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Flyers 4, Wild 3: 10 things we learned from a hard-fought road win

The Flyers nabbed a win out of their mini Midwest road trip, topping the Minnesota Wild in overtime. There were a number of heroes, and one very obvious goat.

Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

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

  • Through the first eight minutes of the contest, it was looking like a long night for the Philadelphia Flyers. Minnesota's team speed was giving the Flyers fits, particularly in the neutral zone. Slow line changes, poor gap control and uncontrolled defensive zone exits allowed speedy forwards like Jason Zucker and Nino Niederreiter tons of open space through the middle of the ice. But Philadelphia adjusted. From the midway point of the first period through the conclusion of the contest, neutral zone play actually became a strength for the Flyers. Minnesota entries were contested at the blue line, and the Flyers' passing improved to the point that all four lines (particularly those centered by Sean Couturier and Scott Laughton) were entering the Wild zone with possession of the puck at will. Even when the game swung back in Minnesota's favor in the third period, it was primarily due to poor defensive zone play. The neutral zone play stayed relatively sound throughout.
  • It's impossible to ignore Sean Couturier's recent stretch of play. Over the past nine games, the Flyers center is finally putting up the scoring numbers to match his still-stellar advanced statistics. Couturier now has ten points in his last nine games, which has him on a 47-point pace over an 82 game season. Since his return from an early concussion, Couturier has been driving possession nonstop, but still struggled to turn all of those shot attempts into tangible points. Not anymore. And while some of the recent production can be attributed simply to the percentages finally moving in his favor, Couturier also looks far more assertive via the eye test. No longer content to play a perimeter cycle game and simply win battles along the boards for his teammates, Couturier is now driving the net and attacking the slot area with regularity. His goal in the first period was a perfect example - Couturier actually engineered the breakout from the defensive zone with a floating pass retrieved by Raffl. Not finished, he then skated the length of the ice and positioned himself in front of Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk to give Raffl an option in a high-danger area. For all of his puck possession dominance, the Couturier of November doesn't make that play.
  • Unfortunately, we only had the pleasure of watching Shayne Gostisbehere and Evgeny Medvedev paired for about 25 minutes last night. But in that limited amount of time, the duo was truly dynamic, posting an 84.62% Corsi For percentage together. The pairing seems to work because both players have the same strength defensively - fantastic instincts in the neutral zone. Their play in the middle of the ice was suffocating, as each used positioning and stickwork to prevent the Wild from crossing the Flyers' blue line. Medvedev has struggled at times this season in the defensive zone, and Gostisbehere is definitely weak in that area, so I can understand why Hakstol would be hesitant to pair them together. But this appears to be a combination that is able to keep play out of the defensive zone entirely, mitigating both players' primary weakness. With Luke Schenn out of the picture, hopefully this can become a regular pairing for Philadelphia.
  • But of course, Philadelphia fans are not allowed to have nice things for long. Gostisbehere was unable to finish the game, due to a lower-body injury most likely suffered late in the first period when Mikko Koivu initiated knee-on-knee contact with Ghost and was whistled for tripping. The contact was to Gostisbehere's right knee, however, and not the left knee that was the location of his ACL tear last season. In addition, Ghost skated multiple shifts following the injury, including the ensuing power play. Still, the lack of details from coach Dave Hakstol and the Flyers following the game was concerning, and Gostisbehere was apparently rushed onto the team bus after the game according to Sam Carchidi. If Ghost misses time, Brandon Manning would likely reenter the lineup, and Andrew MacDonald could be recalled to serve as the seventh defenseman. With the cap space issue resolved due to Wednesday's trades, call-ups would not be a problem.
