Morning Observations is a feature where we break down the previous night's game with an analytical eye.
#1: Solid even strength performance after poor first period
The Flyers hit the locker room at the first intermission with a one-goal lead, but it was built like a flimsy house of cards. Florida had outshot Philadelphia 14-9 in the period, and had an even larger advantage by advanced metrics — 63.66% score-adjusted Corsi, 8-1 lead in scoring chances, and 4-1 in high-danger chances. It was only a fantastic singular effort by Wayne Simmonds on a two-on-one rush and the heroics of Steve Mason that allowed the Flyers to exit the first period with a lead. This didn’t seem like a sustainable formula for success, even in just one game.
To their credit, Philadelphia didn’t spend the next forty minutes sitting back and hoping that Mason would steal them a victory. Had they done that, it’s likely we wouldn’t be talking about two points in the standings for the Flyers this morning. Instead, they stormed out of the gate to start the second, generating the first seven shot attempts of the period.
And while their two remaining goals on the night came via the power play, Philadelphia basically broke even at 5v5 despite protecting a lead for the final two periods. Florida won the shot attempts battle by a tight 22-20 margin, giving the Flyers a solid edge (55.21%) after accounting for score adjustment. In addition, they held the Panthers to just two more high-danger 5v5 chances the remainder of the game. The Flyers may have finished slightly behind Florida in all of the game-long shot metrics, but don’t be fooled — they earned this win with their play in the final two stanzas.
#2: Couturier injury is a big-time blow
Of course, because this remains Philadelphia, fans could not be allowed to fully enjoy a road victory against tough competition in which the goaltender was the team’s best player without tossing some sort of heartbreak on the table to counterbalance the good. Last night, it came in the form of Sean Couturier’s knee, which was twisted in an awkward collision with Vincent Trocheck in the second period. Couturier was unable to put any weight on his left leg as he left the ice, and unsurprisingly did not return. Early reports indicated that it was looking like an MCL sprain, which still allows for a wide variety of outcomes — Couturier could miss just a few games if lucky, or many months if it’s the worst variety of the injury.
Regardless of the length of absence, it’s a huge blow to the Flyers. Couturier has been one of the team’s best play-drivers at even strength this year, and center on their most consistently dangerous line. Sure, he hasn’t scored as much as some had hoped he would, but his overall positive impact on the team is undeniable by both the numbers (+3.25% Corsi Relative) and a trained eye test. And while Couturier hasn’t been perfect in his own zone this year, it’s surely not a good thing for a team that is already struggling defensively to lose their best defensive forward.
So what happens to the lineup now? Hakstol has a number of options — move Schenn back to center on the second line, bump Bellemare or Cousins up to 2C, recall Jordan Weal or Scott Laughton and plug one of them right in — but none are particularly enticing. I’d personally advocate a slightly more outside-the-box option: try out Michael Raffl at 2C. He’s been the best play-driving forward on the team this year, has played center in the NHL briefly before, and seems most likely to replicate Couturier’s “do the little things” style that allowed players like Voracek and Konecny to focus on offense this year. Raffl doesn’t have the puck handling skills of Couturier so he isn’t an ideal fit at center, but I’m not certain the other options are either (except maybe Cousins). I’m iffy on Schenn in the middle, even though he looked okay in limited time there this season, and I’m even more iffy on promoting Bellemare, considering his struggles as even just a 3C this year. Again, there really isn’t a great option here, which is to be expected when you’re trying to replace an important player like Couturier.
#3: Mason seems to be figuring things out
It hasn’t been a perfect past two weeks for Steve Mason. Since November 8th, he’s delivered one outright bad performance (against Toronto), a poor one (versus Tampa Bay) and one with a bad late goal allowed that cost his team an extra point (Ottawa). So it’s not as if Mason is playing his best, by any means. But on the whole, he does seem to be turning the corner when you look at his overall performance over the past two weeks.
In his seven appearances since the debacle against Pittsburgh, Mason has a 0.912 all-situations save percentage — not great, but far from the trainwreck that both he and Michal Neuvirth delivered in October. Last night was yet another step in the right direction, as Mason kept his team above water in the first period while they were flailing at 5v5, and then held strong for the remainder of the game, stopping 38 of 39 shots. What was especially impressive was his rebound control and puck tracking. Rarely was Mason allowing juicy second-chance opportunities, and on the rare occasions that the puck eluded him, he always seemed to locate it quicker than Florida could. He was the team’s best player last night, and that seems to be happening more and more often. I’m not sure where his end-of-season stats will end up, but I am confident that the sub-0.900 save percentage goalie from October is long gone at this point.
