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Penguins 5, Flyers 4: 10 things we learned from dominance wasted

The Flyers did so much right offensively last night, but defensive zone play, goaltending, and bad bounces sent them to yet another loss.

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at Philadelphia Flyers Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

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

#1: Defensive breakdowns, high-danger chances

Despite their early 3-5-1 record, the Philadelphia Flyers have few issues in terms of offense. They’re tied for the league-lead in goals scored at 32, have four players with on a point-per-game pace, and rank in the NHL top-six in 5v5 shot attempts created per 60 minutes. The problem thus far has instead been goal prevention. Some of this is bad luck — after all, the Flyers are not going to hold an 0.862 all-situations save percentage for the entire season, simply because no team has goaltending that performs that poorly over 82 games. But this isn’t just a case of unimpressive netminding, as Philadelphia is allowing far too much high-danger scoring chances.

Take last night’s game, for example. The Flyers absolutely throttled the Penguins in terms of pushing the play at 5v5, winning the shot attempts battle by an insane 75-45 margin. But even though they had a 30-shot edge, Pittsburgh still found a way to generate more high-danger chances at 5-on-5, finishing with 16 to the Flyers’ nine. This has been an issue all year, as the Flyers currently rank 27th in 5v5 high-danger chance prevention this year, averaging 12.49 allowed per 60.

Is this a systems issue? I lean towards no, because it’s not as if Philadelphia’s forwards leave the zone early to cherry-pick in the middle of the ice, like the Penguins often did last night. To me, it’s primarily on the defensemen, who too often are blowing assignments and confusing their coverages, particularly when they are expected to “switch” roles mid-cycle defense. My expectation is that this aspect of their game will be cleaned up eventually, and I’d rather the Flyers be driving play and dealing with poorly-timed breakdowns than the other way around. You’d think these issues would be easier to fix than an inherent flaw in the Flyers’ 5v5 tactical focus. Still, that doesn’t mean they aren’t issues, and Hakstol and the defense need to address them.

#2: The Flyers did dominate this game, however

I don’t want to focus too much on the high-danger chance disparity, however, because in every other statistical category, Philadelphia blew the Penguins away last night. Under Mike Sullivan, Pittsburgh was one of the league’s best play-driving teams last season, and it was that factor more than anything that allowed them to win the Stanley Cup. The competition the Flyers faced to tonight makes their utter territorial dominance that much more impressive.

Philadelphia finished with a stellar 60.23% score-adjusted Corsi, won the 5v5 xG battle with a 53.09% mark, and blasted 92 overall shot attempts at Marc-Andre Fleury in all situations. And when Corey Sznajder’s neutral zone data is released for this game, I expect that it will show that the Flyers also generated far more offensive zone entries than the Penguins, and likely had a higher controlled entry rate as well. They simply owned the neutral and offensive zones in this one. Arguably, that makes this loss even tougher to swallow, because the team did so many things right on the whole. But for the future, this performance does bode well, as the Flyers took the game to the Penguins in a way that they couldn’t even dream of doing last season, when Pittsburgh made Philadelphia look silly in every meaningful game they played against their in-state rivals.

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#3: Finally a strong start

It will be brushed aside due to the 56-second defensive collapse that occurred at the end of the opening stanza, but the Flyers did finally break out to a fantastic start. As I noted on Thursday, Philadelphia’s first period struggles haven’t just been caused by bad goaltending or bad luck — they had a 43.06% Corsi in the eight opening stanzas heading into last night’s game. The Flyers reversed that trend against the Penguins, coming out strong from the opening whistle.

The first few shifts were spent almost entirely in the Pittsburgh zone, and they eventually scored the game’s first goal basically due to pure volume, as Jakub Voracek’s shot from the point was more or less just misplayed by Fleury. But all coaches will say that good luck often springs from hard work, and that was the case last night. Unfortunately, the collapse at the end of the period erased all the good that the Flyers did in the first 75% of the period, but a 61.54% first period Corsi definitely bodes well for their opening stanza process.

#4: Philadelphia’s vaunted forecheck made its first appearance of the year

An underrated issue for the Flyers during the first eight games of the season was the overall ineffectiveness of the team’s forecheck. As noted last year, Philadelphia under Dave Hakstol is a particularly aggressive team in the offensive zone, regularly employing a 2-1-2 forecheck with multiple forwards down low and defensemen eager to activate in order to prevent zone exit attempts and keep pucks moving.

