Morning Observations is a new feature, where we break down the previous night's game with an analytical eye.
- In a way, this game was a bit of a tale of two, um ... I can't really call them halves, since one of them was longer than the other. But there was a distinctly different feel to this game in the first two periods compared to the third. The Flyers basically out-Devilsed the Devils through 40, holding the slowest-paced team in hockey to just 12 shots through two periods. The Flyers had their moments in all three zones, but it was in the offensive zone where they seemed to give New Jersey the most fits, as the Flyers used speed and physicality alike to just wreak havoc with their forecheck and cycle game. It didn't necessarily translate to offensive results -- the team didn't score at even strength until the third period -- but they absolutely suffocated the Jersey attack for the better part of this game, and kept the middle of the ice occupied whenever the Devils did manage to get the puck out of their own zone. Most shots were kept to the outside, and the Devils' first shot attempt in the scoring chance/"home plate" area wasn't until the final seconds of the second period on the power play. To be sure, that is the kind of 200-foot effort that Dave Hakstol wants to see from this team, nightly.
- The third period, though, felt like a bit of a mess, even though (per war-on-ice) it was only a draw in the shot and chance battle rather than a show that tilted towards the Flyers' goal for 20 minutes. Maybe that speaks to just how well the Flyers played in the first 40 minutes, but the Devils undoubtedly were moving the puck across the ice and getting in-close to the Flyers' net far, far better in the third frame than they were in either of the first two. In discussing Shayne Gostisbehere and his effect on the team on Thursday, Charlie mentioned the discrepancy between the team's score-close numbers and their overall numbers, pointing out that the team's been protecting a lot of leads lately and as such have been going back into their shell a bit. We saw it again tonight, and against a team as unimposing offensively as this New Jersey one -- and one that was missing one of its better forwards in Travis Zajac -- you'd like to try and keep the pedal down a bit more.
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- Another thing that was discussed on the site this week was the difference between Evgeny Medvedev and Nick Schultz, and why Hakstol may prefer the latter's relatively strong defensive-zone play to the former's neutral-zone excellence. Well, of course, the two were put together on one pairing following the Radko Gudas suspension, and if the first game was any indication, they should get a bit more time working together. For most of the night, the pairing worked rather well together, as Medvedev was able to make the type of on-puck plays in the neutral zone that Schultz typically isn't and the two were able to hold up pretty well in the defensive zone together. There were a couple of shaky shifts for each of them later in the game when the two were separated, but while together, the two were an eye-popping +10/-1 in shot attempts, and both factored into Pierre-Edouard Bellemare's go-ahead goal in the third period, even if Schultz didn't pick up a point on it. It's unlikely that the pairings would have changed anyways after this defensive effort, but that one should definitely get a second and maybe even third look tonight and on Tuesday.
- When you only give up 18 shots but end up going to overtime on three goals allowed, there are going to be questions about the goalie, and to be sure, this wasn't one of Michal Neuvirth's finest evenings. The first goal is the one that's going to end up on the highlight reels for the wrong reasons, as a backhand shot from Stefan Matteau that essentially came from the spot where the boards meet the red line snuck through Neuvirth's five-hole. That's one that he absolutely has to stop, and yet at the same time one he's given up once already this year. Whether or not that's something we should be worried about long-term is up for debate. Still, even beyond that, Neuvirth seemed a bit out of sorts tonight, with him having some rebound issues and overall just not handling the puck as well as he typically does. Not a ton to read into, but this was the first time in a while it felt like the Flyers won a game in spite of some iffy goaltending. (Man, what year are we in where I'm typing things like that?)
- Earlier on in the year, when the Flyers' top power play was getting some chances but failing to cash in, it seemed like we saw a lot of moments where Wayne Simmonds would be the recipient of a pass right there at the left-side post, only to have multiple defenders swarm in on him and deny any sort of scoring opportunity. The book on Wayne down there has been out for a while now, and after four years of falling victim to it, it seemed like teams were finally looking to take that opportunity away. So it was very refreshing to see Wayne tally what was just his second power play goal of the year, as he stood wide open right at that post to tap home a puck off of a superb passing sequence from Giroux to Voracek, with Giroux drawing just enough attention from Adam Larsson to keep him looking the wrong way long enough. With Giroux heating back up -- and with Shayne Gostisbehere starting to grab the focus of the guy higher up in the slot on the penalty kill -- Simmonds may soon start to have a little more room down there to work. Let's hope that's the case.