#4: Simmonds with a monster game
Aside from Mason, Wayne Simmonds was Philadelphia’s most effective player in all three phases of the game. The highlight reel play was obviously his first period tally, which saw him blast down the ice on a two-on-one and then do what it feels like few Flyers forwards ever do on those rushes — neglect a possible pass to a teammate and instead just rip one past the opposing goaltender.
But Simmonds wasn’t finished. He later would set up Nick Cousins for the Flyers’ third goal of the game via a slick pass to spring his teammate on a shorthanded rush, and also finished with a solid +11.50% score-adjusted Corsi relative to his teammates. When Simmonds was on the ice, good things happened, and not just in terms of goal scoring. His physicality was present all game long, whether it was in puck battles or scrums around the net. His performance last night was the classic game that passed both the eye test and the numbers with flying colors.
#5: Brayden Schenn wasn’t bad either
He’s rightfully received criticism so far this year for delivering fairly underwhelming performances at 5-on-5, but Brayden Schenn was back to his old effective self in this one. Not only did he add two secondary assists, Schenn actually led the entire team with a strong 68.26% score-adjusted Corsi, a whopping +31.17 percent relative to his teammates. To my eyes, he did it primarily by bringing back his plus forechecking ability.
Schenn’s always played a crash-and-bang style, racking up at least 180 recorded hits in four straight years. It’s a tendency that bodes well for his ability to create havoc on the forecheck, but so far this season, he had been strangely absent in that regard, at least at even strength. Last night the Schenn from the second half of the 2015-16 season was back, pressuring opposing breakouts and keeping cycles alive. So far this year, Schenn has been a drag on the team’s overall metrics at 5v5, so getting him back going has to be a top priority of Dave Hakstol in the coming weeks. They simply can’t afford to bury Schenn on the third or fourth line, and not just because of the big contract that he signed in the offseason. The team is simply counting on him for too much offense, especially now that Couturier will miss at least some time. A return to center could even be in the cards, which would truly push the limits of his skillset.
#6: Top line showed flashes but struggled at times to extract value from entries
One of the big stories heading into this game was the reunion of the Claude Giroux-Jakub Voracek pair on the Philadelphia top line. Likely intended to help spark the captain, who has struggled to score at 5v5 this year, Voracek replaced Wayne Simmonds as right wing on the Flyers’ top trio, giving Giroux his former partner-in-crime back.
It wasn’t a dominant performance — Giroux finished around break-even relative to teammates (-1.64%) in score-adjusted play-driving, while Voracek fared worse (-9.30%). But it did seem like the trio was moving through the neutral zone with effectiveness. Instead, the problem seemed to be extracting shot attempts from their zone entries. Too often a clean entry would be broken up before even one shot could be taken, or extended cycles would prove fruitless. My guess is this is just a matter of former linemates getting their timing back. I’d expect a better statistical performance tonight against the Lightning.
#7: Flyers power play embarrassed a very aggressive penalty kill
Florida has a reputation of utilizing abnormally aggressive tactics while shorthanded, a choice that helped to push them to the top of the PK efficiency charts to begin the 2016-17 season. However, as often is the case in the NHL, opposing coaches because to exploit the Panthers’ weaknesses, to the point where the Panthers have dropped to a (still okay) 10th place in the goal-based rankings. The unit remained elite in terms of shot suppression, however, ranking fourth in the league in Corsi Against per 60 heading into last night’s game. Florida’s goal is to prevent teams from ever getting set up, but in their attempt to achieve that goal, quality chances can come easier to the opposition.
That’s basically what happened last night. In the lead-up to both Flyers goals, Florida tried to create some attack time for themselves on the PK, only to watch Philadelphia blast back the other way. Weise’s goal was originally sparked by a strong neutral zone play by Shayne Gostisbehere, while Cousins’ tally came about because the Panthers tried to execute a three-on-two while being shorthanded, something you almost never see an NHL team attempt. When it failed, Simmonds and Cousins had an opportunity for a counterattacking rush (another thing you can almost never say on about a PP) and they took full advantage.
