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Flyers 3, Wild 2: 10 things we learned from a return to the win column

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On the heels of a third period collapse in Toronto, the Flyers finally received solid goaltending and closed out strong, taking down the Wild 3-2.

NHL: Minnesota Wild at Philadelphia Flyers John Geliebter-USA TODAY Sports

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

#1: A “Flyers special” and the formula worked

So far this year, the Flyers have delivered extreme statistical performances when looking at key metrics. They haven’t just driven play at 5v5 — they’ve been up there with elite squads like the Kings and Sharks. But by the same token, they haven’t merely struggled to prevent high-quality scoring chance or received just run-of-the-mill poor goaltending — instead, they’ve bled chances against and also watched their goalies perform at historically poor levels.

Eventually, the craziness should regress back to normal levels. At the same time, we can learn something about this particular Flyers team and its general “road map” to victory by looking at them so far. Considering the solid systems of Dave Hakstol (particularly in the neutral zone), they’ll probably win the raw shot attempts battle on most nights. In addition, their power play will usually be lethal so long as it’s given sufficient opportunities. However, with a defense full of young pieces (Gostisbehere, Provorov) and veterans never known for defensive prowess (Streit, Del Zotto), it’s also fair to expect that they’ll probably give back some of their strong Corsi due to regularly allowing more high-quality chances than can be expected. As a result, it will be up to the team’s goalies to nullify that weakness more often than not.

So far this year, the defense has been bad and the goalies have been worse, so their formula hasn’t quite worked out despite 5v5 play-driving dominance and a stellar power play. But against the Wild, we saw it play out to perfection. Aside from a late kick by Minnesota, the Flyers generally had the better of the Corsi battle in this one, and even finished slightly ahead (48-47) prior to score adjustment. But yet again, they came out behind in terms of 5v5 xG, 1.94-0.85.

So how did they make up the difference? Well, in all-situations xG, it was essentially an even game (2.32-2.30 Wild), a testament to the strength of Philadelphia’s power play. And then the combination of Steve Mason and Michal Neuvirth did the rest. Surely, the Flyers would prefer to outright dominate a game. But this formula feels in keeping with the strengths and weaknesses of this roster moving forward, assuming the goaltending plays more like they did last night over the rest of the season, rather than how they played in the 15 games preceding it.

#2: Still, it never felt the Flyers were getting outplayed

As hinted, Philadelphia actually didn’t come out all that well in the advanced metrics in this game. They lost in score-adjusted Corsi at 5v5 (48.46%), just barely had the edge in Fenwick (50.25%), and got blasted in scoring chances, both regular (31.82%) and high-danger (25%). But watching the game, it never really felt like the Flyers lost control of the pace of the contest, except maybe in the final few minutes when Minnesota ramped up the pressure in an attempt to send it to overtime. As Hakstol put it in his post-game press conference, “Mentally we played a pretty clean game tonight.”

So why the discrepancy? For starters, the sheer dominance of the Flyers’ power play helped to give them a substantial edge in shots on goal (36-27). But just as important, Philadelphia owned the neutral zone last night. Per Corey Sznajder’s manually-tracked data, the Flyers posted a 56.4% controlled entry percentage while holding the Wild to just 43.1%. Even in losing the overall entries battle 58-55, the Flyers finished ahead in Neutral Zone Score 50.91%, and that’s despite the big Minnesota push late. There were a number of Philadelphia offensive zone entries that saw the team spend extended time in the Wild end but just didn’t result in many shots or chances, and my suspicion is that’s why the raw metrics looked fairly close. But the process was sound in this one, especially in the middle of the ice.

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#3: Mason rebounds from poor Friday game in relief

After a strong performance on Tuesday night against the Detroit Red Wings, hopes were high that Steve Mason had finally righted the ship. A disastrous night in Toronto that saw him allow six goals (including four the third period) quickly quelled that talk, and sent the Flyers’ fanbase back into panic mode regarding their goaltending. Understandably, Hakstol went back to Michal Neuvirth in the second game of a road/home back-to-back, but after a late-first period knee injury, he was forced to send Mason in for the final forty minutes.

Mason was up to the task. To the Flyers’ credit, the made life easy for him in the second period as Mason was coming in cold, allowing just one high-danger chance (which in true Flyers fashion, ended up in the back of the net). But it was the third period when Mason really stepped up. Minnesota blasted 13 shots at the Flyers’ netminder, and quite a few of them were not only quality, but potentially back-breaking in timing. Less than 20 seconds after Philadelphia took the lead, Mason robbed Chris Stewart in front, preventing a soul-deflating tally just after the Flyers had worked so hard to gain the edge on the scoreboard. Then, with just seconds left in the game, Eric Staal took a perfect pass from Charlie Coyle and seemed to be staring a wide open net, only to watch Mason somehow get across and prevent the tying goal. These were the types of saves — both difficult and timely — that Philadelphia has been missing all year from their goaltenders.