But that forecheck had not resulted in Philadelphia generating extra shots per offensive zone entry in the early season — the main goal of an aggressive forecheck. Using Corey’s neutral zone data, I was able to determine that the Flyers had a -4.92% Offensive Zone Score heading into last night’s game, meaning that they had generated almost 5% less unblocked shot attempts than would be expected (by league-average results) considering the amount of zone entries and offensive zone draws that they created.

I imagine they improved their OZS dramatically after last night’s game, however. Constantly the Flyers were harassing Pittsburgh’s defense as they tried to break out of their own zone, stopping clear attempts and winning 50/50 puck battles. On paper, this did seem to be the weakness of the Penguins’ roster, especially with Kris Letang still out due to an upper-body injury. But the back-end appeared to be Pittsburgh’s weakness during the postseason last year as well, and no team was able to exploit them to the point that they got the better of 5v5 play. Last night, led by their forecheck, Philadelphia was able to do just that.

#5: Goaltending, defense, or bad luck?

It’s undeniable that the Flyers’ biggest issue thus far in 2016-17 has been goal prevention. Opponents have lit up Philadelphia for a ridiculous 35 goals in nine games, and no team has allowed more. It’s especially bizarre because goaltending was viewed as a strength for the Flyers entering the season — they had two above-average goaltenders who both performed admirably in 2015-16. So have the goalies regressed? Is the defense simply putting them in impossible situations? Or is Philadelphia just facing the full fury of the hockey gods right now?

The stats pin the bulk of the blame on the netminding. Philadelphia’s Expected Goals Against total is 25.20, implying that Steve Mason and Michal Neuvirth have allowed 10 extra goals past what the top shot quality models would project. But the models aren’t perfect, as they can’t account for every aspect of a scoring chance’s difficulty level. The Flyers’ defensive zone play has been poor so far, and it seems like at least twice a night, the team is giving up one or two goals that Mason or Neuvirth legitimately have no chance to stop.

By the same token, if your starting goalie is getting pulled in 33% of your games, it’s pretty clear that the netminders are not playing particularly good hockey. Truthfully, it’s been something of a perfect storm that’s caused the goals against deluge. Sometimes, the shots are unstoppable, like Crosby’s one-timer from the slot last night. Other times, the shots are difficult but possible to save with better positioning (like Crosby’s short-side snipe). And there’s just pure bad luck at play here too, perfectly exemplified by Malkin’s game-winner that was caused by a bounce off the shin pads of Brandon Manning. Usually, teams only face one or two of these issues at once. The Flyers are somehow dealing with all three right now, and the result has been 35 goals against.

#6: Gudas’ strong start to season continues

Midway through the second period, the Penguins had extended their lead to a 4-2 margin due to a rare defensive zone turnover by Sean Couturier. With Marc-Andre Fleury settling in after a rough start, it was beginning to look like the Penguins would roll to an easy win. Then, Radko Gudas did this.

With a power play winding down and the Penguins about to clear the puck out of their own zone, Gudas made not one, not two, but three keeps at the point. Unsurprisingly, the entire Pittsburgh team was caught up ice as a result, and can you blame them? There was no reason to expect Gudas would be able to keep the puck in the zone, but somehow he did.

Gudas has responded to his six-game suspension to start the year by playing not just great hockey, but maybe the best hockey of his career. The numbers are mind-boggling, even for a three-game sample. Gudas has a 70.25% Corsi For percentage, which is +16.2% relative to his teammates. With the bruising defenseman on the ice so far, the Flyers have been a powerhouse, and to my eyes it’s a result of unmatched neutral zone play on the part of Gudas.

Through two games, Gudas had been directly challenged on the rush 11 times. Out of those 11 rushes, he allowed controlled entries on just two of them, and broke up three entirely. The numbers aren’t out yet for last night’s game, but I imagine they’ll be impressive yet again. He’s a classic example of why hockey instincts are far more important than raw physical tools, as Gudas is a merely-decent skater and not a particularly good passer. But he plays without fear of being burned in the neutral zone, and he has the instincts to back up his mentality.