Philadelphia had been racking up good shot totals in recent games on the power play, but had simply not been able to light the lamp. Perhaps it’s appropriate that in this one, they went 2-for-2 despite not much in the way of extended zone time. They simply pounced on Florida mistakes, and made them pay for them.
#8: Weise finally on the board
The Flyers clearly had high expectations for Dale Weise when they locked him up to a four-year contract, making him their “big acquisition” of the offseason. Luckily for Weise, the fanbase has been distracted this season by the debuts of Ivan Provorov and Travis Konecny with the big club, neither of which were assured when Weise signed. However, it’s undeniable that Weise has been a disappointment in the eyes of the fans. In his first 15 regular season games with the Flyers, Weise managed just two points — both assists — and was generally invisible on the attack. That finally changed on Tuesday night, as Weise was able to score his first goal with his new team.
It’s not that Weise has been awful in all phases of the game. His raw play-driving metrics at 5v5 have been solid, and as a puck-carrier, he’s actually been solidly above-average, holding a strong 60% Controlled Entry rate entering last night’s game, second-best on the Flyers after Voracek. But his offensive zone play was leaving much to be desired, which was why it was so nice to see him break his goalless drought with a very Dale Weise-style goal — collecting a rebound due to driving the net on a rush.
At intermission and after the game, Weise expressed his frustration and dissatisfaction with his start to the year, and the emotions were apparent in the immediate aftermath of the goal, as he looked skyward and merely let out a sigh of relief. The hope is that maybe Weise was trapped in his own head a bit over the early weeks of this season, and this goal helps him to settle down while on the attack and make the simple plays that help facilitate goals, whether by him or his linemates.
#9: Flyers are so much better at protecting leads now
It seems like such a long time ago, but just last season one of the big points of frustration from Flyers fans was the team’s inability to hold onto leads in the closing minutes of third periods. The team seemed to always collapse into hockey’s version of a prevent defense — a nonexistent forecheck in the offensive zone combined with “keep ‘em to the outside” defensive zone coverage tactics. My prevailing theory last season was the the lack of forechecking was the biggest problem, as Hakstol was leaning on aggressive offensive zone tactics to “hide” his weak defense through most of the game. Absent that constant pressure, Philadelphia just simply could not disrupt enough plays in the neutral zone to stem the tide.
It does appear that the Flyers forecheck more in the late stages of games, and all of the players have expressed their goal of continuing to pressure even with leads. But it’s been the team’s neutral zone play that has allowed them to turn third periods from nailbiting affairs to fairly calm closeouts. Part of that is likely increased familiarity with Hakstol’s preferred neutral zone tactics, as when to attack or switch assignments against rushes has become second nature to most of the players on the team. But it’s also the players themselves.
Last night, they dressed five above-average neutral zone defensemen in Gostisbehere, Streit, Provorov, Manning and Gudas. Only Andrew MacDonald remains passive in that area, and he was merely a fill-in for Michael Del Zotto as Hakstol employed another of his message-sending benchings. In any case, the defense being full of players adept at both forcing dump-ins and nullifying rushes before they begin is a big help in squeezing the life out of a trailing opponent. It’s far effective than allowing the opponent easy entry into the offensive zone and then playing the “block shots and pray” game, like they did so often last year.
#10: Provorov - Streit pairing got butchered
After a number of strong games (the Winnipeg game aside), Ivan Provorov struggled a bit in terms of overall results last night. To be fair, however, he wasn’t helped much by his partner Mark Streit. In score-adjusted Corsi relative to teammates, the pair finished at the bottom of the charts, as Provorov posted a -34.75% and Streit checked in at -23.87%. It wasn’t exactly a banner night for the pair.
There weren’t a ton of obvious mistakes from either defenseman, just lots of extended defensive zone shifts and failures to win puck battles that could have ended them just a bit earlier. They ended up being on the ice for Florida’s late goal, and it was a rare earned minus — not because it was a particularly awful shift for either defenseman (though Reilly Smith probably shouldn’t get that wide open in front) but more because the Panthers spent so much time on the attack with Provorov and Streit on the ice last night. Hopefully they improve in the second half of the this pre-Thanksgiving back-to-back.