Morning Observations is a feature where we break down the previous night's game with an analytical eye.
- Jakub Voracek was the hero last night, scoring two goals, including a highlight reel overtime game winner in which he fought off Evgeny Kuznetsov behind the net before sniping a rocket past Braden Holtby into the top corner. Strangely enough, Voracek's on-ice shot differential was fairly unimpressive (32.14% Corsi For) but he more than made up for it with two fantastic individual efforts that became goals. Voracek received criticism early in the season for his lack of point production after signing a big money contract, but as David Strehle of The Fourth Period noted, he now has 21 points in his last 18 games. I took a deeper look into his numbers during that stretch, and it's clear that Voracek has returned to his old dominant self. He's averaged 2.8 points per sixty minutes of five-on-five play over his last 18 games, and his Corsi relative to his teammates is +6.3%. Voracek would be totally justified in going full John Wick to anyone who still questions whether he's rebounded from his early season struggles.
- Another key reason for the Flyers' victory over the Capitals was the performance of the much-maligned penalty kill. They only faced two Washington power plays, but were able to smother both, allowing only two shots on goal. The second kill was pivotal in sending the game to overtime, as Matt Read took an ill-advised hooking penalty with 2:02 remaining in the third period. After losing two out of their last three games in the final two minutes of regulation, it appeared that history was about to repeat itself, especially accounting for the team's season-long struggles while shorthanded. Instead, the penalty killers stepped up, playing sound positional defense and making it difficult for the Capitals to enter the Flyers' zone with possession. Washington's power play is tops in the NHL in efficiency, and many expected them to exploit Philadelphia just as Boston did on Monday night. Credit to the players and the coaching staff - they cleaned things up quickly.
NHL.com Report | Highlights | War-On-Ice.com Report | HockeyStats.ca Report | ExpectedGoals (xG) |HockeyViz.com | BSH Recap | Meltzer's Musings
- It was bizarre enough that the Flyers were able to go toe-to-toe with the powerful Capitals, not only winning but hanging right there with them in terms of puck possession (48.52% score-adjusted Corsi). But what really came as a surprise was the players who led the way at even strength. Just like the penalty kill, the weakness of Philadelphia's bottom-two forward lines has held back the team all season long. Last night, the third and fourth lines were actually more effective from a puck possession perspective than the top-six. Scott Laughton finished with a 63.64% Corsi For percentage, with his only blemish a misplay of a bouncing puck on Andre Burakovsky's second goal of the night. Bellemare broke even in on-ice shot attempt differential - not a dominant performance, but far better than his average game. On the other hand, Giroux's line spent most of the game in the defensive zone, and Michael Raffl's second unit was inconsistent. On this night, it was the bottom-six that carried play best.
- The Flyers started strong, taking the play to an obviously-rusty Capitals squad eight days removed from their last game. But the second period was a total disaster as Washington found its legs. As the Capitals ramped up the pressure, the Flyers flailed in the neutral and defensive zones, making it even easier for Washington to morph back into their usual selves. The biggest problem was passing - uncontrolled defensive zone exits became the norm, and on the rare occasions that the Flyers did exit their own end with possession of the puck, they found a way to turn it over in the middle of the ice. The evenly-matched, back-and-forth third period proved that Philadelphia can run with Washington at their best, but the second period was a perfect storm - great play by the Capitals, awful performances from the Flyers. Only a fantastic effort from Voracek to retake the lead late in the second period was able to jolt Philadelphia back into competence.
- It's been a pleasure to watch Shayne Gostisbehere's game progress from November to the present day. From the start, Gostisbehere showcased strong instincts in the neutral zone, particularly in terms of preventing opposing forwards from entering the Flyers' end with possession of the puck. Now, full with the confidence of knowing that he is a viable NHL defenseman, Ghost is applying the same instincts to the defensive and offensive zones. His end-to-end rush against Toronto was initiated by an interception of a Morgan Rielly pass in the defensive zone, and tonight, he was able to cut off a breakout attempt during 4v4 play to sustain pressure in the offensive zone. Gostisbehere is almost certainly never going to be able to regularly separate opponents from the puck with physicality. But through smart reads and quick stickwork, he's still more than capable of causing lots of turnovers in all three zones.
