Morning Observations is a feature where we break down the previous night's game with an analytical eye.
#1: Horrendous third period undoes strong effort otherwise
In most of the Flyers’ regulation losses this season, the team has managed to find itself overwhelmed in either the first or third period of the game. Last night, we managed to see the latter play itself out. After an overall pretty strong first two periods where the Flyers romped the Leafs on the shot counter and held the lead for most of that time as well, they were in a good position to end the two-game losing streak they were mired in.
Instead, a third period of breakdowns and miscues saw the Flyers fall behind before the period was even halfway over, and a shorthanded goal by Leo Komarov with about eight minutes left was the one that would prove to be the backbreaker as they’d be outscored 4-0 in the final 20 minutes. The push-back that you would expect to see from a team like the Leafs when they were down one would hold throughout the entire period (the Leafs tallied 20 shot attempts to the Flyers’ 12 at 5-on-5, and led 23-15 in all situations), and the Flyers never really looked like a serious threat to tie the game once they were down on the scoreboard.
#2: Flyers led in shots, but clearly trailed in quality thanks to their own defensive breakdowns
On the whole, even taking that disaster of a third period into account, things went reasonably well for the Flyers at 5-on-5 from a play-driving perspective. The Flyers, thanks to a strong first two periods, won the even-strength possession battle (53.60% score-adjusted Corsi on the night), and only looking at shots on goal, they led the Leads 27-18 at 5-on-5 (and 33-23 overall).
Still, a script that we’ve seen play out a number of times this season was at it again last night, as the Flyers’ ability to win the shot attempt battle was undone by their penchant to give up better-quality chances than they could get themselves. The Flyers were left scrambling in their own end far too often, undone by the many skilled young forwards the Leafs have in their lineup this year. The Flyers were romped in expected goals on the night (2.87 to 1.69 at 5-on-5, 4.34 to 2.40 overall, via Corsica), and though almost all of that difference comes from the aforementioned bad third period, it’s tough to see another game where defensive-zone coverage problems undid a generally solid night on the ice.
#3: This time, it’s Mason who can’t grab a hold of the starting job
Six nights ago, the Flyers, elsewhere in Canada, played a strong all-around game that was undone due to defensive miscues and bad goaltending. Michal Neuvirth, who was in net that night for his fifth straight start, let in five goals on 17 shots, and though only one or maybe to of them were particularly bad, it was a night where the Flyers simply couldn’t get a big save where they needed one. Last night, Steve Mason, coming off of maybe his best start of the season, saw things play out by a very similar script. Though only one goal, Mitch Marner’s late-third period power play tally, is one that’ll really make you cringe a bit when you watch it, it’s hard to win any games at all if — is there an echo in here? — your goalie lets in one out of every four shots he faces. While goaltending wasn’t the only reason the Flyers lost last night, it certainly was a reason, and Mason’s struggles in front of his hometown team won’t do him wonders in Dave Hakstol’s eyes.
The question now is how does Hakstol handle it? The Flyers play again tonight, and with how things went on Friday, you’d have to think Neuvirth will get the start in net. But two weeks ago, Hakstol’s answer to Mason’s struggles was to give Michal Neuvirth five games in a row, including a stretch of three games in four nights that culminated in that debacle in Montreal. It’s possible that, when faced with the predicament of two solid goalies who are playing way below their talent levels, the answer is “let one of them play a few games in a row to try and get in a rhythm”. It didn’t quite work for Neuvirth, but it wouldn’t be too surprising to see the team give it a try with Mason. We’ll see who’s in net tonight.
#4: Raffl not being in the lineup is highly questionable
Two games ago, Michael Raffl was playing on the Flyers’ top line with Claude Giroux and Wayne Simmonds, in his second game back after missing time with an injury. Last night, Raffl wasn’t in the lineup at all, as he was a healthy scratch for what very well might have been the first time in his NHL career (don’t hold me to that as I can’t confirm it, but in any case, first healthy scratch in a long time). Reports from earlier this week suggested that Chris VandeVelde would watch from the press box for the first time all year, but VandeVelde would actually end up on the team’s third line alongside Dale Weise and Nick Cousins (maybe you could call it the fourth line), while Raffl was asked to sit.
This isn’t meant to be a knock on VandeVelde, who I actually thought was fine outside of a careless delay of game penalty in the first period that created a 3-on-5 and, not long after, a Toronto goal. But out of all of the forwards who have been on Dave Hakstol’s healthy scratch carousel this year (Nick Cousins, Dale Weise, Roman Lyubimov, and Boyd Gordon, to name a few), Raffl is by far the one that makes the least sense. The coaches know he’s a good player with some upside, since they had him on the top line with Giroux and Simmonds two games ago. It’s true that it’s been a slow start offensively for Raffl, who has no points in the three games since his return from injury. But even when he’s not scoring, his play-driving ability and two-way play should have him in the lineup at all times. This isn’t a trend that should last.
#5: Gostisbehere/Schultz pairing was back, to predictable results
The other lineup change, while perhaps surprising, was somewhat more reasonable. It appears the shine from Brandon Manning’s outstanding start to the season has worn off a bit, as he had particularly bad games against both Montreal and Detroit. As such, Hakstol elected to scratch him, putting Nick Schultz in his place. This led to a reshuffling of the defensive pairings, with Radko Gudas playing along frequent 2015-16 partner Michael Del Zotto and Shayne Gostisbehere back along frequent 2016-17 partner Nick Schultz.
