Morning Observations is a new feature, where we break down the previous night's game with an analytical eye.
- Throughout the Flyers' six-game losing streak, the team's power play was not struggling to create chances - they just couldn't bury their high-quality opportunities. Their shot and chance generation metrics barely dipped from early in the season, so it was inevitable that the goals were going to come; it was just a matter of when. Last night, the floodgates finally opened. Claude Giroux's no-look pass to set up Brayden Schenn for a Hartnell special was a thing of beauty, and Wayne Simmonds' third period goal was the result of relentless pressure by the first unit. There's no reason to believe that the power play production won't continue, as the process was always sound.
- After trying his best against Edmonton and Calgary, Michal Neuvirth finally "stole" the Flyers a game with his goaltending. That's not to say that Philadelphia played poorly on the whole (though Winnipeg was the better team at even strength), and more an acknowledgement that this game could have went either way without Neuvirth. There will surely be talk of a goaltending controversy due to Neuvirth's stellar play, but Steve Mason is not playing poorly either, despite his low save percentage. His adjusted save percentage (accounting for shot quality) remains among the league's best. Still, Neuvirth has absolutely earned more starts. For now, the Flyers should view this as a 1A/1B tandem, and reserve the right to shift a higher percentage of starts back to Mason if Neuvirth cools off.
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- At even strength, only the Flyers' top two lines gave Winnipeg any trouble. In that way, it wasn't much different than the majority of this road trip, except that Sean Couturier's return has turned the second line into a positive puck possession unit via domination on the cycle. Two viable lines is certainly better than only one, but the bottom-six cannot continue to get throttled as they did on most of this road trip.
- The checking line of Chris VandeVelde, Scott Laughton and Ryan White stood out against Calgary, but they regressed last night. Their biggest issue was play in the defensive zone - White and Laughton in particular struggled with turnovers and failed clears, allowing the Jets to sustain their cycles. This line succeeds when they dominate in terms of zone entries, primarily by employing a furious forecheck in the offensive zone that prevents clean zone exits. But they can't get their forecheck started if they remain stuck in the defensive end for entire shifts.
- The Flyers may have been outplayed at even strength, but they played a relatively sound neutral zone game. The Jets were bottled up in the middle of the ice for long stretches of play, and the high number of penalties seemed to halt any rhythm that Winnipeg threatened to achieve. In addition, the Couturier line consistently used offensive zone time as a defensive tool. There were multiple shifts from the second unit that generated little in the way of shot attempts, but saw the Flyers keep the puck in the Winnipeg end for 30+ seconds. It resulted in the Flyers holding an opponent under 30 shots on goal for the first time this year.
- Since the Sean Couturier injury was immediately followed by a long losing streak, there was conjecture that his absence was the main reason for Philadelphia's poor play. And while Couturier is an important piece for the Flyers, there were multiple other issues causing the downturn in play. However, the one area of concern that Couturier has almost singlehandedly turned around since his return on Thursday is the penalty kill. For the second straight game, Philadelphia smothered an opponent's power play. In nine minutes of PP time, Winnipeg could only muster one high-danger scoring chance, and were obviously kept off the scoresheet. The penalty kill's recent issues were always more concerning than those of the power play, because the PK's underlying numbers actually did crater. But maybe fixing the shorthanded units really was just as simple as getting #14 back in the lineup.
- During the road trip, the Flyers played Buffalo, Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary and Winnipeg. Out of those five teams, the Jets are the best team on paper - a strong possession squad that made the playoffs last season and appears poised to do the same this year. So of course, Philadelphia beats Winnipeg and loses to everyone else. You could argue that they had better even strength efforts against Vancouver and Calgary than they did tonight, but this was their most complete game of the trip, when accounting for defense, goaltending and special teams play. Last year, the "playing down to poor teams" narrative was an oversimplification, but it actually has been accurate thus far in 2015-16.
- Matt Read has bounced back nicely this year after a miserable, injury-ravaged 2014-15 season. His speed is back, and it's resulted in Read looking like one of the team's best forwards in the neutral zone thus far. He's pushing the play forward on a regular basis, proven by his 54.68% Zone Entry For percentage entering tonight's game. Therefore, it's appropriate that he would score a goal tonight on a fantastic neutral zone play. He used his speed to beat Mathieu Perreault to the red line, avoiding the risk of a possible icing before firing a shot into the empty Jets net. Clearly, Read is healthy and useful yet again.
- The defensive pairing of Mark Streit and Michael Del Zotto was dominated in puck possession once again tonight, the third time in four games when the pairing posted negative on-ice shot attempt totals relative to their teammates. With Evgeny Medvedev still day-to-day, Streit and Del Zotto are the team's two most talented defensemen, and the Flyers cannot afford to pair them together unless they are absolutely killing the opposition at even strength. That's not happening right now, and it's probably time to separate the two, spreading the puck-moving wealth a bit.
- Meet the new Umberger, same as the old Umberger? R.J. was an early season revelation, showcasing improved speed and increased effectiveness in the wake of offseason surgery. But after missing a few games to a (supposedly unrelated) ailment, he's been unable to recapture his strong play from the season's first two games. He's definitely faster, which prevents Umberger from being a total liability on defense. But he's been invisible offensively, and his puck possession game is suffering as well. Umberger posted a 33.9% Corsi For percentage on the west coast trip, good for a ghastly -15.3% Corsi Relative to his teammates.