#4: First period was where Minnesota’s shot quality edge originated

Over the first few weeks of the season, one of the primary narratives (aside from the poor goaltending) was the team’s underwhelming results in the first periods of games. It’s a storyline that has been pushed to the backburner recently, but last night some of the old issues arose for Philadelphia. That’s not to say that the Flyers didn’t do a number of things right — they outshot Minnesota 17-7, and won the score-adjusted Corsi battle with a 52.97% rate. However, when the Flyers gave up shots, they were almost always of high quality.

The Wild generated just 10 unblocked attempts at 5v5 in the period, but nine of them were scoring chances and six were of the high-danger variety. That’s hinting at especially poor defensive zone coverage and play with the puck, an issue that’s obviously plagued this team all year long. While Michal Neuvirth certainly should have stopped the first goal, he deserves credit for holding Minnesota off the board over the remainder of the period, because almost every shot he faced came with a high degree of difficulty. The Flyers tightened things up from a chance perspective the rest of the way, allowing just six more scoring chances (three high-danger) over the final 40 minutes, but the first period was definitely sloppy.

#5: Neuvirth hurt — now what?

After Michal Neuvirth allowed a short-side goal to Nino Niederreiter just 21 seconds into the game, it felt like it was going to be yet another example of a terrible Philadelphia netminding performance. But Neuvirth quickly cleaned up his play, and as the first period was coming to a close, it appeared that this game would follow the formula of his generally successful performances last week — one weak goal the only blemish on solid play overall.

But with about five minutes remaining in the period, Neuvirth attempted to make a sprawling save on a Mikael Granlund opportunity, and appeared to get his leg caught under him. Neuvirth did not return for the second period, and the team later announced that he has suffered a knee sprain and would be re-evaluated today.

Knee sprains generally aren’t “day-to-day” injuries, so the reasonable expectation is that Neuvirth will miss some time. The logical choice for a call-up is Anthony Stolarz, who has posted a 0.927 save percentage in eight games with the Phantoms this year, and finished with a solid 0.916 rate last season. Stolarz did spend some time with the club in 2015-16, but never got in a game as Hakstol preferred to ride his remaining starter rather than use the rookie. This is a different situation, however. Mason has not been very good this year (last night’s game aside), so riding him is probably not the best move unless his performance against the Wild is the start of something great. I would advocate for Stolarz to finally get a start if Neuvirth misses a few weeks, even if Mason continues to play well. It’s time the Flyers see what they have in the 22-year old Stolarz, especially since there’s a good chance he serves as NHL backup next year.

#6: Power play rightfully rewarded

Over the first two periods of last night’s game, the Flyers earned two power plays are scored on neither of them. But that’s about all they failed to do on those opportunities. Everything was clicking — entries, formation set-ups, shots, chances — but the PP simply could not break through. That’s why when Michael Raffl drew a third period penalty on Mikko Koivu, it seemed predestined that Philadelphia would score if they repeated their stellar process. It took just 12 seconds for Brayden Schenn to do just that, taking a beautiful behind-the-net feed from Wayne Simmonds and beating Dubnyk for the game-winning goal.

The power play’s shot generation metrics were off the charts last night. With Claude Giroux on the ice (he missed the team’s initial PP), Philadelphia averaged 202.25 shot attempts per 60 at 5v4, a ridiculous rate when the best teams over a full season end up at just over 100. Even more amazing, Giroux had an xG per 60 of 35.38, meaning that if the Flyers had spent 60 minutes on the power play with Giroux as quarterback, they would have been expected to score 35 goals based upon the number and quality of their shots. Minnesota simply could not hold up under the barrage.

#7: Bellemare line worked with two play-drivers

So far this season, Dave Hakstol has been insistent upon trying to use Pierre-Edouard Bellemare as the third line center. There were brief periods of respite — Nick Cousins has received a few games in the role, so has Brayden Schenn — but Hakstol always seems to go back to Bellemare. Whether this is more an example of a total lack of confidence in Cousins (his 3C during the playoff run last year) or a great deal of it in Bellemare, the results haven’t been especially impressive, as Bellemare is near the bottom of all the 5v5 play-driving charts.

