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Islanders 4, Flyers 3: 10 things we learned from a comeback that wasn't quite enough

The Flyers won every battle except the most important - the one on the scoreboard. But there were still many positives to take from the loss.

Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

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

  • In the November 25th game against the Islanders, the Flyers posted their worst controlled zone entry percentage of the season (26.87%). During that game, Philadelphia was generating little speed through the neutral zone, which caused them to almost exclusively rely on dump-and-chase tactics to enter the offensive zone. While I have not yet tracked this game, I expect a greatly improved rate from last night. Especially in the second period, the Flyers were entering the zone with control at will, primarily due to tired Islanders chipping the puck out of their own zone rather than generating clean breakouts. Because of New York's inability to get pucks deep, they struggled to set up their stifling neutral zone defense. In many ways, it was similar to what happened to the Flyers on Saturday night against Columbus. Last night, Philadelphia was on the right side of the equation.
  • After two straight games of mediocre-to-bad puck possession statistics, the Sean Couturier line was back in full force tonight. What changed was their play in the offensive zone. They were back to their old ways on the forecheck - Matt Read hitting the corners with speed, Couturier protecting the puck with his large frame, and Simmonds using his strength to win battles. Each forward finished with puck possession stats over 60 percent, and Simmonds led all Flyers at 70%. It looks like their brief stretch of underwhelming even strength play was not the start of a trend, after all.
  • The Flyers may come away with the loss, but by every metric, this was a dominant performance. They outshot the Islanders 46-26. They won the total shot attempts battle 89-51. They had over double the regular scoring chances (54-26) and almost triple the high-danger scoring chances (26-9). So how did they lose? It was primarily due to a stellar performance by Jaroslav Halak, especially against two Philadelphia power plays. The Flyers generated ten scoring chances in those four minutes but could not beat Halak, at least legally. Simmonds did knock a puck into the net, but it was called back due to a distinct kicking motion. Philadelphia's power play did everything but score last night, but in a tight game, results mattered more than process.
  • The book on Andrew MacDonald is a perceived weakness in the neutral zone, particularly in allowing opponents to enter the offensive zone with possession of the puck rather than attacking them at the blue line. On his very first shift of the game, in his first regular season appearance of the NHL season, that fatal flaw reared its head. He allowed Anders Lee easy entry into the zone via a pass from Johnny Boychuk, and then continued to retreat, opening up a passing lane right to Frans Nielsen, who beat Mason. Nick Schultz did not cover Nielsen well on the play either, but that coverage mistake doesn't occur if MacDonald challenges Lee at the line and breaks up the rush entirely. Shayne Gostisbehere and especially Evgeny Medvedev have the natural instincts to attack the puck carrier at the blue line. At this point, I'm not sure Andrew MacDonald can develop them.
  • Steve Mason was not seeing the puck well from the start of the contest. Mason admitted after the game that he needs to be better to help the Flyers win, and he wasn't wrong - this was probably his worst performance since the Florida debacle at the start of the season. That game was understandable in retrospect, as Mason learned of a personal issue right before the contest. This one was more baffling. Nielsen's first goal was stoppable, but did come from a high-danger area. It was Nielsen's second tally that was truly weak, and sent Mason to the showers. He was screened by Michael Del Zotto on the rush, but as Mason himself put it, "I’ve got to find a way to make that save." With back-to-back games coming up, the Flyers' goaltender will definitely get at least one start, so he'll have a chance to rebound from this game quickly.
  • Against Columbus on Saturday, the Philadelphia forecheck was completely nonexistent. In fact, the Flyers did not generate their first shot attempt off a dump-and-chase entry until fifteen seconds were left in the second period. That problem was fixed last night. While Philadelphia was creating controlled zone entries regularly, their chip-and-chase game was also on point. Unlike on Saturday, Philadelphia was first to loose pucks, and rarely seemed to lose puck battles in the offensive zone. This allowed the Flyers to sustain long cycles and create second chance opportunities off rebounds. It also made it very difficult for the Islanders to exit their own zone, even after gaining possession of the puck. Dave Hakstol used the word "tenacity" after the game to describe his team's effort, and the description was right on point.