- For the third straight night, Claude Giroux and his linemates were tasked with matching up against the top two lines of the opposition. 12:13 of Giroux's 13:33 even strength minutes were spent against either Nicklas Backstrom or Evgeny Kuznetsov. Not surprisingly, the Flyers' captain and his linemates struggled in puck possession, posting a 33.33% Corsi For in those matchups. Truthfully, the Sean Couturier injury could not have come at a worse time in the schedule for the Flyers. So far, Philadelphia's two-way center has missed three games, against Pittsburgh, Boston and the Capitals. All three teams have two high end centers, which forced the top line to double-shift against Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, Backstrom and Kuznetsov over a seven-day period. That's a tough task for two centers, let alone one. I suspect no one will be happier to see Sean Couturier back in the lineup than Claude Giroux. He's had one tough job over the past week.
- On their first power play of the night, the Flyers used a particularly creative method to give both Wayne Simmonds and Brayden Schenn space to showcase their skills and put the puck in the back of the net. Shayne Gostisbehere intentionally shot the puck wide of the net, allowing for Simmonds to gather it on the ricochet. With lots of space down low, it was easy for Simmonds to survey the situation and find Brayden Schenn in the slot with an opportunity to shoot. This season, Simmonds has remained effective on the PP in a support role (creating screens, fighting for rebounds), but has been unable to create much on his own in front of the net. Teams are collapsing on Simmonds whenever he receives the puck in his office, preventing him from setting up for a quick turnaround shot or from kicking the puck into the slot or back to one of the faceoff circles. Gostisbehere's play was an interesting way to solve the problem of Simmonds' lack of space. It's also good to know that the coaching staff has recognized the need to throw new looks at the opposition, in order to open old plays back up again.
- Social media was in an uproar regarding two big saves from Braden Holtby, although from a Flyers' perspective, it's better to refer to them as "R.J. Umberger and Mark Streit both choke with wide open nets." Umberger was robbed by Holtby after receiving a perfectly-placed cross-ice pass from Scott Laughton, which he then proceeded to shoot into the glove of Holtby. The general consensus was that Umberger should have simply one-timed the puck into the net rather than settling the disk and attempting to wrist it high. Later in the game, Mark Streit was the recipient of a similar long pass (this time from Giroux) and he chose the one-timer method, directing the puck straight into Holtby's pad. Of course, the response to this miss was that Streit should have elevated the puck. Obviously, R.J. Umberger has struggled this season, and Streit hasn't been his best either. But both made split-second decisions that would have resulted in goals had one of the best netminders in the NHL not been on the other side. It's okay to cut players a little slack, even if it's one who has been frustrating recently.
- Dave Hakstol made an intriguing shift to the defensive pairings for last night's contest. He placed Shayne Gostisbehere alongside Michael Del Zotto, the team's presumptive #1 defenseman this season, while sticking Brandon Manning with Radko Gudas, who has received the ice time of a #2 blueliner on the depth chart. So which would be the top pairing? Actually, it was both. Gostisbehere-Del Zotto spent the bulk of their minutes battling head-to-head with Backstrom and Alexander Ovechkin, and didn't fare terribly, posting a 40.91% Corsi For percentage and keeping the game's best sniper off the scoresheet entirely. On the other hand, the Manning-Gudas pairing led the team in 5v5 ice time, with both defensemen receiving over 17 minutes. Their minutes, however, were spread more evenly across all four Washington line combinations. The usage worked, as both Manning and Gudas finished comfortably in the black from a shot attempt differential standpoint. It will be interesting to see if these combinations survive the All-Star break, or if they were a one-game change intended to slow down Ovechkin and company.
- It was great to see the penalty kill hold the Capitals off the scoresheet in the final minutes of regulation for many reasons, but high on that list is that it would have spoiled a particularly strong performance by Matt Read. After all, it was Read's defensive zone penalty that sent the Capitals to the power play, and he would have made an understandable scapegoat. But even accounting for the penalty, Read's performance was worthy of praise. It was a classic Matt Read game, filled with slick passes to spring teammates for rushes, backchecks to slow down the other team in the middle of the ice, and intelligent reads without the puck in all three zones. As I wrote yesterday in a feature at Pensburgh, Read fits the bill as a truly unheralded player, especially now that his scoring has dried up. But even if he never makes it back to his former 20-goal pace, Read remains a useful support player in any team's top-nine.