Last night, Bellemare was at 3C, but this time was flanked by two high-end players by advanced stats — Matt Read and Michael Raffl. Neither are elite scorers, but Read is fantastic in the neutral zone and Raffl is both a willing forechecker and the team’s most defensively responsible winger. Intentional or not, this gave Bellemare as much play-driving support as he’s ever going to have, and the results were actually pretty impressive. The line led the Flyers by score-adjusted Corsi, with Read and Raffl finishing above 70 percent and Bellemare posting a solid 63.65% rate. Hakstol after the game specifically singled out Raffl and Read for praise (in addition to Dale Weise), and they deserved it — both did all the little things necessary to carry Bellemare to success. If Hakstol is dead set on using Bellemare as the 3C, this might be the only way it works long-term, even if the line seems to lack a real scoring threat.

#8: Gostisbehere and Del Zotto uncharacteristically loose in neutral zone coverage

Both Shayne Gostisbehere and Michael Del Zotto are plus skaters and tend to use that attribute to play aggressive defense in all three zones. They know they’ll never be elite in terms of winning puck battles, so their general method of overcoming that weakness is to take away the time of space of opposing skaters as they move up the ice. However, last night the pairing’s gap control wasn’t at its best. According to Corey’s data, the pair faced 16 rushes in the neutral zone last night and allowed controlled entries on 11 of them, for a Andrew MacDonald-esque 68.75% allowance rate.

It was notable because it was so unexpected, and actually burned the Flyers on Minnesota’s second goal, as Del Zotto gave Mikko Koivu all the space in the world to move in on Mason rather than playing his usual aggressive game. Interestingly enough, the pair still came out ahead in terms of Corsi, as Gostisbehere led all Philadelphia defensemen at 60.42% and Del Zotto was right behind at 56.50%. But in talking with Del Zotto after the game, it was clear he wasn’t satisfied with his defensive performance, so I’d expect this get addressed over the next few days in the tape room at practice.

#9: Raffl back in the lineup, assist, draws a penalty

I’ve mostly defended Dave Hakstol’s lineup decisions so far this season, even when I disagreed with them. For example, while placing Shayne Gostisbehere with Andrew MacDonald certainly wasn’t positive for the young defenseman’s on-ice play or his metrics, I’m not sure Hakstol had a better option than to hope that Ghost could drag MacDonald to respectability. Even the continued insistence upon keeping Chris VandeVelde in the lineup can be understood by Hakstol not wanting to shake up his penalty kill rotation as they adapt to wholesale systemic changes in the season’s early months. But the decision to sit Michael Raffl last night in Toronto was one step too far for me.

I understand that coaches have their finger on the pulse of their team, and that Raffl was not at his best against Detroit. But just like you don’t scratch Giroux or Voracek after a bad game, you certainly don’t remove your best defensive winger from the lineup when your team is struggling in terms of goal prevention. Likely helped by the fact that the Flyers lost against the Maple Leafs, Raffl checked back into the lineup last night and was one of the best players on the ice. He finished with a 75.39% score-adjusted Corsi, earned a primary assist on Del Zotto’s give-and-go goal, and even drew the penalty that resulted in the game-winner.

After the game, Raffl noted that the scratching hit him hard, which would lead some to believe that it worked as a motivational tactic, but I don’t buy that. Raffl’s whole game is based around hard work, and his 57.72% unadjusted Corsi at 5v5 this year (which leads all Flyers forwards) hints that he’s putting in all the necessary effort. Raffl should be on the “never-scratch” list moving forward — he’s just too valuable of a player.

#10: Provorov did all the little things right

When I went to look at the Corsi charts after the game, I was surprised to see Ivan Provorov’s name near the bottom of the list with a 41.26% score-adjusted Corsi. To my eyes, he was especially effective in this one, and therefore wasn’t shocked when his microstats hinted at a far better game. In the neutral zone, Provorov faced four rushes and allowed only two controlled entries for a solid 50% rate, while breaking up one rush entirely. It was the second best Controlled Entry allowed rate on the defense (behind Manning), and the highest Entry Denial rate.

Provorov graded out well by entries and exits, as well. On five touches, he generated three controlled exits and failed only once to successfully move the puck out of the zone. He also created two controlled entries on his own for a CE percentage of 100%. If anything, Provorov’s only issue last night was being partnered with Mark Streit, who allowed four controlled entries on four rushes. So far, Provorov’s microstat performance has been strong, and as a 19-year old he’s showing me no real issues in terms of overall process, which is key to his future development as a player.