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Maple Leafs 3, Flyers 2: 10 things we learned from a last second loss

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Forty minutes of terrible play bookended by twenty minutes of competency. Unfortunately, that won't be enough to win many games in the NHL.

Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

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

  • The opening eleven minutes last night felt so far removed from the rest of the contest that it might as well have been a different game altogether. The Flyers were moving through the neutral zone efficiently and taking full advantage of Toronto's struggles with the puck in their own end early. But after Matt Read scored to give Philadelphia a 1-0 lead, the Maple Leafs took control for the next forty minutes of hockey. During the middle forty minutes, it was tough to point to one thing the Flyers were doing well - they consistently were bottled up in the neutral zone, and whenever they did get in on the attack, they usually would turn the puck over before releasing even one shot attempt. And the breakout was filled with errors as well, both forced and unforced. Once Shayne Gostisbehere scored midway through the third period, however, the Flyers were seemingly jolted back to earth and resembled the team from the game's start. Still, it's hard to argue that they deserved this win considering that they only played a period's worth of solid hockey.
  • The issues really originated (as they usually do for the Flyers) in the defensive zone. What made this performance odd, however, was that Philadelphia's breakouts were relatively clean in the early going. In past games, the Flyers' breakout struggles tend to be limited to the beginning stages of games, and then they slowly become more crisp as the game progressed. Last night, they started strong and then inexplicably regressed. Well-coached as they are under Mike Babcock, the Maple Leafs quickly recognized Philadelphia's defensive zone issues and ramped up the intensity of their forecheck. Through the majority of the second period, the Maple Leafs looked to be employing an aggressive 2-1-2 forecheck to exploit the Flyers' inability to exit their own zone. The result was a second period where Toronto won the shot attempts battle at five-on-five by a 22-10 margin.
  • A game that looked ready to slide into the abyss at the midway point of the third period was revived by the heroics of rookie defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere. In one play, Gostisbehere sniffed out a pass from Morgan Reilly in the Flyers' end, stormed out of the defensive zone, carried the puck into the Toronto end on a three-on-one, and then flipped a shot through James Reimer to tie the contest. It was a rare unassisted, end-to-end goal from a defenseman - the type of goal you see maybe five times during an entire NHL season. It wasn't a coincidence that the Flyers "woke up" as soon as Ghost scored his goal, as it almost seemed like they needed reminding that proper execution of Hakstol's aggressive system would cause positive results. When a team is failing to execute as a unit, it helps to have players that are able to create offensive pressure singlehandedly, just to prevent poor play from continuing to snowball. The Flyers have three players that fit the bill - Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, and now Shayne Gostisbehere.
  • It was the final shift of Radko Gudas that put the nail in Philadelphia's coffin. On said shift, Gudas had two opportunities with the puck on his stick in the defensive zone. First, he flipped the puck out to center-ice for an uncontrolled exit, and only six seconds later, Toronto was back in the Flyers' zone. Then, retrieving a Maple Leaf dump-in, Gudas chose to send the puck hard along the wall and out of the zone rather than attempt a relatively high-percentage pass to Brayden Schenn. Of course, the puck went for an icing, and Toronto would score on the ensuing faceoff. It's obvious that years of "play conservative when tied late!" direction from coaches results in players simply trying to get the puck out of the defensive zone at all costs, regardless of the method. But death by one thousand uncontrolled zone exits gets a team to the same place as one big shotgun blast of a defensive zone turnover. At least the latter probably occurred on a play that had some offensive upside.
  • Looking for a positive from this game that wasn't named Shayne Gostisbehere? The Philadelphia penalty kill again posted a solid performance, holding Toronto to only four shots on goal in three opportunities. Philadelphia was able to even carry the puck out of their own zone at times, using puck possession to bleed valuable seconds off the clock. Despite dangerous forwards like Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier and Matt Read on the team's shorthanded units, it's been striking how little pressure the Flyers have been able to put on opposing goaltenders via rushes and breakaway chances. Last night, the penalty killers stayed in their lanes for the most part, and showed the capacity for transition offense while down a man. The trend line is certainly moving in the right direction over the past few games.