  • Due to the Gostisbehere injury, the Flyers were forced to roll five defensemen for the final 35 minutes of regulation in addition to the 3v3 overtime. In the third period, sloppiness definitely began to set in, possibly as a result of fatigue. While the team's neutral zone play remained solid, defensive zone passes became progressively less sharp, allowing Minnesota to sustain extended cycles. For the most part, Steve Mason held his ground, making a number of tough saves in the first half of the third period. But he was partially to blame for the turnover that caused the Wild's third goal, as a failed exchange behind the net between Mason and Nick Schultz gave Zach Parise an open look at the net. That goal may have been a bit fluky, but Minnesota deserved to tie the game considering the constant pressure that they had created during the final stanza of regulation.
  • Speaking of Nick Schultz, this may have been his worst game of the season, at least at even strength. The Flyers finished last night's game with a 56.04% Corsi For percentage at 5v5, while Schultz posted a 20.68% Corsi. That means that when Nick Schultz was not on the ice, the Flyers won the shot attempts battle against the Wild 45-17 (72.58%). Nearly every time that Schultz hit the ice, Philadelphia found themselves pinned in the defensive zone. The most frustrating part about Schultz's continued presence in the Flyers lineup is that it's hard to think of a test that he does pass. Believe plus/minus is important? His minus-six is second-worst on the defense. Into advanced stats? He has a team-worst -7.26% Corsi Relative to his teammates at 5v5. Want a defenseman who can avoid the "big mistake"? The game-tying goal last night was a prime example of the type of game-changing error a veteran like Schultz is expected to avoid. Schultz's season has been a disaster, and the coaching staff needs to recognize that ASAP.
  • On the other hand, Evgeny Medvedev put together an absolute clinic of a performance against Minnesota. His work with Gostisbehere was impeccable, but Medvedev refused to slow down even after his teammate fell victim to injury. Everything was working for the Russian defenseman - zone exits, neutral zone reads, offensive zone pinches. On one shift in the third period, Medvedev cut off two separate rushes for the Wild and immediately sent Flyers forwards back into the Minnesota zone with possession of the puck. It's hard to understand why a player capable of performing at this high of a level was somehow Hakstol's choice to sit as a healthy scratch on Tuesday against the Canadiens.
  • Michael Del Zotto is having an odd season. Long a player valued for his ability to rack up points from the back end, Del Zotto never was able to establish himself as a high-end player by possession statistics, despite his reputation as a puck-moving defenseman. This season, Del Zotto's point production has regressed, as he is on pace for only 22 points in an 82 game season - way down from his 41-point pace last year. However, his even strength possession metrics (+4.09% Corsi Relative) are career-highs by far. Last night, the Flyers saw Del Zotto retain his advanced statistical improvement while adding the tangible offense that made him such a weapon last season. He scored twice, including the game winner in overtime. But it the first goal that truly bodes well for his future point production, as it was created by a center lane drive right at the Wild goaltender. Del Zotto has been strong in the neutral zone this season, but individual offensive zone rushes have been few and far between. It was great to see him showcasing his speed and offensive instincts again.
  • One of the reasons why the Flyers' scratching of Matt Read was so inexplicable last Saturday was because the line of Read, Scott Laughton and R.J. Umberger was actually finding its rhythm.  Last night, however, was by far their best game together as a unit.  Each player finished with over an 80% Corsi For percentage, and Umberger somehow was not on the ice for a single shot attempt against, (16 shot attempts for, 0 against) for a shocking 100% Corsi. The trio combined for eight scoring chances, and while they were unable to find the back of the net, they looked the closest to a viable third scoring line that the Flyers have iced all season long. New acquisition Jordan Weal may have a hard time making his debut if this line continues to play as well as they did last night.
  • One of the biggest reasons for Philadelphia's California struggles was a leaky penalty kill. The unit was perfect on Tuesday night against the Canadiens, but the Flyers employed a much more efficient strategy last night to avoid getting burned by an opponent's power play - not taking penalties. Minnesota only earned one opportunity with the man advantage all night long, and were unable to capitalize despite consistent pressure. The Flyers were able to avoid taking penalties because they generally controlled the flow of play - after accounting for score effects, Philadelphia finished with a 59.93% Corsi For. It's much easier to stay out of the box when a team controls the puck for a majority of the game.