  • Let's take a second to appreciate Claude Giroux's season. After last night's one goal, one assist performance, the captain has 24 points in 28 games. Not only does that lead the team, it's nine points ahead of his closest teammates (Simmonds and Jakub Voracek). Giroux is closing in on a point per game pace despite not having much help from his partner-in-crime Voracek, who continues to struggle in terms of goal scoring. He's also been dominant in even strength puck possession, as the Flyers have generated 54.70 percent of all shot attempts while Giroux has been on the ice. Philadelphia's top center watched his team struggle to score goals in the early season and did not let that discourage him - instead, he's just shouldered more of the load while still providing his usual stellar underlying numbers. Giroux may not be an ultra-vocal captain, but his play on the ice speaks volumes.
  • Throughout November, the "why is Evgeny Medvedev being scratched?" question was on the minds of all diehard Flyers fans. The answer was simple - he had not yet earned the confidence of his head coach. We can safely assume that those days are over. Medvedev received 23:19 minutes of ice time last night - all at even strength. Only Hakstol's favorite defenseman, Michael Del Zotto, received more (23:34). But it's what Medvedev did with those minutes that was truly impressive. He finished with a 62.79% Corsi For, and particularly excelled in helping his team to get out of the defensive zone with possession of the puck. The Russian defenseman may actually be better at zone exits than Shayne Gostisbehere - Ghost is more dynamic, but does not have the physical strength to retain puck possession in the corners like Medvedev can. It's hard for me to imagine that Hakstol and Hextall aren't happy with Medvedev's recent play.
  • In the third period, Shayne Gostisbehere showcased why I believe he will eventually become a polarizing player in the Flyers fanbase, once the "new car sheen" wears off. With about twelve minutes remaining, Gostisbehere jumped up in the neutral zone and checked Johnny Boychuk, who was flying through at speed. Ghost broke up the rush and sent Bellemare roaring into the offensive zone with possession. Minutes later, Gostisbehere floated a poor pass in the defensive zone and Neuvirth needed to bail him out with a big glove save. Ghost is going to make mistakes. His aggressive style will get him burned on occasion, and any blueliner who handles the puck at a high frequency will suffer turnovers. This particular turnover actually saw Ghost be stapled to the bench for the remainder of regulation. But Gostisbehere finished the game with the best possession metrics on the defense, and his benching may have contributed to New York's late-third period surge. Ghost will have to deal with the same "he's not good at defense!" jeers that Mike Green dealt with in Washington during his prime. But regardless of the "big mistakes," the Flyers will drive play more often than not when Gostisbehere is on the ice, just as the Capitals did with Green. It's up to the coaches to recognize the risk/reward inherent in his game, and only punish him when his play gets particularly brainless.
  • I've been critical of the VandeVelde-Bellemare-Voracek line over the past two weeks, so I feel obligated to admit that last night the line worked exactly as Flyers coach Dave Hakstol envisioned it would. The trio was dominant on the forecheck, and produced multiple scoring chances. In fact, Bellemare himself generated two high-quality scoring chances right in front of Halak on the same shift and simply could not finish on either. There is a statistical justification for putting Voracek with Bellemare and VandeVelde, and this Islanders game hinted at it. The Flyers know that a line with Giroux will drive possession. The Couturier line seems likely to carry play as well. However, Philadelphia lacks bottom-six possession drivers, and Voracek is the only winger dominant enough to drag an entire line to respectability. And since he already has received his payday, the organization does not risk Voracek suspecting that this is a strategy meant to deflate his statistics and keep him cheap. I still believe the team would be better served trying to unlock Jake's scoring with more skilled linemates, but the benefit of having three possession-driving lines was obvious last night.