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Ducks 4, Flyers 2: 10 things we learned from a sleepy post-Christmas loss

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The aggressive, sharp Flyers team from last week was gone, replaced by a sloppy and passive squad incapable of controlling play. What caused such a dramatic decline?

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

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

  • The first few shifts of the game from the Flyers were actually quite strong. Anaheim was struggling to move through the neutral zone and Philadelphia appeared to be the quicker team. But following two separate scrums that resulted in power plays for both teams, the Ducks took full control of the game and never really let up. It was a combination of a high-effort performance by Anaheim, and absolutely terrible execution by the Flyers. The team's passing was rarely on target, and poor decision-making with the puck in the neutral zone resulted in a number of failed offensive zone entries. As a result, sustained pressure was nearly impossible, since potential rushes fell apart before the Flyers could even move to attack John Gibson and the Ducks.
  • Michael Del Zotto has been Dave Hakstol's most-used defenseman this season. Tonight, the trickle-down effect of his absence proved substantial. Brandon Manning was forced back into the lineup as a result of Del Zotto's upper-body injury, and Manning had a particularly poor game. He struggled to corral loose pucks, and even whiffed on a slow-moving puck through the crease on Corey Perry's first goal of the night. But Manning wasn't alone in his struggles. Both Evgeny Medvedev and Luke Schenn had nights to forget as well. Both defensemen are above-average passers, but neither were able to engineer clean breakouts all night long. Philadelphia simply cannot overcome half of their defense playing terribly - in fact, few teams could. Luckily, Mark Streit is expected to return on Wednesday and Michael Del Zotto's injury appears to be minor. It would not surprise me if two of Manning, Schenn and Medvedev come out of the lineup to fit Streit and Del Zotto.
  • When the Flyers have played poorly for stretches over the past month, their issues were mostly limited to the defensive zone - specifically, exiting the zone with possession of the puck and avoiding turnovers. That was a problem at times last night, but the larger issue was shoddy play in the neutral zone. Offense and defense in the neutral zone cannot be separated, as a turnover (poor offense) can be immediately transitioned into a controlled zone entry against (poor defense) if the opponent is executing at a high level. To credit Anaheim, they were particularly sharp last night, but the Flyers did not help matters. They missed on passes even while under little pressure, and repeatedly crashed right into Duck defensemen while trying to gain the offensive zone with the puck. The result was Anaheim having little trouble generating speed through the middle of the ice, and almost constant pressure on the Flyers' defensemen.
  • Radko Gudas was forced to take on the role of puck mover last night, as he was paired with the ultra-conservative Nick Schultz. The results were predictably mixed. Gudas is no Nicklas Grossmann - he does possess high-end puck skills, but is simply incapable of taking full advantage of those skills on a consistent basis. One shift, he would make a slick play to initiate a breakout, the next and he would fumble the puck away on an easy pass attempt. Gudas' play this season has been maybe the biggest pleasant surprise of the year for Philadelphia, but the idea of turning him into the puck mover on a pairing is just asking too much of him. He's best served next to a player like Michael Del Zotto or Shayne Gostisbehere, so that he can focus on smart play without the puck, particularly of the physical variety.
  • Last week, I wrote that the Flyers have a serious problem due to the ineffectiveness of the third and fourth lines. In an attempt to make me look clairvoyant, Philadelphia's bottom-six failed to generate even one shot attempt at Gibson in the entire first period. The Laughton line improved as the game progressed, but the third line of Chris VandeVelde, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Ryan White struggled throughout. Bellemare was the worst offender, at least statistically. He finished with a 18.18% Corsi For at even strength, despite four offensive zone draws to only one defensive zone faceoff. Hakstol likes the Bellemare line because he considers them to be reliable, but their ineffective play is now extending to an inability to create shots in the offensive zone - previously the line's biggest strength.
  • In good news for Flyers fans from tonight's game, Sean Couturier added two secondary assists to up his season point totals to 14 in 29 games. That would put him on pace for just under 40 points over an 82-game season, which would barely be a career-high. Couturier's possession play remains stellar, and after a slow start this year, he's now scored nine points in 11 December games. Expecting a huge offensive season for Couturier is probably unrealistic, but he's definitely taking a step up this year, and now the point totals are starting to show it.
  • A main narrative following the game was Claude Giroux's uncharacteristic struggles in the faceoff circle last night. Giroux won only two of sixteen draws for a ghastly 13% success rate. Faceoffs can often be overvalued by the hockey media, because a faceoff is just one of many 50/50 puck battles that occur throughout a game. It just happens to be the only one that is clearly tracked, so more meaning is ascribed to it than is warranted. However, in this case, Giroux's faceoff issues were symptomatic of a game-long struggle on the part of the captain to win puck battles. Following the game, Giroux was hard on himself, and his self-criticism was warranted. He needs to be far more efficient in the offensive and defensive zones for the Flyers to succeed.
  • After a poor start, the Matt Read - Scott Laughton - R.J. Umberger line actually finished as the only positive puck possession line of the evening. While they struggled to finish, the line was the sharpest of all Philadelphia trios through the neutral zone. It shouldn't be a huge surprise, considering Matt Read's demonstrated skillset so far this season in the middle of the ice. Unlike his teammates, Read generally took direct routes into the offensive zone last night, not falling prey to the same zone entry issues that plagued the rest of the Flyers. So far, in limited minutes (45:54 total), the line has posted a 56.3% Corsi For percentage, a very solid rate. Considering his impact on players like Sean Couturier and Wayne Simmonds earlier in the season, I'm apt to give Read most of the credit for the line's strong possession statistics thus far.
  • The Flyers may have scored a power play goal last night, but their special teams units was mostly toothless. Through ten minutes of time with the man advantage, they could only create two high-danger chances. They also allowed a shorthanded goal, which proved to be the dagger that snuffed out any remaining hopes for a third period comeback. The penalty kill was even worse, allowing two goals in less than four minutes of Anaheim power play time. While Philadelphia's even strength play has improved, their chances at a playoff spot depend upon above-average special teams. The coaching staff and the players need to ensure that last night's performance was an aberration and not the start of a trend.
  • With Del Zotto and Streit likely back on Wednesday, the Flyers will have some tough decisions to make regarding their defensive pairings. My preferred tandems would be as follows: Del Zotto and Gudas, Streit and Schenn, Medvedev and Gostisbehere. Brandon Manning will almost definitely be scratched, but Nick Schultz seems likely to stay in the lineup considering Hakstol's consistent usage of the stay-at-home defenseman. In Schultz's defense, he delivered a solid performance last night, even earning a primary assist on Jakub Voracek's first period goal. But his inconsistent neutral zone play often makes him into a liability at even strength, and it would be a bold yet justified move to see Hakstol sit him for the puck movers Del Zotto and Streit.