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Rangers 3, Flyers 2: 10 things we learned other than that shootouts are bad

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The Flyers may have lost, but there were a number of positives to take away from Saturday's game against the Rangers. They won't face Henrik Lundqvist every night.

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

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

  • Over the course of an 82-game season, there are going to be nights when a team dominates in all elements of the game with the exception of the scoreboard. Yesterday afternoon, the Flyers won every statistical battle - shot attempts, shots on goal, scoring chances - but were still unable to earn a win in regulation or during the three-on-three overtime. Once the buzzer sounded to end the overtime, it was easy to predict what would happen next, considering the fact that the Rangers have Henrik Lundqvist and the Flyers are the worst shootout team in NHL history. That shouldn't take away from the team's performance during the preceding 65 minutes, however. Lundqvist really was the difference - he made a whopping fifteen high-danger saves, allowing the Rangers to stay alive despite Philadelphia's consistent pressure. It's a tough loss to swallow considering the divisional nature of the game, but the Flyers were able to snatch one point due to yet another third period comeback and have the knowledge that performances like this one will result in wins the vast majority of the time.
  • The methods that Philadelphia used to carry the play at even strength were not static, however. At the game's start, the Flyers' breakout in the defensive zone was clicking at a level not yet seen this season. Philadelphia was creating controlled zone exits with ease, with defensemen eluding oncoming New York forecheckers with ease and sending the the forwards into the Rangers' zone with speed and possession of the puck. By the start of the second period, the Rangers adjusted, making it more difficult for the Flyers to cleanly exit their own zone. That's when Philadelphia took control in the offensive and neutral zones, utilizing aggressive tactics to prevent the Rangers from moving the puck up ice with speed. Most of the Flyers' chances in the first period were created off the rush, while the final forty minutes saw Philadelphia utilizing the cycle game to pressure Lundqvist. Both methods can be effective, but it was surprising to see the Flyers transition from one to the other mid-game.
  • For the second straight game, the ice surface at the Wells Fargo Center seemed particularly choppy, especially in the first period. Against Boston, it was easy to see lines of snow up and down the ice surface, and multiple players had visible trouble keeping their balance. While the issue wasn't quite as noticeable yesterday, the ice seemed to be a bit slow again, especially in the Rangers' zone during the first period. The problem resolved itself by the end of the game, when both teams were trading chances up and down the ice, but there was some Twitter conjecture that the Disney on Ice event in late December/early January may have had a negative impact on the Wells Fargo surface. Seems like a plausible theory, even if I didn't notice any issues during the early January home games against Montreal and the Islanders.
  • Sean Couturier's offensive instincts were again on display throughout yesterday's game. Not only did he finish with a stellar 62.96% Corsi For percentage, he earned yet another even strength point - a primary assist on Brayden Schenn's first period goal. The pass will receive most of the attention, as Couturier pounced on a loose puck and sent it perfectly across the slot to a wide-open Schenn. But to my eyes, just as impressive was his entry into the offensive zone. Couturier gained the zone with possession under heavy pressure from Rangers defenseman Kevin Klein. Most forwards would look to play dump-and-chase after being prevented from carrying the puck deep into the zone. Instead, Couturier pivoted, allowing for his linemates to catch up on the rush, and found Shayne Gostisbehere to jumpstart a high-speed cycle. I asked Couturier after the game about his decision to retain possession on the rush rather than dump it in deep, and if it was due to increased confidence in his ability to create in the offensive zone. Couturier told me that it was less confidence in himself, and more trust in the ability of his linemates to get open that made him feel comfortable waiting for them. It was a humble answer, but also one that hinted at one of the key reasons for Couturier's jump this season - an ability to use the other players on the ice to his advantage, regardless of the specific personnel. It's why he's been just as successful with Schenn and Michael Raffl as he was with Jakub Voracek and Wayne Simmonds.
  • As the home coach, Dave Hakstol chose to heavily line match against the Rangers, sending the Couturier line out for 75% of its total 5v5 ice time against the dangerous Kreider-Stepan-Nash unit and the Giroux line for two-thirds of its ice time against J.T. Miller, Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello. The strategy proved sound, as both Couturier and Giroux schooled the Rangers' top two units. Brassard's line was especially ineffective, finishing near a 20 percent Corsi For against Giroux, Voracek and Simmonds. In previous games, Hakstol tried to get his top line out against the opponent's bottom two lines whenever possible. Yesterday, likely respecting the scoring talent of players like Zuccarello and Brassard, the Flyers coach instead chose to fight fire with fire. The choice proved to be a resounding success.
