Morning Observations is a new feature, where we break down the previous night's game with an analytical eye.
- Even last night, in a game where the Flyers led by two goals for the majority of the third period and outshot the Canadiens throughout the contest, they could not pull off a victory without drama. Daniel Carr's late third period goal after Montreal pulled Ben Scrivens forced fans to hold their breath, especially when Michal Neuvirth almost shot the puck off a Montreal forecheck and into his own net. The Flyers have not won a game in which they held a two-goal (or more) cushion through the final five minutes of regulation since November 28th against the New York Rangers. And they've only won a single "comfortable" home game all year, which came against the Chicago Blackhawks way back in October. It's obvious this Philadelphia team is forced to grind out all of their victories the hard way, considering their exploitable defense and scoring depth weaknesses, even when they outplay the opposition overall.
- It didn't result in a win for the Canadiens, but they consistently employed one of the more aggressive forechecks that the Flyers have faced all season long. Especially when the Flyers tried to break out from behind their own net, Montreal attacked the recipient of the first pass with as many as three players, trying to force turnovers. In the first period, the strategy was fairly successful - the Flyers' breakout was stymied, and only strong offensive zone play kept Philadelphia ahead in terms of shots on goal. But they started to better break the pressure in the second period. The risk of an aggressive forecheck (as they Flyers themselves have learned) is that it leaves the defensemen subject to onrushing forwards with little help if they can get past the first wave. The Flyers were able to do that in the final forty minutes, resulting in a number of their shots coming on the rush and more likely to be high-quality chances.
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- Shayne Gostisbehere's play over the past two weeks can be best categorized as uneven - he's shown flashes of being the dynamic weapon from his first month with the team this year, but he's also been more hesitant with the puck, and gotten trapped in his own zone too much for anyone's liking. While Ghost actually finished with relatively unimpressive puck possession statistics last night (40% Corsi For), this was his best game in weeks. He avoided turnovers, broke up rushes in the neutral zone, and unleashed his slapshot repeatedly. His devastating shot directly caused two Flyers goals, but his play without the puck was just as impressive. Gostisbehere's best defensive play came in the second period, when he anticipated a Devante Smith-Pelly drop pass attempt to P.K. Subban perfectly, breaking up the play and sending Scott Laughton the other way for a controlled zone entry. It was perfect recognition on two levels. First, he read pass despite Smith-Pelly charging at him with the puck at speed. Second, he realized that it was the ever-dangerous Subban trailing the play, and correctly assumed that a checker like Smith-Pelly would try to put the puck in the hands of the most dangerous offensive weapon on the ice. It's split-second decisions like that one that could make Gostisbehere a plus defensive player in time.
- The big risk in reuniting stars Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek is the possibility that Philadelphia could become a one-line team. When Voracek played with Couturier, the Flyers had one impact scorer on each of their top two lines, a strategy meant to counteract the team's weakness in forward depth. The new combinations place Couturier with Michael Raffl and Brayden Schenn, while keeping the bottom two-lines stable. And despite the fact that Philadelphia scored four goals, there remains some reason for concern. Sure, Couturier and Schenn both lit the lamp, and looked effective doing so. But only Voracek, Wayne Simmonds and Michael Raffl finished with positive Corsi differentials last night. Voracek and Giroux, in addition to being elite scorers, are also fantastic possession drivers and can drag other players to their levels. The bulk of the pressure will be placed on Couturier to carry that second line, now that Voracek has been promoted.
- Couturier surely passed the eye test last night, even if he finished in the negative from a puck possession standpoint. His slick play in the defensive zone sprung Brayden Schenn on his first period breakaway goal, and a heads-up retrieval of a missed shot by Nick Schultz proved to be the eventual game winning goal. In addition, Couturier looked just as strong on the cycle as he did with Voracek as his winger. So why did he end up with a poor Corsi? It appears that score effects were the primary cause - he finished with a 51.5% score-adjusted Corsi according to War-On-Ice. Lots of shifts in the third period while protecting a two-goal lead likely made his night look less impressive than it truly was.
- Speaking of possession statistics, the Flyers may have lost the raw shot attempts battle, but they were the superior squad in terms of quality chances at even strength. Despite being out-Corsi-ed 45-38, Philadelphia generated 23 "regular" scoring chances to Montreal's 17, and won the high-danger chance competitive 12-8. This was due to Montreal's aforementioned forecheck, which (when beaten) allowed for the Flyers to generate a number of rush chances. It was also because Philadelphia extract maximum value out of a numbers of their offensive zone entries, particularly in the first and third periods. Montreal had serious difficulty at times in knocking the Flyers off the puck and winning battles and races in the corners. After three straight underwhelming games, Philadelphia's effort level was through the roof last night.
- The Flyers "third" line of Chris VandeVelde, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, and Ryan White may not have been the team's worst from a possession standpoint (that honor fell to the Scott Laughton line), but they did lead Philadelphia in another ignominious category - penalties taken. Ryan White took two minors in the second period, after Nick Schultz was whistled for a hook during a shift when the Bellemare line could not exit the defensive zone. Penalties taken are a symptom of poor puck possession, as it's significantly easier for a player to be forced into an infraction when he is chasing the puck and tired. Therefore, it's not surprising that a line struggling to keep its head above water would fall into the trap of putting the team in shorthanded situations on a regular basis.
- Brayden Schenn led the way in terms of scoring last night, scoring the game's first goal and then adding two more assists by the final whistle. Schenn's goal was a bit fluky, as it was a lagging backcheck that allowed for Couturier to find him for a wide-open breakaway. However, that was the only part of Schenn's game last night that didn't qualify as "high-effort." He was a demon on forecheck, and he was credited with a team-high six hits. Schenn remains an enigma for many Flyers fans, who remember the "best prospect not in the NHL" tag that was affixed to Schenn when he was traded to Philadelphia. At age 24, Schenn most likely is what he is - a talented but inconsistent forward who seems to play his best games when he is engaged physically against the opposition. Last night was one of those games, and it's unsurprising he lit up the scoresheet as a result.
- After bleeding shot attempts and scoring chances against while on their California road trip, the penalty kill was dramatically improved last night. In six minutes of power play time, the Canadiens were only able to generate one high-danger scoring chance, and zero goals. I didn't notice any dramatic changes to the Flyers' PK formation - the team was simply winning more puck battles and anticipating passes more efficiently than last week. Montreal's power play is middle-of-the-road (14th in shot attempt generation), so this wasn't a case of Philadelphia's penalty kill stabilizing itself against a weak opponent. They'll next face Minnesota on Thursday (who ranks 13th in shot generation) as they try to build off a solid performance.
- No single player deserves all of the credit, but the Flyers as a whole did a fine job of limiting P.K. Subban's impact at even strength. The Norris Trophy-winning defenseman finished with a 47.06% Corsi For percentage at even strength, tied for worst on the Canadiens last night. If there was any discernible trend, it was that he struggled when the Flyers had a puck-moving defenseman on the ice, getting defeated head to head by Mark Streit (38.46%), Michael Del Zotto (33.33%) and Shayne Gostisbehere (0.00%). At least last night, the Flyers were best served fighting fire with fire when facing one of the league's most dangerous offensive weapons from the blueline.