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Blue Jackets 3, Flyers 2: 10 things that we learned from a comeback spoiled by a shootout

The Flyers erased a 2-0 deficit in the third period against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Saturday night, but were victimized by their longtime nemesis in the end - the shootout.

Russell LaBounty-USA TODAY Sports

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

  • While the outcome was certainly different, last night's loss wasn't all that dissimiliar in structure to the Flyers' victory over the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday. Just as they did on Thursday, the Flyers were sloppy early, particularly in their own zone. They improved as the game progressed, and the third period was the team at their best. The difference between the two games? Worse luck, and more penalties taken when the Flyers were playing their worst hockey. While Vancouver was unable to capitalize on Philadelphia's poor defensive zone play in the first period, the Blue Jackets took advantage of the power play to jump out to a lead after twenty minutes. So while the Flyers trended upwards throughout the game, they were chasing the lead rather than protecting it as they did against the Canucks. More often than not, playing from behind is the result of a poor start, so it's definitely something that Philadelphia needs to clean up.
  • Steve Mason took the loss last night, but his performance against Columbus marked the second straight fantastic game for the Flyers' netminder. There was no shutout, but Mason faced far more high-quality chances last night than he did against the Canucks on Thursday, and he proved up to the task. He again was a wall throughout the majority of the first period despite poor defensive zone play by the Flyers' skaters, and made the overtime possible by robbing Matt Calvert on a late breakaway in the third. Mason may not have officially taken back the starting job from Michael Neuvirth, but he has presented a convincing claim over the past two games to regain his old job. The marginalization of Mason was always more a result of Neuvirth's fantastic play than Mason having serious struggles, but if Philadelphia's opening night starter is back to the level of play that saw him post a 0.928 save percentage in 2014-15, it will be difficult to justify sitting him down.
  • The entire game was marred for the Flyers by Brandon Dubinsky's knee-on-knee hit against Jakub Voracek in the first period. Philadelphia had finally begun to settle in when Dubinsky stuck his leg out after Voracek beat him cleanly in the neutral zone, knocking Voracek to the ice. Wayne Simmonds immediately jumped in and pummeled Dubinsky as retribution for the hit. Simmonds was given 17 minutes worth of penalties (two-minute instigation, five-minute fighting major, and a ten-minute misconduct), keeping the valuable winger off the ice for the majority of the second period. Technically, the referees called this correctly - Simmonds absolutely instigated the fight, so by the letter of the law, he earned his penalties. But something seems off when Dubinsky can deliver a dirty hit and know that supplemental discipline from the NHL is unlikely, while Simmonds missed nearly a third of a hockey game simply for responding to a hit that should never occur. Maybe Simmonds wouldn't feel required to provide physical retribution if he knew that the NHL would consistently punish hits like the one Dubinsky delivered last night.
  • Woes in the defensive zone remain Philadelphia's biggest weakness. This is a team that lacks high-end talent on the blueline and quality depth in the bottom-six, and it shows itself most often as the team tries to break out of their own end. When pressured, the third and fourth lines really struggle to exit the defensive zone cleanly, which leaves them vulnerable to teams capable of employing an aggressive forecheck. The first period was a classic example, as the Flyers suffered from repeated turnovers, allowing for Columbus to sustain long offensive cycles. It even bled into Philadelphia's neutral zone play, which was generally solid when the play was back-and-forth. But with the Flyers unable to exit their own zone with possession of the puck, the Blue Jackets were often able to gather loose pucks in the neutral zone and toss them right back in to start up on the attack yet again. Luckily for Philadelphia, they mostly solved the issue in the latter two periods, aside from some assorted shifts from the Bellemare line. But it's the major cause of the team's first period struggles. Opponents are trying to jump on the Flyers from the opening whistle, and it's working.
  • Dave Hakstol's choices in the shootout were widely criticized on social media last night. Starting with Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek obviously did not raise any eyebrows, but the selections of Simmonds, Scott Laughton, Matt Read, and Brayden Schenn were more questionable. My general opinion of the shootout is that the outcomes are fairly random, but I admit that I would have liked to see Shayne Gostisbehere take a run at Blue Jackets goalie Joonas Korpisalo during the skills competition. With Sam Gagner out of the lineup as a now-healthy scratch, the third choice for Hakstol in the shootout is far from obvious. Simmonds has delivered in spurts, Read was much better in past years when he had more confidence in his wrist shot, and Laughton and Schenn show only inconsistent flashes of high-end offensive skill. Truthfully, the best answer to this problem is to get Gagner back in the lineup, and not just because of the shootout. It's difficult for me to believe that he couldn't provide more value than Ryan White or R.J. Umberger on the wing during regulation time.
