Morning Observations is a new feature, where we break down the previous night's game with an analytical eye.
- For the first twelve minutes of the third period, it looked like the Flyers were trying to repeat last week's game against the Nashville Predators. Get the better of play in the first two periods, take a lead, and then sit back and try to withstand constant pressure. Luckily for Philadelphia, Mark Borowiecki slowed Ottawa by taking a dumb penalty during one of the Flyers' few offensive zone shifts in the period. Once the power play ended, Philadelphia was able to generate at least some sustained attack, and eventually finished off the Senators with a Sean Couturier empty net goal. Still, these passive third periods can't continue. The Flyers simply are not a team built to depend on strong coverage in the defensive zone, so they need to keep up their aggressive neutral zone tactics throughout the entirety of a contest to survive.
- The Flyers did not play an entirely sound neutral zone game, but it was certainly an aggressive one. In the first period, Philadelphia pressured Ottawa at every turn, resulting in a number of disrupted plays but also numerous rushes with speed. They cleaned up the checking for the most part in the second, with a failed break-up attempt at the blueline by Michael Del Zotto on Mike Hoffman's goal the only obvious mistake. But throughout the game, the Flyers pushed for controlled entries, and were able to generate lots of offense as a result.
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- There's been lots of talk regarding Evgeny Medvedev and his transition to the smaller ice surface in North America. I do think that may have played a role in his failed clear that led to Zack Smith's goal. Under little immediate pressure, Medvedev whipped the puck around the entirety of the boards, where it was gathered by Cody Ceci of the Senators. On a wider ice surface, Ceci likely never reaches that puck and the goal never occurs. Also, Medvedev showed a lack of confidence in his puck skills on the play. He has the speed and stickhandling ability to take the puck around the net and find an open man on the breakout. Instead, he simply directed the puck up the boards, a play more appropriate for a Radko Gudas or Nick Schultz-type defenseman.
- In Medvedev's defense, however, Scott Laughton's effort on the play was certainly lacking. Instead of racing to cut the puck off, he took a poor route and showed little jump on the play, allowing for Ceci to easily gather possession. Laughton has long been viewed as a plus defensive forward, but we've seen little of that this season. He leads all forwards in defensive zone turnover percentage (per my tracking), and glides far too often in coverage without the puck. Another example of his underwhelming defensive zone play came in the second period, when Medvedev skillfully avoided two forecheckers and dished the puck to Laughton in an attempt to exit the zone. Had Laughton been moving at full speed, Philadelphia may have generated an odd-man rush through the neutral zone. Instead, the puck skittered harmlessly through the center of the ice. The Flyers simply need more from their young forward in the defensive zone.
- In good Evgeny Medvedev news, his presence on the second power play unit has turned that unit into a legitimate threat. The defenseman's first NHL goal may technically have been scored at even strength, but it came just as an Ottawa penalty expired. Medvedev has added an element of skill on the cycle that was missing from the second unit, particularly in terms of blue line keep-ins, creative passes, and a high-velocity shot. The unit still struggles with offensive zone entries, likely due to the lack of high-end offensive talent at forward. But once they set up in the zone, Medvedev is opening things up for his linemates.
- The second line of Matt Read, Sean Couturier and Wayne Simmonds continued its possession dominance last night, and for the second straight game, they were rewarded on the scoresheet. Each member of the line finished with a Corsi For percentage over 57 percent, and only Matt Read left Ottawa without points. Far from regressing, the line seems to actually be improving, and I believe that's partially due to an increase in controlled entries. In early November, the Couturier line was strong on the cycle, but primarily used dump-and-chase tactics to enter the offensive zone. Especially over the last week, all three forwards are generating entries with speed and control, and they're now skipping the "puck battle" step that comes with chip-and-chase. Immediately, they're getting in on the attack, and the results are telling.
- Michael Del Zotto's aggressive play at the blue line led to Mike Hoffman's second period goal, as Del Zotto stepped up on Kyle Turris but was unable to prevent the entry, allowing for Ottawa to generate a quick two-on-one. A poor play, but one that I suspect Dave Hakstol won't hate too much. In fact, only seconds before, Del Zotto had broken up a potential controlled zone entry and forced the Senators to regroup in the neutral zone. Aggressiveness remains a hallmark of the Hakstol system, and with that necessitates a "process over results" mentality. Risk-takers will get burned on occasion - it's part of the definition of the job. But the mentality is predicated on the theory that the benefits outweigh poor results over the long term. On that play, Del Zotto was beaten. But I'd hope he continues to make aggressive decisions like that in the future, regardless.
- The Shayne Gostisbehere - Brandon Manning defensive pairing put up stellar possession results last night, but I remain skeptical of Manning as a long-term partner for Ghost. His play in the neutral zone remains solid, but in the offensive and defensive zones, I worry that he will hold back Gostisbehere. Manning has not shown the instincts in the defensive zone to participate in high-difficultly give-and-go zone exits, a weakness that can cause some ugly turnovers. Also, he seems to take too many point shots in the offensive zone, when the team would be better served if he deferred to Gostisbehere, who possesses a far more dangerous shot. Last night, Ghost was the possession driver to my eyes, not Manning.
- Speaking of Gostisbehere, he added yet another goal last night. This time, he scored at even strength, taking a Claude Giroux pass and skating the puck deep into the offensive zone before ripping a high wrister past Craig Anderson. No one expects that Ghost will continue on his current goal scoring pace (82 game pace: 36 goals). But his shots on goal pace is just as impressive and more likely to be sustained. Gostisbehere has 24 shots in nine games, which would give him a little less than 219 shots over a full season. The only NHL defensemen to have more shots on goal in 2014-15? Erik Karlsson, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Brent Burns, Justin Faulk, Shea Weber, Keith Yandle, and Drew Doughty. Not bad company for the 22-year old blueliner.
- It was primarily a positive night for the Flyers, but there was one play that could hurt the team over the next few games. Radko Gudas clipped Mika Zibanejad with a high elbow in the defensive zone, and Zibanejad did not return. It was an unnecessary play on the part of Gudas, who was not penalized on the play. Still, the league will surely look at the elbow to see if it warrants discipline. With Nick Schultz suffering from the effects of a likely concussion, the Flyers are already undermanned on the blue line. In addition, Gudas has been surprisingly useful even while receiving top pairing minutes alongside Michael Del Zotto. Despite inconsistent puck skills, he's picked up Hakstol's neutral zone concepts quickly and has been relatively steady in the defensive zone. A suspension would severely test Philadelphia's already-limited depth.