- Tying back to the point earlier about the third period being bad, in a way it really wasn't that surprising to see Mike Cammalleri tie it up in the final minute for New Jersey like he did. This was the fourth time in the previous three weeks that the Flyers saw a one-goal lead evaporate in the game's final minutes, with three of those (tonight's included) coming in an extra-attacker situation for the opponent. Granted, the Devils were on the two-man advantage thanks to a Pierre-Edouard Bellemare tripping penalty. But as always, in situations like these sometimes the personnel options aren't going to be great. Yes, one can question the decision to put Brandon Manning on the ice (instead of, say, Evgeny Medvedev) in the seconds just before that goal was scored. But none of the options at this point are great, and Hakstol is going to have to see if there's anything in particular he can do to shut these kinds of late-game letdowns off.
- In a potentially-related note, it'll be interesting to see at what point Hakstol starts to give Gostisbehere a bit more time late in close games. Playing mostly alongside Manning, Ghost received the fewest minutes at 5-on-5 of any Flyers defender in the game, and only saw 2.5 minutes of 5-on-5 time (per war-on-ice) in the third period. It would be a way to sort of try and "flip the switch" a bit -- attacking with a lead, as opposed to defending. In a game like last night's, where the Devils sort of flipped the script and attacked after failing to do much at all offensively through two periods, you wonder if he could have successfully pushed the action the other way a bit. But it's likely he'll need some time to build up the trust from Hakstol to get those chances.
- Meanwhile, the coach's confidence level in Michael Del Zotto has maybe never been as obvious as it was tonight. Del Zotto played just over 26 minutes, but it was his new defensive partner Luke Schenn -- who, prior to Friday, was getting fewer than 18 minutes of ice time per night -- who played 23:08, easily a season-high. Radko Gudas' three-game NHL-mandated vacation clearly is not deterring Hakstol from playing his new obvious favorite defenseman as much as possible. With that said, the Schenn-MDZ pairing has had its ups and downs since Del Zotto joined the Flyers last season, and last night probably leaned more towards down. Both Schenn and Del Zotto had some not-great moments in the defensive end, on and off the puck, and together they were +7/-13 in shot attempts. Those two together will always have their issues in defensive zone coverage -- does Del Zotto's skating and neutral zone ability, and the fact that they're both plus passers, make up for it?
- Though they didn't score at even strength, the Giroux line/"top" line was the one that really seemed to set the tone for as long as the Flyers were controlling this contest. All three of Giroux, Brayden Schenn, and Michael Raffl are guys who can all at least flash some skill, skate at least decently well, and play a fairly physical style. Last night, all three of them were doing all of those things well at different times, with each of them getting their chances in close offensively and each of them using the body on the forecheck to prevent New Jersey from getting anywhere fast. Unfortunately, the finishing wasn't there , and when Schenn and Raffl (two guys who, as much as I hate this word, are both fairly streaky scorers) aren't putting them home, then it can be easy to forget their contributions in other ways. So while the process was there for them -- the line was both effective and fun to watch, and really has been since they were put together -- eventually they're going to need to start cashing in a bit more.
- We've talked a lot about how silly it is for elite NHL scorer Jakub Voracek to be put on a line with two guys in Bellemare and Chris VandeVelde who are undeniably bottom-6 NHL options. Let me just make it clear that this is by no means those two guys' faults -- their job is to go skate when and where the coach tells them to. Still, let's give them some credit for what was one of their better efforts as a line last night. For the Flyers to successfully and aggressively push the action like they want to, those guys need to be relentless in pestering the other team's defensemen all game long. All three of the members of this line did that against the Devils, and it was good to see their efforts finally rewarded on the scoreboard after a deflection by VandeVelde was knocked home by a falling-to-the-ice Bellemare. This doesn't suddenly justify the decision to have kept them together for this long, and I'm pretty sure they still shouldn't be, but last night was probably what Dave Hakstol had in mind for them when he put that odd combo together.