  • The biggest reason for last night's loss (aside from the usual ineptitude in the shootout) was a surprisingly poor night from the Flyers on the penalty kill. According to the official record, they allowed only one power play goal, but Columbus' first period tally occurred just as a Scott Laughton penalty expired. The shorthanded units were simply taken apart by Columbus - the Blue Jackets were able to generate 12 shots and six high-danger scoring chances in a little over ten minutes of power play ice time. The shorthanded units have improved dramatically since the return of Sean Couturier and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare from injury, but they were a mess last night.
  • When Wayne Simmonds was sent off for his extended stay in the penalty box, it left a void on the new second line alongside Jakub Voracek and Sean Couturier. The logical choice seemed to be Matt Read - not only does he have experience playing with the second-line center, he was on the ice for Couturier's goal against Carolina earlier this week when Simmonds faced a similar penalty situation. Instead, Dave Hakstol chose to go almost exclusively with R.J. Umberger as the temporary replacement at right wing. While Umberger's puck possession statistics last night (67.86% Corsi For) actually were quite strong, his increased ice time also resulted in a brainless high-sticking penalty that eventually led to a Ryan Murray power play tally. This strikes me as an example of Hakstol thinking that only a certain type of player can succeed with Voracek and Couturier - a physical player who can win battles down low. However, Read's acumen in the neutral zone makes him a far more effective player than Umberger at this stage of their respective careers. An emphasis upon role-filling above simply playing the best talent can really hamstring a team, and it's something that Hakstol will have to avoid moving forward.
  • The Flyers lost the scoring chance battle tonight, even though they generated more overall even strength shot attempts than Columbus. What hurt even more was the fact that they flubbed a number of their chances because of an unwillingness to shoot the puck. Chris VandeVelde passed up on an open shooting opportunity in the first period, instead trying to slide the puck to Bellemare on a two-on-none. Bellemare was unable to get off a real shot. Then, in the second period, Voracek and Couturier were both too unselfish on consecutive rushes, resulting in high-danger opportunities fizzling out. The Flyers certainly have more pressing weaknesses, but last night was a reminder that (like many teams) they could definitely use a classic sniper who thinks "shoot first" on every shift. The only player on the current roster with that mentality is actually a defenseman, which is amusing and frustrating simultaneously.
  • Speaking of Shayne Gostisbehere, he had a strong game after two straight clunkers in a row. This week, Gostisbehere was playing surprisingly passive at even strength, especially in the defensive zone. Not so last night. Ghost was back to his old tricks as a one-man breakout, and his slick change-of-direction play in the third period proved to be the impetus behind Jakub Voracek's game-tying goal. His play in the neutral zone was also notably aggressive, as he was cutting off rushes before they began and using his stick to force Columbus forwards to dump the puck in the offensive zone rather than enter the zone with possession. There was one play in the second period, however, when Gostisbehere tried to execute a hip check in the middle of the ice and failed miserably, and the result was a quick rush by the Blue Jackets. Ghost's defensive strength is his speed and his quick stick, not his physicality. He'll need to play to those strengths rather than try to become something that he's not if he wants to continue to produce positive puck possession statistics in the NHL.
  • Scott Laughton seems to be the most likely candidate for a demotion to the AHL once Mark Streit returns from injury next week. That would be the easiest way to keep Gostisbehere in the NHL and remain salary cap-compliant, without risking the loss of an asset by exposing a player to waivers (Laughton would not be exposed if sent down). But Laughton reminded the front office last night that he remains a tantalizing prospect. His top corner wrist shot early in the third period was a thing of beauty, and his ability to use his top-end speed to separate from defenders in the offensive zone was equally impressive. Laughton's biggest issues are in the defensive zone, where he leads all Flyers forwards in turnover ratio (16.48% as of 12/17). But he has shown flashes of brilliance on the attack, as he did last night. It remains to be seen if that potential keeps him in the NHL through the end of the calendar year.

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