#1: Back on script, the Flyers waste a solid performance
Thursday night’s win over Winnipeg was a game unlike many (any?) other Flyers games this year, in the sense that the Flyers were largely a mess defensively and had to rely on good goaltending and opportunistic scoring to get a win over the Jets. Charlie noted in his observations for that game that it sort of ran counter to what we’ve seen in a number of Flyers games this season, in that we’re far more used to seeing the Flyers pull an advantage on the shot clock but losing due to a combination of misfortune and bad goaltending.
Alas, things were back to normal on Saturday. At all strengths, the Flyers outshot the Lightning 32-18, and out-attempted them 70-29 (by percentage, the most lopsided single-game shot attempt advantage so far in the NHL this season, according to Natural Stat Trick). They held similar advantages at 5-on-5, and drew five power plays to just two for Tampa. And the eye test, by and large, held true to what the numbers suggested at a team level — the Flyers plainly spent more time on the attack yesterday than they did playing defense. And yet, as we’ve already seen happen to the Flyers four or five times this season, that advantage didn’t translate to the edge on the scoreboard, as they were done in by a superb performance from Andrei Vasilevskiy and a Tampa attack that seemed to take every significant mistake and put it in the back of the net. While there are positives to take from this game — and we’ll get to those — it’s a tough pill to swallow any time a game like this happens, and it really does seem like we’ve been swallowing these crappy pills for basically a month now.
#2: The loss wasn’t just a question of shot quality, either
Many of these kinds of losses this year for the Flyers have also followed a similar script, one that has seen the Flyers pull together a significant advantage in terms of shot attempts but a much smaller one — or even a disadvantage — in terms of bona fide scoring chances or Expected Goals, which weights shot counts based on their quality. This is an easy counter-argument to the idea that the Flyers are losing games they “deserve” to win, since all the shots in the world don’t matter if they’re not ones that have a good chance of ending up in the net.
But that wasn’t even close to the case yesterday. Via Natural Stat Trick, the Flyers bested the Lightning at 5-on-5 by a count of 16-6 in scoring chances and 9-4 in high-danger chances. In all situations, those numbers grew to 23-8 and 13-4, respectively. And Corsica’s expected goals measure gave the Flyers a substantial edge there as well, to the tune of 1.78-1.11 at 5-on-5 and 3.23-1.43 overall. Other than the lack of chances on rebounds — something Dave Hakstol mentioned in his post-game press conference — there wasn’t a ton the Flyers missed out on offensively. Tip your cap to Vasilevskiy, who looks like he may find himself in the Henrik Lundqvist/Carey Price tier of truly elite NHL goaltending within the next few years.
#3: Solid defensive zone play was the highlight, errors in transition were the low point
We’re used to seeing the Flyers giving up 3 goals in games this season (this was, in fact, the 13th time this year in which they’ve done so, not including shootout winners), and we’re used to lamenting poor defensive zone play in the post-game breakdowns of those games. The Flyers’ defensive personnel largely isn’t great in terms of own-zone play, and you see that in some of the goals they give up. But for the most part, the Flyers were up to the task and then some yesterday in their own third, stifling out almost every Tampa attempt at sustaining a cycle and getting to loose pucks to deny Tampa chances in-close and on rebounds. 18 shots on goal was easily a season-low for the Lightning, and the Flyers didn’t luck their way into that number.
Of course, the three goals against can’t be ignored, and those goals came largely thanks to poor work in transition by the Flyers on defense. Tampa’s first goal, on the power play, was off a cross-ice pass from a 2-man rush that made it through three defenders to find Tyler Johnson staring at a wide open net. The second came on a 3-on-3 immediately following a Claude Giroux near-miss, and they’d score on an Ondrej Palat wrister after he’d dance his way into the slot unmarked. And the final one came on a Jonathan Drouin breakaway, as he’d sneak behind Brandon Manning in the neutral zone and make his way in off a great outlet pass from Palat behind his own goal line. Tampa’s speed is something most teams have trouble keeping up with, and yesterday the Flyers certainly got a taste of that.