  • R.J. Umberger had a game worthy of a benching. It was his misfire on a first period rush engineered by Matt Read that sent Toronto going back the other way, eventually leading to a Roman Polak rebound goal. Then, in the second period, Umberger missed the net entirely on a golden opportunity from the slot area. Finally, on Joffrey Lupul's goal, Umberger lost Dion Phaneuf in coverage, allowing the defenseman to cheat down into the left faceoff circle and create a rebound for Lupul to hammer home. Even on a night when his linemates played poorly as well, Umberger stood out in a negative way. Dave Hakstol clearly agreed, benching the forward for the entirety of the third period along with Scott Laughton. And with Jordan Weal chomping at the bit for an opportunity to play, one would assume that either Umberger or Laughton are the most likely to sit for the Flyers' newest acquisition to get his chance.
  • Truthfully, the entire Laughton line was a mess all night long. Laughton (12.5% Corsi For) and Umberger (15.38% Corsi For) were the worst offenders, but Matt Read also struggled at five-on-five, his performance redeemed primarily via his first period tally. As a result, Read survived the line combination shuffle that occurred at the start of the third period. Umberger and Laughton were benched entirely, while Chris VandeVelde received only three third period shifts. A new line of Read, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Ryan White became the presumptive third line, giving Giroux and Couturier a breather when they could no longer skate. It remains to be seen if Hakstol will give that line a shot for a full game, or if it was just a reaction to the poor second period performance by the team as a whole.
  • If Hakstol decides that it is the right time to give Jordan Weal his chance, there are a number of possible scratch options. Umberger or Laughton would seem to be the two most likely choices, considering their outright benching last night. Chris VandeVelde's ice time was cut as well, but Hakstol uses him heavily on the penalty kill, which may keep him in the lineup. Pierre-Edouard Bellemare may be a dark horse candidate for a scratching, however. Despite the fact that he too is a penalty kill mainstay and did not see his icetime cut in the third period last night, he did take three minor penalties, which surely did not sit well with Hakstol. As Anthony Mingioni of Center Ice Philly mentioned during the game, a undisciplined night like the one Bellemare had can often result in a "wake-up call" scratching. We'll see what happens.
  • After a major down night against the Red Wings, the line centered by Sean Couturier was back to its old tricks against versus Toronto. As I mentioned on Monday morning, the Flyers' second line lacks a playmaker with the speed and skill combination to drive possession and create offense singlehandedly. As a result, the line of Couturier, Brayden Schenn and Michael Raffl must rely upon timing plays and precision passing through the neutral zone to create offense off the rush and to gain the offensive zone with regularity. A combination of tight checking by the Red Wings and poor execution from Couturier and Co. stopped the line in its tracks on Sunday. Last night, they added more evidence to the theory that the game against the Red Wings was merely a one-time blip on the radar screen. All three members of the line finished with a Corsi For percentage over 59%, and they remained positive even after adjusting for score. There's no reason to think that line will be regressing heavily any time soon.
  • Many times this season, Evgeny Medvedev has put together a performance strong by the statistics, but weak via the eye test. One example was Saturday's game against the Rangers, when repeated turnovers overshadowed strong on-ice shot attempt differentials. Last night, Medvedev switched roles, providing an above-average game via the eye test but an unimpressive performance by the stats. Medvedev made two fantastic plays - a primary assist on Read's power play goal in which he threaded a pass past two Toronto penalty killers and right on the tape to the Flyers' forward, and a goal-saving block in the second period on a shot that Mason had no chance of stopping. However, his Corsi For was an underwhelming 42.86% at even strength, and Hakstol only gave him three shifts in the third period - the same number as Chris VandeVelde. I can't imagine Medvedev will be scratched for Brandon Manning, but clearly the coach saw something negative in the Russian blueliner's game last night past the eye-popping positive plays.