Morning Observations is a new feature, where we will break down the previous night's game with an analytical eye.
- Following the excitement of not only defeating the New York Rangers but matching them stride-for-stride, last night's loss is especially disappointing. Buffalo, while a significantly improved team this season, is no one's idea of a playoff contender. Yet for a majority of the game, the Sabres looked the better team. The main narrative following last night's game is that the Flyers yet again "played down" to the level of a poor team, but there's reason to be skeptical of that theory. As Scott T. from Pattison Avenue explored last season, Philadelphia tended to dominate play against non-playoff teams - they were just bit by low shooting percentages or poor goaltending. Obviously, that wasn't the case tonight - the Flyers were legitimately outplayed. But let's wait longer than one game before stapling this narrative to the team, a narrative that really didn't hold water last season either.
- Reviewing the tape of Saturday night's win over the Rangers, what really stood out was the efficiency at which the Flyers exited their own zone. Philadelphia was not fazed by New York's forecheck, and were clinical in leaving the defensive zone with possession. That resulted in speed through the neutral zone, controlled offensive zone entries, and eventually lots of shots on Henrik Lundqvist. Last night, the Flyers were a mess in their own end, particularly in the first period. It was a total breakdown - poor coverage resulted in extended shifts, causing the Flyers to simply chip the puck out of the zone once they did get possession. As a result, Philadelphia was dominated in the neutral zone for stretches, simply because they could generate no speed through the middle of the ice.
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- Repeat after me: the Flyers' power play will be fine. Sure, it's not scoring right now. But it continues to generate chances at an extremely high rate. In four minutes of 5v4 time last night, Philadelphia created five high-danger scoring chances in front of the net and in the slot. It was frustrating to see them fail to capitalize against a Buffalo penalty kill that has been horrific in the early stages of the season, but it wasn't for lack of effort or due to major structural issues that must be addressed. The forwards just need to finish, and if the track records of Messrs. Giroux, Voracek and Simmonds can be trusted, they'll probably start lighting the lamp soon.
- I liked what I saw tonight from the Matt Read - Sam Gagner - Wayne Simmonds line. Not only was it the only line that finished with positive possession statistics across the board, they were consistently a handful for the Sabres in the offensive zone. Putting Simmonds with a skilled center and a speedy winger allows him to focus on one thing - aggressive forechecking - and his 5v5 game benefited from the simplicity. In addition, Matt Read was all over the ice, using his quickness to chase down loose pucks and keep the cycle going. It will be interesting to see if this line holds once Sean Couturier is ready to return.
- Pierre-Edouard Bellemare exited the game in the first period with what appeared to be a serious leg injury, as he could put no weight on it when he left the ice. The fourth line was team's most effective forechecking unit prior to the injury, and it will be curious to see how it is restructured if Bellemare misses extended time. From a roster standpoint, the Flyers may be able to replace Bellemare with a healthy Sean Couturier on Thursday, but that doesn't solve the line combination conundrum. Philadelphia could drop R.J. Umberger to the fourth line to play center or wing, and that's probably the safest choice. Or, they could think outside the box a bit and move Scott Laughton with VandeVelde and White. A demotion? In a sense, but the "fourth" line has received lots of ice time in the early season, and Laughton could add some finishing skill to the unit while coming closest to replicating Bellemare's tenacious play. He did spend extended time with the line following the Bellemare injury.
- I'm an advocate for Luke Schenn staying in the lineup over the long haul, but he did not do himself any favors in the eyes of Dave Hakstol tonight. While he finished with a 52.17% Corsi For percentage, the eye test was not so forgiving. Schenn made quite a few glaring mistakes with the puck on his stick, including an awful turnover in the first period that forced Steve Mason to bail Schenn out early. While Schenn did settle in as the game progressed, I would not fault Hakstol too much if the memory of his defenseman's brainless turnovers led him to send Schenn back to the press box.
- Speaking of possession statistics, they simply do not tell the whole story when it comes to Radko Gudas. He finished in the plus column in terms of on-ice shot attempts, but by the eye test, he was brutal. He continues to be inconsistent with the puck on his stick, but his pinches have been the biggest issue. While Evgeny Medvedev and Michael Del Zotto's pinches almost always have purpose, too often Gudas jumps into the play when the risk is high but the reward is minimal. A poorly-timed neutral zone push midway through the third period resulted a prime scoring chance for Zemgus Girgensons, and then another pointless pinch created the Buffalo zone entry that later turned into a Jake McCabe goal. I'll have to review the tape to confirm this, but my post-game theory is that Del Zotto was the real possession driver on this pairing last night and Gudas was just along for the ride.
- There was a great story in Elliotte Friedman's 30 Thoughts yesterday morning about Vincent Lecavalier and John Tortorella. Tortorella told Vinny that if he wasn't playing well in a game, he shouldn't expect to be out there at crunch time. Lecavalier responded, "I get that. I may not have had a good night, but the reason you pay me that money is I’m going to get you that goal." I couldn't help but think of that quote when Scott Laughton set up Brayden Schenn for the game-tying goal in the third period. Laughton was invisible until that point, but when the team needed a spark, he was there with a blistering rush and perfect pass right to his teammate in the slot. Obviously, I'd prefer Laughton be great all game, but it's encouraging to see that the young forward can shake off a poor performance and still have a positive impact in key moments.
- Speaking of Brayden Schenn, he had to have the worst "best" game of his career. Even moreso than Laughton, Schenn was a disaster in the defensive zone and was blasted from a possession standpoint (25% Corsi For). But he was on the receiving end of Laughton's beautiful pass, and then buried Claude Giroux's late slapshot with one of the best deflections that you'll ever see in a hockey game. Do the two goals outweigh two and a half periods of poor play?
- Nick Schultz has often been a subject of criticism here in the Morning Observations, and he again was a liability on the blueline. But I don't want to let Mark Streit off the hook, as he was atrocious last night. Streit's gap control was often even worse than that of Schultz, but most surprising was his inability to help exit the defensive zone, usually a strength of Streit's game. Streit lost puck battles and foot races to loose pucks, and it was his play as much as Schultz's that had their pairing pinned in the defensive zone for long stretches of time. Dave Hakstol's decision to use them for regulation's final fifty seconds after Schenn had tied the game was eyebrow-raising considering the pair's struggles all game long, and they unsurprisingly spent the entire shift wilting in the face of a Buffalo forecheck.