#7: Top two lines drove play to a ridiculous degree

After experimenting with Travis Konecny and Jakub Voracek on the wings of Claude Giroux on Thursday, Hakstol went back to the 10-28-17/11-14-93 top line combinations against Pittsburgh. The results were stunning. Both units easily finished over 60% Corsi For, with Sean Couturier bringing up the rear while posting a still-stellar 63.16%. The lines used a combination of controlled entries to get in the zone and aggressive forechecking to retrieve missed shots and rebounds to spend shift after shift on the attack.

It wasn’t as if Giroux and Couturier were getting sheltered, either. The captain matched up with Sidney Crosby for 9:52 minutes, posting a Corsi For of 64.29% against the best player in the world. Couturier got Malkin for 13:12 of his 15:57 minutes at 5v5, and he drove play as well, finishing with a 56.25% Corsi against him. You can’t erase the goals against (and Couturier had a particularly ugly turnover to cause Malkin’s first), but it’s not easy to drive play against both Pittsburgh top lines. The Flyers’ stars deserve a ton of credit for pulling off that difficult task.

#8: Mason with his second straight poor game

I was a bit surprised to see Steve Mason back in goal last night after allowing five goals to the Arizona Coyotes on Thursday, especially since the eventual game-winner by Ryan White was such an ugly tally allowed. But Hakstol went back to his presumptive #1, and his confidence was unfortunately not rewarded. It’s tough to blame Mason for the second goal — a perfectly placed one-timer from the slot delivered by a superstar — but the other two tallies he allowed were more egregious mistakes. Crosby’s short-side snipe was obviously a difficult shot, but you do expect your goalie to seal off that post. On the third goal, it was Mason’s poor attempt at playing the puck that kicked off the sequence, and then he was slow to recognize Cullen’s wrap-around attempt.

Dave Hakstol was uncharacteristically blunt regarding Mason’s play in his post-game press conference. When asked if he felt like his team was getting the stops it needed, he curtly responded, “I thought we needed one more tonight in the first period,” a clear reference to Mason since he only played in the first period. I was particularly intrigued by Crosby’s first goal, because it appeared that Mason was starting to go down into the Reverse-VH on the play, which is generally a poor decision when facing a rush since the technique leaves the top corner open. I asked Mason after the game if that was the case and he neither confirmed nor denied it, stating that he would have to look at the tape. It stuck out to me because Mason appears to be trapped in his own head right now, and with a goalie coach (Kim Dillabaugh) who helped popularize the Reverse-VH technique with Jonathan Quick, I wonder if he’s overthinking his positioning due to the instruction that he’s receiving.

#9: Provorov very effective

The Corsi numbers may not show it (-5.22% Corsi Rel), but I thought Ivan Provorov was particularly effective last night. Prior to last night, Provorov had played a relatively conservative style in the NHL, especially while on the attack. Against Pittsburgh, however, he was far more aggressive, generating nine individual shot attempts and being very active on the forecheck.

His overall aggressiveness did burn him on Malkin’s first goal, as he was already racing up ice prior to Couturier’s defensive zone turnover. At the same time, it wasn’t wrong for him to assume that the rock-solid Couturier would engineer a clean breakout on the play. After all, assertiveness is a huge part of Provorov’s game, as proven when he challenged Sidney Crosby on an offensive zone entry attempt in the third period and forced an offside call. Most veteran defensemen wouldn’t even try to challenge Crosby one-on-one in the neutral zone, and this 19-year old not only had the confidence to try it, but the skills to pull it off.

#10: Fourth line only one that struggled

In a surprise pre-game lineup move, Hakstol benched Nick Cousins (who scored a goal on Thursday) for Boyd Gordon and moved Pierre-Edouard Bellemare back up to the 3C role. Surprisingly, the new look third line of Bellemare, Roman Lyubimov and Matt Read was effective in driving play, but Gordon’s unit was less successful. Gordon and VandeVelde were the only Flyers players who finished in the red from a Corsi standpoint, and that was despite receiving five offensive zone draws to just one in the defensive zone, and mostly facing off against Pittsburgh’s fourth line. My guess was that Gordon checked in the lineup for Cousins due to his superior defensive skills, but those did not show themselves last night.

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