#4: Mason’s momentum slowed down a bit
Three consecutive strong appearances from Steve Mason started to ease the minds of many fans who were hoping his early-season woes were an anomaly and not a sign of things to come. But Saturday’s game, while not a catastrophe, was undeniably a bit of a step back for Mase. None of the three goals (as described in the last observation) are ones that you’d necessarily call soft, but the last two — Palat’s wrister from the slot and Drouin’s breakaway that dribbled through the five-hole — were at least stoppable, and even Johnson’s goal on the power play was on which some observers on Twitter thought Mason may have overcommitted to the initial shooter and not given any thought to the pass (though, when three players are supposed to be in the way of said pass, I’d argue that’s the right play by the goalie).
On a day where the visitors barely pulled together any A-quality chances, you’d like to see one or two more stops from your goalie. Some analysts posit that facing more pucks allows a goalie to stay in more of a groove and prepares him more for those tougher shots, and Mason himself has said similar things in the past, but he declined to use that as an excuse when asked a similar question post-game. This was Mason’s problem in the first month of the season — making most of the easy stops but not getting to nearly enough of the tough ones — so the Flyers will hope it’s more of an unfortunate ending to an otherwise-strong past week or so than a sign of things to come. The Flyers will play three games in four games next week with the third being an afternoon game, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see Anthony Stolarz make his NHL debut at some point soon, but Mason will certainly be in net for at least two if not all three of those games and will hopefully be back at his best.
#5: Ghost seemed to be back to normal, mostly
While lineups weren’t confirmed by the coaches before the game, it was expected that Shayne Gostisbehere’s surprise trip to the press box would last just one game, and that ended up being the case, as he was back out in his usual spot in the lineup on Saturday next to Michael Del Zotto. While his defense in the neutral zone wasn’t quite as on-point as it usually was — though Ghost was only targeted four times, Corey Sznajder’s post-game breakdown has him on the ice for three carry-ins against and no entry breakups — the benching certainly didn’t appear to have any impact on Ghost’s trigger-happy ways in the offensive zone. Ghost had eleven total shot attempts, three of which reached the net and six of which were blocked.
The six blocked shots were a minor point of concern, as both he and Dave Hakstol were asked post-game whether teams are keying in more on Ghost’s shots from the point and getting in their way more than they were last year. Charlie looked into this on Friday and found that there’s not much to worry about here, as Ghost is just two or three shots-on-goal away from being on the same pace he was last year. And while six is a lot for one game, Tampa was blocking everyone’s shots on Saturday, not just Ghost’s; the 21 shots Tampa blocked were the third-most any Flyers opponent has blocked this year. All in all, Ghost’s generally aggressive play doesn’t seem to have changed based on his scratching, which is a good sign, and the fact that he was the Flyers’ ice-time leader — both overall and at 5-on-5 — shows that Hakstol knows when he needs to lean on his best offensive defenseman.
#6: Voracek outstanding in the offensive zone
It’s very odd to say that a 69.44% 5-on-5 Corsi-For percentage isn’t remarkable, but Jakub Voracek’s territorial dominance yesterday was more or less par for the course for the Flyers in a game where they got 67.65% of the 5-on-5 attempts. No, where Voracek shined yesterday was in creating shots for himself, and while this isn’t out of the ordinary for him, Jake was a man possessed in the offensive zone for much of the game, with an Ovechkin-esque 15 shot attempts, nine of which came at even strength. Like Gostisbehere, though, Tampa didn’t make things easy on him, as 10 of those attempts either missed the net or were blocked by Tampa players. Still, this was one of Voracek’s most dominating on-puck performances of the season, and in a year where Jake very much looks like the player the Flyers thought they were getting when he signed a $66 million extension two summers ago, that’s saying something.
#7: No late-game comeback for the first time all year
The Flyers were shut out on Saturday for the first time all season, but they also saw another season-long streak of theirs come to an end against Tampa. Saturday’s game was the first game all season in which the Flyers weren’t either tied or ahead at any point in the third period, as they trailed it 2-0 to start and trailed 3-0 at the final horn. It says something about this team that they’ve been in literally every game this year in the third period, particularly given their frequent poor starts to games, and also speaks a lot to the team’s ability to come back in games they’ve been trailing in (we’ve had our fair share of exciting last-minute comebacks this year, to be sure).
