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Devils 4, Flyers 1: 10 things we learned from a choppy loss to New Jersey

After two straight underwhelming performances, the Philadelphia Flyers' strong start to the season is quickly fading from memory. What do they need to do in order to right the ship?

Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

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

  • Is it time to start worrying about the penalty kill? After a stellar start, the Flyers' shorthanded units have regressed over the past week, allowing five goals in four games. The unit still ranks near the top of the league in shot attempt prevention (7th in the NHL in Corsi Against per 60), but the two power play goals tonight were ugly. Nick Schultz lost his man in front of the net on the first Travis Zajac goal, while the second goal was a total coverage failure as Zajac somehow found open space in the center of the Flyers' box formation. Obviously the absence of Sean Couturier and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare is not helping, but Philadelphia cannot just wait until they get back in order to fix their coverage issues. This isn't a great 5v5 team, and they need their special teams to be on point to defeat even bad squads.
  • For the second straight game, the Flyers struggled in their own zone, especially at the start of the game. Like many teams, Philadelphia is at its best when they are successfully transitioning the puck from defense to offense, and the team is slowly getting more comfortable with exiting the defensive zone with possession. But that won't matter if they can't win puck battles or are misfiring on the in-zone passes that set up those exits. Just like last night, they got better in their own zone as the game progressed, but these slow starts cannot become a trend.
  • Jakub Voracek now has 40 shots on goal in nine games, yet none have found their way into the back of the net. For some perspective, he's averaging more shots per game than Rick Nash, Phil Kessel, Max Pacioretty and Tyler Seguin. Voracek is definitely pressing, waiting too long on a shot and then releasing the next too early to make up for a miss. But in terms of shot creation, Voracek is excelling. And even though it didn't pay off tonight, I liked putting Brayden Schenn back on the first unit as a way to help spark Voracek, as Kurt mentioned. It's certainly worth a shot to try and get Jake back into a comfort zone.
  • Nick Schultz's play has been an issue all season. Even when Schultz was effective last season, he played a passive, "keep-the-play-to-the-outside" style in the neutral and defensive zones and under Craig Berube, that mentality was accepted. But it's a poor fit for Dave Hakstol's system, which encourages aggressiveness at all times. As a result, Schultz has been the defense's biggest liability, and the tough minutes that he's faced have not helped matters much. Last night, all of the underlying issues bubbled to the surface, as Schultz was on the ice for all three goals and could be legitimately blamed for poor coverage on two of them (the power play goals). I don't expect coaches to be making decisions based on possession statistics, but last night had to be eye-opening for Dave Hakstol, as the big mistakes finally shone through from Schultz. He only received two shifts in the final 11 minutes of the game, so clearly his coach noticed the poor play.
  • If you remain unconvinced of Schultz's struggles at even strength, just take a look at Mark Streit's game last night. In his first full game apart from Schultz, Streit finished with a Corsi For percentage of 66.07%, by far his best of the year. Paired with Michael Del Zotto tonight, Streit was free to play a more aggressive game in the neutral zone without having to hold a passive line with his partner, and he did just that. His possession statistics were positive all game long, even before score effects drove the percentages up in the third period. It was reassuring to see Streit perform at a high level tonight, just to prove that it hasn't been age holding him back this year.
  • The Matt Read - Sam Gagner - Wayne Simmonds line has been the team's most effective in the offensive zone over the past few games. But the lack of a decent faceoff man on the line is taking a toll on their ability to drive possession. Faceoffs are generally a bit overrated in terms of their effect on play, but when a line's center loses 11 out of 12 draws, it's going to have an impact. Once they get into the offensive zone, they do tend to dominate on the cycle, combining the forechecking of Simmonds and the puck pursuit of Read to keep the pressure on. But Gagner has historically been a terrible faceoff man, making it difficult to use the line as a sheltered one despite their best quality being dominance in the offensive zone.
  • Steve Mason finished last night's game with a 0.906 save percentage, but he deserved a much better fate. The Flyers goaltender was the only reason the game was tied 0-0 at the end of the first period, as Mason bailed out his teammates repeatedly while they found their legs in the early minutes. His rebound control was on point, rarely allowing any shots to escape his grasp. None of the three goals he allowed were anywhere near weak - a perfect redirection, a top corner snipe on the rush, and a power play chance from the slot. Mason deserved better from his teammates last night.
  • The top line needed some time to get going, but starting with a great shift midway through the second period, they began to put heavy pressure on the Devils for the remainder of the contest. During that shift, Matt Read replaced Michael Raffl alongside Voracek and Giroux, and he stayed with them for most of the third. Read doesn't have the hockey sense or the strength of Raffl, but he brings a tenacious style, particularly in terms of puck pursuit. In addition, his defensive awareness is above-average, molded by years of playing with Sean Couturier on the shutdown line. Craig Berube was opposed to trying Read with Giroux and Voracek due to Read's lack of size, so it will be interesting to see if Hakstol has similar concerns.
  • Vincent Lecavalier made his first appearance of the regular season last night, and the results were unsurprising. He received only seven minutes of ice time in a limited fourth line role, as Chris VandeVelde and Ryan White skated mostly with Scott Laughton as the Flyers pushed to cut into the New Jersey lead. It's not the effort that is lacking with Lecavalier - he just doesn't have the speed to play at a passable level anymore. It was particularly noticeable on the backcheck, as he struggled to keep up with forwards who seemed to be just gliding down the ice. Lecavalier was once a truly elite player, and it remains sad to see him in this state.
  • Despite a team-worst 36.67% Corsi For percentage, Luke Schenn probably earned himself at least one more game in the lineup due to his second period goal. His play at even strength left a lot to be desired, however, as the Manning-Schenn pairing was predictably a sieve in terms of shot prevention. I think the Flyers would be best suited reuniting Evgeny Medvedev and Schenn, and using a mix of Schultz, Manning and Radko Gudas on the third pair depending upon the matchup. Schenn and Medvedev worked well together in the neutral zone, and putting two above-average passers together should equal more controlled zone exits and in turn, more space for the forwards to move through the neutral zone with speed.