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Flyers 4, Blues 3: 10 things that we learned from the biggest comeback of the year

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The Flyers hit the holiday break on a high note, rebounding from a 3-0 deficit to top the St. Louis Blues in regulation by a score of 4-3. How exactly did they beat such a formidable foe?

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

  • For the third straight game, the Flyers were outplayed in the first period. While poor defensive zone play was the primary cause of the team's slow starts last week, the main problem last night was choppy execution in the neutral zone. Philadelphia struggled to pass the puck through the middle of the ice, resulting in very little offensive zone time. They were outshot 12-5 at even strength in the opening stanza, and went into the locker room down 2-0 on the scoreboard. With a five-day break looming, it would have been very easy for Philadelphia to pack it in after allowing the Blues to extend the lead to 3-0 midway through the second period. Instead, they pushed back against a superior (on paper) St. Louis squad, dominating play through the vast majority of the game's final forty minutes. The result was a well-deserved win.
  • One of the reasons why the Flyers did not collapse following Magnus Paajarvi's goal that extended St. Louis' lead to 3-0 was because their strong play actually began at the start of the second period. Philadelphia came out of the locker room a far crisper team, and the issues in the neutral zone mostly disappeared. As a result, Paajarvi's goal did not kill the Flyers' spirits, since they were aware that they had matched the Blues stride for stride in the first ten minutes of the period. Had Paajarvi scored at the start of the period instead, a collapse may have been more likely. But Philadelphia proved to themselves that they could execute at a high enough level to push the play against the Blues, and not even a third goal against was going to slow them.
  • The Flyers will enter their holiday break tied with the New Jersey Devils for fourth in the Metropolitan Division, and find themselves two points behind the Ottawa Senators for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. So just how good is this Philadelphia team? They remain relatively low in the full season advanced metrics - 19th in the NHL in 5v5 score-adjusted Corsi, 22nd in on-ice scoring chance percentage. But if we limit the metrics to only the post-Gostisbehere era, things look much better. They jump to 13th in score-adjusted Corsi during that time period, posting a 50.7% rate. It gets really interesting when we look at their ability to create and prevent high-danger scoring chances since Gostisbehere entered the lineup. Since November 14th, the Flyers have generated 56.2% of the high-danger chances at 5v5, which ranks them fourth in the entire NHL. Looking at that statistic, it's easy to understand why they've won so many games over the past month and a half. Now is that sustainable? Probably not, and we should expect their scoring chance rates to more closely mirror their Corsi moving forward. But their strong results have been earned by generating better shots than their opponents over a 18-game span.
  • The new trio of Matt Read, Scott Laughton and R.J. Umberger has primarily been used as the fourth line since they were put together last week. Last night was their best performance thus far as a unit. In the first period, they were the only line not to be totally caved in at even strength, and they carried that performance through the remainder of the contest. While they could not dent the scoresheet, the trio's play in the offensive zone was impressive, especially since they spent over 66 percent of their ice time against the Blues' top pair of Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester. This was a big reason for the Flyers' strong play at 5v5 - if the fourth line can get the better of an opponent's top pairing, that opens up more shifts for the scoring lines to face off against less-imposing defensemen.
  • Shayne Gostisbehere got off to a bad start in terms of puck possession (33% Corsi For in the first period), but by the eye test, he didn't appear to be making any obvious mistakes. The "poor" start seemed mostly due to unproductive shifts in the offensive zone on the parts of the forwards while Gostisbehere was on the ice. As a result, it wasn't a shock to see Ghost's metrics take a turn for the better the rest of the way. Gostisbehere actually had one of his best games in the defensive zone last night, excelling in rush coverage and using his stick to disrupt St. Louis puck possession. In fact, it was his quick stick check in the second period against Troy Brouwer that initiated a Wayne Simmonds rush that would eventually end up in the back of the net. It was a perfect example of how the best defensive plays are those that immediately transition the team back onto the attack.
  • After the holiday roster freeze ends on December 27th, the Flyers will have a decision to make. Mark Streit is expected to be activated from long-term injured reserve, necessitating a move by general manager Ron Hextall. Shayne Gostisbehere is not guaranteed to stay with the team, as Philadelphia will need to clear cap space in order to fit Streit, and Ghost is the only waiver-exempt defenseman on the roster. But how can Hextall justify sending down Gostisbehere? The team's run of above-average play was spurred by Ghost's call-up on November 14th, and it's impossible to argue that the Flyers aren't a worse team without Gostisbehere in the lineup. In addition, his point production has been incredible. In 18 games, the 22-year old blueliner has 14 points, good for a 0.77 PPG rate. That ranks him seventh in the entire NHL among defensemen, behind only Erik Karlsson, John Klingberg, Brent Burns, Justin Faulk, John Carlson and Kevin Shattenkirk. There is no longer any doubt about Gostisbehere's NHL readiness, and the Flyers simply cannot afford to send him back to Lehigh Valley if they want to be taken seriously as a playoff contender.
  • I suspect that Claude Giroux needs this upcoming five-day break more than most of his teammates. He was banged up a bit at the end of the Dallas game, and has looked a step slow ever since. It hasn't dramatically affected his play, but he did take a maintenance day at the start of last week and has posted a negative Corsi relative to his teammates over the past four games. My guess is that he's dealing with a nagging issue, and one that will probably resolve itself over the upcoming Christmas break. Perfect timing for the captain.
  • Pierre-Edouard Bellemare - useful player, great penalty killer, but seemingly lacking in scoring touch. He missed on an open net early in the second period after failing to finish on a similar high-quality opportunity against Columbus. But his value was obvious on Chris VandeVelde's goal, as Bellemare forced a turnover on the penalty kill before charging in on Jake Allen to create a breakaway chance. Bellemare was stopped (again, finishing skills), but his effort allowed for VandeVelde to swoop in and put home the rebound while Allen was out of position. In terms of overall play, Bellemare has probably been the most impressive out of the three members of the team's current third line (Bellemare, VandeVelde, White). Just don't expect him to score many goals.
  • The hero last night was Evgeny Medvedev, who took full advantage of a beautiful pass from Ryan White to snipe the game-winning goal past Jake Allen. It's been an odd road for Medvedev, who went from preseason stud to neutral zone revelation to regular scratch and now is finally an indispensable blueliner for the team. Back in early December, I theorized that it was Medvedev's measurable struggles in the defensive zone that had caused him to be scratched, and last night in his post-game press conference, Dave Hakstol essentially confirmed the theory. I asked the coach what had changed in Medvedev's game from November (when he was originally scratched) and in recent weeks. He specifically noted Medvedev's improvement in his own end, stating, "When [Medvedev] came back, probably the biggest thing, if you can point a finger, would be just a little bit more competitive in some of the one-on-one battles in our own zone. I thought he did that better when he came back into the lineup." Hakstol also noted that Medvedev was already good in the other areas of his game (including neutral zone play, which we praised him for early in the year), but he believed that it was the defensive zone improvement which has allowed the defenseman to take a big step forward recently.
  • Vladimir Tarasenko, the Blues star forward and one of the league's most dynamic players, was mostly stymied at even strength. He posted negative puck possession statistics on the night (46.88% Corsi For) and particularly struggled while matched up against the Claude Giroux line, which pasted Tarasenko to the tune of 11 on-ice shot attempts for and only four shot attempts against. Tarasenko did showcase his skills on the power play, fighting off a checking attempt by Matt Read to find Kevin Shattenkirk for the Blues' second goal of the night, but the Flyers were mostly able to nullify his skillset at even strength.