But truthfully, despite the Flyers’ territorial dominance for most of the game, this was one of the rare games this year where a late comeback never really felt that likely. Maybe this is counter-intuitive, as the Flyers (the way you’d expect a team to when down 2-0 and 3-0) blitzed the Lightning in shot attempts in the third period by a count of 26-7. But when you have a goalie playing like Vasilevskiy was yesterday, that kind of thing doesn’t really matter. In some ways, it goes to show what facing a strong goaltender can do to your confidence; Flyers players were getting visibly frustrated in the third period, something we haven’t seen much of this year. Making a habit of late comebacks is something that’s tough to do in a league that plays defense like the NHL does, so we’ll see how the Flyers handle themselves the next time they’re down in the third period.
#8: Provorov clearly getting more comfortable at NHL level
We noted above that Shayne Gostisbehere led the Flyers in ice time today, which isn’t too surprising in a game where the Flyers a) trailed throughout and b) had 10 minutes’ worth of unfulfilled power play time. But it’s worth noting that the Flyers defenseman with the next-most ice time was Ivan Provorov, whose 22:15 was the most he’s played in a 60-minute game this year. And the fact that Provorov — who, lest we forget, is still looking for his first NHL goal — is getting this much ice time in a game that, again, the Flyers never led in shows just what Dave Hakstol thinks of his play right now.
And Hak is right to feel that way about the 19-year-old, because it’s clear he’s taken a step forward in recent weeks. Yesterday was another strong game for the rookie, in all three zones. He was aggressive in the neutral zone, with several challenges to force Tampa dump-ins. His passing in the defensive zone was superb, and in the offensive zone he tallied six shot attempts of his own. Provorov had some minor rookie jitters in October, but November’s been a very good month for the seventh overall pick from 2015.
#9: Power play started out strong, then got worse
While Vasilevskiy was the difference on Saturday, you do have to wonder if things change at all if the Flyers cash in early in the game, and they certainly had their chances to in the first period thanks to three power plays. Tampa, in trying to defend these power plays, seemed to have two primary goals: take away Wayne Simmonds right in front of the net, and go all out to block everything that comes off anyone else’s stick. They had varying degrees of success on both of these fronts — Simmonds, sometimes shadowed by two Lightning PKers, didn’t have any PP shot attempts in that first period, and Tampa did block five shots across those three PKs — but that plan did lead to a ton of zone time for the Flyers’ power play, with Tampa struggling to get more than one or two clears in each of those man-advantages. Later in the game, though, Tampa seemed to get more aggressive in actually attacking the Flyers on the PP, and the result was the orange and black having a tougher time getting set up and creating much in terms of quality chances.
In terms of the big picture, the Flyers’ power play is 0-for-its-last-10, which was a bit of a point of consternation among some of the media in post-game interviews. On the one hand, the Flyers have had cold streaks on the power play a lot in the past few years that lead us all to wonder if teams are starting to “figure it out”, and they usually bounce back from those before long. On the other hand, this is the longest the team’s gone without a power play goal this season. Players didn’t seem especially worried about the slump in post-game, noting that there were a number of chances they just missed on in that first period. But when a team relies on the power play for its scoring as much as the Flyers do, there’ll be some concerns any time it slows down.
#10: VandeVelde left early — who would replace him?
The Flyers’ first power play of the game came at the hands of an old friend, as long-time Flyers defenseman Braydon Coburn checked former teammate Chris VandeVelde into the boards. VandeVelde would miss the remainder of the game, almost certainly put into concussion protocol, and no update was given on his status post-game. In-game, this forced a bit of a line shakeup; while Michael Raffl was the guy who most frequently was playing in VandeVelde’s stead next to Dale Weise and Nick Cousins, Matt Read also had some looks there, while at other points Cousins and Weise would get shifts with the third line.
If VandeVelde’s injury lingers into next week, the Flyers may find themselves in a pickle, as they’re headed on a back-to-back road trip and would only have 12 healthy forwards. Were nothing else to change in the lineup, Roman Lyubimov would figure to leave the press box and slide into VandeVelde’s spot, but pending a call-up, the Flyers would otherwise be stuck with no healthy extra forwards. Scott Laughton, who’s played well for the Phantoms since initially being sent there on his rehab stint, could be a call-up option, as either a press box player or a forward in the bottom-6. In any case, there are some decisions to be made if VandeVelde can’t play next week.