the forwards right now, and for me, he's providing the least in terms of on-ice value at the moment.
  • The first line again failed to appear on the scoresheet, but they're spending lots of time in the offensive zone and driving play relative to their teammates. Right now, Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek in particular just seem a bit off in their timing. Voracek shot wide of an open net at the end of the first period, and Giroux struggled to handle a number of passes that could have led to odd-man rushes. I'm not worried by any means, but this team needs their stars to deliver at around a point per game pace to have a realistic chance at the playoffs. Without the top line and top PP unit clicking, they just won't have enough offense to overcome the limitations on the blueline.
  • The Flyers had one of those rare games where they both outshot AND outhit the opposition. Usually, less hits means that a team spent more time with the puck on their sticks, but last night the Flyers pummeled the Panthers with bruising checks while still generating offense, particularly in the second period. The hits were mostly productive ones - the result of an aggressive forecheck and disruptive neutral zone play. I suspect that after the disastrous performance on Saturday, Hakstol made it a point of emphasis to intensify the attack against the Florida defensemen, and the results were impressive.
  • The third period was a bit concerning, as Florida took full control and only Neuvirth's heroics kept the game from at least going into overtime. While score effects need to be noted (the Flyers led by one goal), I'd like to see the team be more aggressive in holding a lead, particularly in the neutral zone. Their third period against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday night is the template that they should follow when trying to close out games - stifling neutral zone pressure that resulted in a final period almost entirely devoid of scoring chances for either team. Passive neutral zone play with a lead is just like the prevent defense in football, it's a gift to your opponent.