  • I've made the case that the Flyers' special teams unit are not quite as bad as they've performed so far this season, as their underlying metrics hint that they deserve a better fate. It's easy to buy into that line of thinking for Philadelphia's power play. Even when the Flyers struggled to score on early opportunities with the man advantage yesterday, the problem wasn't an inability to create chances and set up a cycle game. The forwards simply weren't finishing, partially due to poor execution and partially because Henrik Lundqvist is a fantastic goaltender. As a result, it was not a surprise when Wayne Simmonds finally broke through in the third period with a power play tally. The penalty kill, on the other hand, remains painfully inconsistent. On the first two New York power plays, Philadelphia bled shots and chances against, making J.T. Miller's eventual goal feel deserved even if Steve Mason probably should have stopped that particular shot. But then they smothered the Rangers on their third power play in the third. The Flyers have a number of top-tier penalty killers on their roster (Couturier, Read, Giroux), and at times, they can look the part of an elite shorthanded unit. But it simply happens too infrequently.
  • Shayne Gostisbehere not only made his return from a lower-body injury, he delivered his best all-around performance since mid-December. Gostisbehere's even strength play was a revelation in his first month with the big club, as he took advantage of high-end neutral zone instincts to break up rushes and force opponents to play dump-and-chase hockey on his side of the ice. But in the weeks leading up to his injury, Ghost's play sagged a bit. He seemed to be turning a corner last week, and was having a strong game against the Wild prior to suffering his injury, but yesterday's game was the real proof that the old Gostisbehere is back. His best sequence came late in the second period. First, Gostisbehere cut off a lazy neutral zone pass by the Rangers and charged in on a true breakaway. Stuffed by Lundqvist and at the end of a shift, Ghost was able to find the energy to backcheck and prevent the Rangers from an odd-man rush going in the other direction. Now in the defensive zone, Gostisbehere dove for a loose puck and directed it to Sean Couturier, who raced in on yet another breakaway for Philadelphia. It's his ability to create immediate offense out of defense that makes Ghost so dangerous on every shift.
  • Gostisbehere's defensive partner had a far more uneven game. Some worried that Evgeny Medvedev would be a healthy scratch with Ghost back in the lineup, but Dave Hakstol chose instead to sit Brandon Manning, leaving the Russian blueliner in. And there were certainly positives in Medvedev's game - he finished with a 64.29% Corsi For percentage and was particularly dangerous in the offensive zone, helping to sustain cycles through slick passes and intelligent pinches. But the other elements of his game were less impressive. It was his failure to disrupt Derek Stepan at the blue line which eventually allowed Chris Kreider to drive the middle lane and score New York's second goal of the contest. And in the third period, he was forced to take a potentially-devastating penalty after misreading a cleared puck in the neutral zone. I asked Hakstol how he evaluated Medvedev's play following the game, and Hakstol refused to pin any blame on his defenseman. He noted that Kreider's goal was a team-wide breakdown, likely a reference to Gostisbehere's inability to prevent Rick Nash from passing the puck into the slot and Ryan White's ineffective backcheck. He also claimed to be happy with Medvedev's play. We'll see if that evaluation holds tomorrow when the Flyers' coach is filling out his lineup in Detroit.
  • Another example of Dave Hakstol's respect for the line centered by Pierre-Edouard Bellemare came late in regulation, when he chose to send them out with less than two minutes remaining in a tie contest. It was a questionable decision, as the trio of Bellemare, Chris VandeVelde and Ryan White was the only line that finished with sub-50 percent possession metrics. The Flyers coach clearly trusted them to keep the puck pinned in the offensive zone and to avoid any obvious mistakes that would result in the team losing a chance at a point in the standings. And the Rangers failed to capitalize on the matchup, so clearly Hakstol's decision did not backfire. Still, using your most ineffective territorial line, both on the night and over the course of the season, with the game on the line was definitely a risky move.
  • Despite Hakstol's usage of the Bellemare late in the game, he did cut back on their overall minutes throughout the rest of the contest. The line of Matt Read, Scott Laughton and R.J. Umberger actually functioned as the team's third line for the first time since the start of the season. Laughton received 9:23 of 5v5 ice time, while Bellemare only was granted 8:02 minutes. The line deserves the additional minutes - they've posted an impressive 54.1% Corsi For together on the season. At this point, it's obvious what the Bellemare line can deliver - strong forechecking but inconsistent defensive zone play. This Laughton line, however, possesses real scoring potential. It's certainly worth seeing if they can provide offensive punch with more minutes.