The results were not surprising, as Gostisbehere and Schultz were the team’s two worst possession defensemen on the night. A team with the kind of speed the Leafs have makes a poor matchup for Schultz, who can be beaten pretty easily through the neutral zone. But this also wasn’t Ghost’s finest game, as he was guilty of his share of defensive zone miscues and took a slash late in the game after getting turnstiled on a rush chance for the Leafs. In any case, if Hakstol is going to keep Manning out tonight, he’ll have to make a choice on whether these are the pairs he wants to roll with, because it’s been proven by now that the ones in place are tough on his most explosive offensive defenseman.
#6: Travis Konecny is really good at this
This has been a kind of dreary post so far, so let’s cheer up a bit. From the Flyers’ end, the highlight of the night last night was Travis Konecny’s first-period goal, on which he simply outraced and outmuscled Connor Carrick to a puck, creating a semi-breakaway for himself before backhanding the puck past Frederik Andersen. The goal was his fourth in this young season, and through 15 games he’s tallied 10 points — arguably, none quite as good as this one.
Last night’s opponent was trotting out this year’s No. 1 overall pick (Auston Matthews), last year’s No. 3 overall pick (Mitch Marner), and the year before’s No. 8 overall pick (William Nylander), and those guys are all really good at hockey right now and are probably going to be real thorns in the East’s side for the next decade. The Flyers don’t quite have that kind of young talent all the way across their lineup, yet. But for the second straight season, the most exciting thing about the Flyers looks like the electrifying rookie who keeps scoring in ways that just make you go “wow”. Konecny’s been as good as you could possibly ask a 19-year old rookie to be so far this year, and let’s not worry about whether or not it’s sustainable, because it’s a joy to watch.
#7: Shortie against dampens power play’s hot run
The shorthanded breakaway goal by Leo Komarov off an errant Claude Giroux pass in the third period was the fourth shorthanded goal that the Flyers have allowed this year, giving them the dubious honor of being the NHL leader in that category. It’s a shame, because the power play’s only other appearance on the night was a very workmanlike eight-seconds-long power play that ended in a Wayne Simmonds goal courtesy of a Claude Giroux wrister from the circle. Nights like Friday night show you how dominant the Flyers’ power play can be when it has its key parts all working, and also makes you wonder where they could be without some of the errors that have led to goals the other way this year.
#8: The Wayne Simmonds, Penalty Killer experiment seems to be working
In the Flyers’ quest to get Claude Giroux to play fewer minutes on the penalty kill, one thing that we’ve occasionally seen happen in games is Wayne Simmonds ends up getting some time on the penalty kill. It isn’t much — he’s played around a minute per night while a man down — but it’s been there most nights, and last night in the second period was the first time we’d really notice him there, as a Sean Couturier pass off the boards would spring Simmonds for a shorthanded breakaway that he’d bury past Andersen.
The play itself was nice, but more to the point, Simmonds has, in what is admittedly a very small sample, more than held his own on the penalty kill this year. He’s actually yet to be on the ice for a power play goal against, and his 4-on-5 shot suppression numbers are the best on the team. Now, again, very small sample, and he’s mostly been used sparingly and probably against teams’ second units. Still, the concern with taking Giroux off of the penalty kill was that the PK itself would be much worse off, since PKing is a strong point of the captain’s. If Simmonds can keep up his strong play here, that concern goes out the window.
#9: Bottom-six back to being interchangeable lines
In their last two losses, the Flyers’ bottom-6 had a clear third and fourth group, with the line featuring Brayden Schenn on it as the clear third line in both cases. This time, with Schenn back up on the top line, the Flyers’ bottom two lines were once again on a similar plane in terms of ice time, as almost everyone on those two lines was in the 10-11 minute range in terms of 5-on-5 ice time. Though the “third” line of Weise - VandeVelde - Cousins is the one that seems to have all of the fanbase’s favorite whipping boys right now (compared to the “fourth” line of Read - Bellemare - Lyubimov), it was actually by far the Flyers’ best possession line of the night, with each of its members finishing at least nine shots in the black on possession. If you’re waiting for any of those guys to find their way up to the press box again, last night’s game likely wasn’t what you were expecting to see — though, of course, if that line could regularly deliver strong performances like that, fans would surely be more accommodating to their being in the lineup.
#10: Back-to-back tonight gives Flyers an opportunity
This early Flyers schedule has been a bit of a gauntlet in terms of games being at certain times, with Friday’s game marking the beginning of what’s already their fifth back-to-back of the barely-a-month-old NHL season. And against a Minnesota team that’s got out to a strong start this season, a win tonight will be a tall task. But tonight’s game now doubles up as a bit of a gut-check for this team, one that’s had several frustrating losses this year and just watched itself get thoroughly romped in the third period. Sometimes the idea of a game or event being a wake-up call is overblown, but this is about as good of one as the Flyers have received so far this season. Furthermore, in the later half of their other four back-to-backs so far this year, the Flyers have gone 3-0-1 and have usually found themselves playing pretty solid hockey in those wins. Tonight’s game should be a good test of just how well this Flyers team can bounce back when the going really gets rough.