Morning Observations is a new feature, where we break down the previous night's game with an analytical eye.
- The Philadelphia Flyers may have only lost this game by two goals. But the score could have been (and maybe should have been) closer to 8-2 if not for a monster performance from goalie Michal Neuvirth. Make no mistake, this was the Flyers' worst game of the season. Lacking their best defensive forward and their best statistical two-way defenseman, the Flyers could do nothing to slow down Edmonton. And aside from a good shift to open the second period by the Laughton line, there was no sustained offensive pressure outside of the usual chances from the first unit. Picking out skaters that had a good game last night is an impossible task, while singling out those who played poorly would result in expanding this feature to twenty morning observations.
- One player does deserve praise after this debacle. Michal Neuvirth was the only reason that the Flyers had any chance to win this game, and if Philadelphia had played merely bad last night, Neuvirth probably steals this one. Instead, they played like an AHL squad, and their goalie took the hard-luck loss. He faced 29 (!) high-danger scoring chances in the game (via war-on-ice), meaning that on average, every two minutes he was asked to make a very difficult save. All aspects of Neuvirth's game were working tonight - he tracked the puck through traffic, was unbeatable moving side-to-side, and barely allowed any rebounds. His 0.938 save percentage last night actually undersells his performance.
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- It's been a long time since the Flyers have filled their third pair on defense with cheap homegrown talent. So it was refreshing to see Philadelphia give Brandon Manning a shot in the role to start the season. A month into the season, however, and Manning simply has not performed at an NHL level. He's been particularly brutal in the defensive zone, and Edmonton picked up on his limitations quickly. The Oilers pressured Manning at every possible opportunity, knowing that he was too jittery to make a quick read or an accurate pass. Unfortunately for the Flyers, the Evgeny Medvedev injury and a tight cap situation restricts their ability to remove Manning from the lineup, even if his on-ice performance warrants a benching.
- Throughout this recent slump, the biggest issues for the Flyers have been execution and a limited amount of high-end talent on the roster. The effort level of the team has not been lacking. That was the case at least until the dying seconds of the first period last night, when all four members of the Philadelphia penalty stood idly by a prone Michal Neuvirth as the Oilers scooped up a rebound and took the lead. It looked like the Flyers just wanted to get to the intermission, and no longer cared about protecting their beleaguered goaltender. I imagine Dave Hakstol read the team the riot act during the break, as the Flyers kicked off the second period with extra energy. But this team already lacks the depth to match up with most opponents - if the effort starts to wane as well, sign them up for the Auston Matthews sweepstakes.
- In breaking down the Flyers' recent struggles, I noted that poor first periods had become a trend for the team. Their shoddy play in the defensive zone was being exploited by opponents and had the potential to develop into a larger problem moving forward. Last night, you saw that underlying issue bubble to the surface. Philadelphia was outshot 19-2, allowed 15 high-quality scoring chances and was lucky to be down only one goal. To be fair, they only lost the 5v5 shot attempts battle 18-10 in the first period - just your run-of-the-mill bad period rather than a historically awful one. But combine poor even strength play with the team's sieve of a penalty kill, and you get a 19-2 debacle.
- The other element of Philadelphia's slump has been subpar special teams play, particularly from the penalty kill. Unsurprisingly, it contributed to last night's loss as well. The Flyers allowed 21 shot attempts, 13 shots on goal, and 12 high-danger scoring chances while shorthanded. In terms of tactics, the penalty killers are just sitting back in their 1-2-1 formation, not bothering to disrupt passing lanes or shots. It's resulted in a toothless PK, and one that is way too easy for teams to break down. The inevitable return of Sean Couturier will obviously help, but the coaching staff needs to tweak the formation and/or the personnel anyway. One player will not fix everything, even if it's an elite penalty killer like Couturier.
- The Flyers may have scored two goals in the second period, but don't let the results blind you - it's not as if they rebounded to the point where they carried the play. Sure, there was an improvement after the first period, but they had nowhere to go but up after being outshot 19-2. Even in their "best" period, Philadelphia still lost the shot attempts battle and rarely looked the better team. If that was their big push after Hakstol had them regroup at intermission, it sounded more like a feeble yelp than a roar.
- At the start of the season, Hakstol placed his three most talented defensemen (Mark Streit, Michael Del Zotto and Evgeny Medvedev) on separate pairings, balancing the combinations with the goal of minimizing the weaknesses of his blue line. Now, he's paired Streit and Del Zotto together, and while they've been solid together on the whole, it's outweighed by the negative effect on the rest of the defense. Now with Medvedev out, the Flyers are icing two below-average third pairs on defense, making last night's throttling a bit more understandable. Combine that with a poor game from the Streit-Del Zotto pairing, and you get 19-2 first periods and 48 total shots on goal allowed. It won't be a cure-all, but Streit and Del Zotto need to be separated, at least while Medvedev is out of the lineup. Defensemen like Manning simply cannot keep up without an above-average partner.
- Speaking of lineup decisions, the forward combinations aren't working either. The first line is fine - they somehow broke even in terms of puck possession even as the rest of the roster fell apart. But the other three lines have serious structural issues. To start, the Sam Gagner - Vincent Lecavalier - Brayden Schenn line cannot function in the defensive zone. In the third period, they were caught for one draw in front of Neuvirth due to an icing, and unsurprisingly, the puck ended up in the back of the net for the eventual game-winner. The Read-Laughton-Simmonds line is placing too much responsibility in the hands of the team's young center, forcing him to be the primary possession driver via strong neutral zone play. And even though the fourth line scored tonight, it is desperately missing Pierre-Edouard Bellemare on the forecheck. So what needs to be done? Let's begin by breaking up the Schenn line and go from there.
- Matt Read received a shift to start the third period with Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek, and it was a success, as the Flyers pinned the Oilers deep in their own zone for an extended cycle. Read's play over the past two weeks has been one of the few bright spots for Philadelphia, and while I'm not dissatisfied with Michael Raffl's play, it would be intriguing to see if Read could help to ignite the Flyers' two stars over a full game. Read skated in limited minutes with them in the third period against the Devils last week, but an extended experiment may be worth a shot.