Morning Observations is a new feature, where we break down the previous night's game with an analytical eye.
- For the final 40 minutes of last night's game, the Philadelphia Flyers were dominated by the New York Islanders, and a primary reason was the Islanders' forecheck. With the Flyers' weakness on the back end, I expected more teams to employ heavy offensive zone pressure with the goal of attacking Philadelphia's defensemen. It's been employed less than originally anticipated this season, but New York certainly recognized the opportunity. Turnovers and uncontrolled exits were the story of the final two periods, and the lack of clean exits was a big reason for the Flyers' inability to create offense even while down in the contest.
- The Sean Couturier line simply cannot buy a goal at even strength right now. Despite another game of stellar play and numerous scoring chances created, the combo of Matt Read, Sean Couturier and Wayne Simmonds were held off the scoresheet. Their best chance came when Read put a perfect pass from Couturier into the pads of Jaroslav Halak right in front of the net, and there were more than a few other golden opportunities. I don't buy the "the line doesn't have finishers!" excuse, either. Matt Read has a career shooting percentage of 12.2% and a wicked wrist shot. Simmonds has averaged about 28 goals per 82 games over his Flyers career. These guys should be potting goals considering the line's massive possession advantage.
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- Another issue for the Flyers was an inability to generate controlled offensive zone entries after the first period. Garik16 over at Lighthouse Hockey recently posted that the Islanders have held opponents to a 40% controlled entry rate this year, and it showed last night. They held the blue line tight, forcing the Flyers to resort to dump-and-chase on almost every straightforward rush. And aside from the Couturier line, the forwards were not winning enough puck battles in the offensive zone to create offense off the chip-and-chase.
- The poor second and third periods were especially frustrating for the Flyers because of their strong play throughout the first. They made slick passes to avoid the Islanders' forecheck, and were creative in the neutral zone, neutering the effect of New York's aggressive tactics at the blueline. The game really turned on a late first period power play opportunity for Philadelphia that resulted in a shorthanded goal for the Islanders. Once the Flyers got back to even strength at the start of the second period, the decisive passes were replaced with jittery plays under pressure and uncoordinated breakouts. The result was total dominance by the Islanders.
- We saw the good and bad of Shayne Gostisbehere on the power play in the first period. His mobility created Giroux's goal, as Ghost circled down deep into the offensive zone during the cycle to confuse the Islander penalty killers before finding Giroux for a wide open shot from the left faceoff circle. But on the aforementioned power play at the end of the period, Gostisbehere struggled to initiate the breakout while under heavy forechecking pressure. The confusion created by his failure to cleanly exit the zone grinded the man advantage to a halt. It was also a reminder that Ghost has a lot to learn before his power play prowess is fully harnessed.
- Speaking of the young defenseman, Gostisbehere and his partner Brandon Manning had another game to forget at even strength. While Ghost's poor possession statistics on Monday was primarily due to some misreads in the neutral zone, tonight the big issue for the pair was zone exits. Both Manning and Ghost struggled to handle the puck under pressure from Islanders forwards, turning what should be a strength of Gostisbehere's game into a weakness - at least for last night. Coming into this game, Gostisbehere had the best controlled exit statistics of any Flyers defenseman I had tracked this year, so I'm willing to chalk this up to a one-game aberration. But it's worth watching to see if other games use the same tactic against him.
- Let's talk one positive - Luke Schenn had another strong game, particularly in the defensive zone. He finished with a Corsi For percentage of 53.12% - one of only five Flyers to post a positive ratio. Schenn's play really has been strong all year, and he's one of the players that has benefited most from Hakstol's system. Schenn's biggest weakness remains rush coverage, as he lacks the speed to keep up with forwards moving at their highest gear, and he then makes mistakes in coverage trying to compensate. Hakstol's aggressive neutral zone tactics are helping Schenn, because they're giving him the freedom to cut plays off in the neutral zone before they develop into rushes. Teams are only entering the offensive zone with Schenn on the ice at a 44.10% clip so far this year - a percentage lower than all Philadelphia blueliners except Gostisbehere. Facing primarily dump-and-chase rather than rushes is dramatically improving Schenn's play.
- Michael Del Zotto, on the other hand, has certainly posted better games this season. His reads in the neutral zone were poor all night, including one mistake that nearly led to a Mikhail Grabovski breakaway goal in the first period. On a better team, Del Zotto would be allowed to have nights like this, when his aggressiveness gets the better of him and results in multiple poor shifts. But the Flyers are relying on Del Zotto to essentially be their No. 1 defenseman, so the impact of an error-prone game is amplified by the amount of ice time he receives and the competition that he is often facing.
- It was a nice story, seeing Colin McDonald make his 2015-16 NHL debut against his former team. But McDonald failed to make much of an impression in limited minutes last night. He seemed especially weak in puck battles along the boards, failing to keep plays alive when a heavy forecheck was required. McDonald isn't lacking for size, so it could have been the result of McDonald re-acclimating himself to the NHL level of competition. Still, his linemates (Scott Laughton and Taylor Leier) aren't exactly grizzled vets, so they'll look to McDonald to perform the gritty aspects of generating shots and chances. Tonight, he was ineffective in those areas.
- For over a week, Flyers coach Dave Hakstol has hesitated to bring an apparently healthy Evgeny Medvedev back into the lineup because he's been satisfied with the team's play. Even in losses, Philadelphia has been competitive in each game, and were often winning the puck possession battle at even strength regardless of outcome. Last night was a different tale, as the Flyers struggled in all three zones and generated only 18 shots on net. I'd like to see Hakstol make two changes for Friday afternoon's game. First, Medvedev should come back into the lineup - at the very least, he'll help the defense in terms of exiting their own zone with possession. Second, the Voracek-on-the-third-line experiment needs to end. Jake thrives on entering the offensive zone at speed with possession, and pairing him with two dump-and-chase grinders like Bellemare and VandeVelde is wasting his best skill. Last night, Voracek looked out of his comfort zone, and either a reunion with Claude Giroux or a move to the Couturier line really should be in the cards.