Morning Observations is a feature where we break down the previous night's game with an analytical eye.
#1: Maybe didn’t “deserve” to win but way they lost was painful
It’s not quite fair to say that the Philadelphia Flyers deserved to win last night’s game against the Lightning. While they played Tampa pretty tight at 5-on-5, it’s tough to argue a team that allowed seven power play opportunities to their opponent and lost the all-situations xG battle 2.99 - 2.17 “deserved” to win anything. However, what makes this one especially tough to swallow was that they had already overcome their biggest roadblocks to a victory — a poor first period and the aforementioned undisciplined play — before finding a new way to cough up a lead.
In fact, they found a way to kill off three straight Tampa power plays in the third period while nursing a one-goal edge, a Herculean effort. They also were able to make up for their disastrous first period (only two shots on goal) with a stellar middle stanza (22 shots). But then, a combination of bad bounces and awful breakdowns served to waste all of the effort they had expended to overcome their previous mistakes. The game-tying goal occurred due to a freak carom off the back boards that ended up right on the stick of Alex Killorn, a play that was no one’s fault but damaged the Flyers’ chances all the same. Just twelve seconds later, Mark Streit fell down in defensive zone coverage, forcing Ivan Provorov to cover for him, which then left Ryan Callahan wide open to give the Lightning the lead. Minutes later, Brandon Manning added his own mistake to the fun, losing inside position on a 2-on-2 coverage switch and giving Nikita Kucherov a clear lane towards the net. Game over.
They may not have dominated or even outplayed Tampa Bay, but when the team does so many things right in storming back and then holding a lead through power play after power play, it really hurts to not see them close it out. Due to their mediocre start, the Flyers don’t have the benefit of lots of banked standings points to fall back on, so they really need wins any way they can get them. Last night was two points for the taking, and they had earned their way into that position. Then, they let it slip away.
#2: For the second straight night, Flyers rebounded from poor first period
Against the Panthers, Philadelphia was bulldozed at 5-on-5 to the tune of 18 shot attempts against to just nine from the Flyers, and they also allowed four high-danger scoring chances while only creating one. Somehow, they exited the period with a 1-0 lead anyway, an edge that was never going to hold up if they continued their poor territorial play. But the Flyers rebounded to win the score-adjusted 5v5 battle over the game’s final 40 minutes, truly earning the win.
Last night, they weren’t so lucky in that the first period ended with the team down 1-0, but yet again they did not put their best foot forward. The Lightning finished with a 9-4 edge in 5v5 shot attempts (62.78% score-adjusted Corsi) and led in high-danger chances 3-0. With the Flyers only able to muster two shots on goal in the entire period, they were lucky to down just one goal.
The second period was an entirely different animal. Dale Weise tied the game just minutes in with a shortside snipe that eluded Andrei Vasilevskiy, but Philadelphia didn’t truly begin to turn the tide territorially until around the period’s midpoint. Beginning with a delayed penalty against Erik Condra, the Flyers racked up 20 shot attempts in all situations and permitted Tampa Bay just five. That ten-minute stretch erased the impact of their poor first period almost entirely, and gave them their first lead of the game. A key change was increased activation of the defensemen in the offensive zone, which seemed to flummox the Lightning. Rather than lie in wait at the points, players like Shayne Gostisbehere and Ivan Provorov started to creep lower in the zone, making themselves available for passes from the forwards down low. That’s how Provorov earned his first NHL goal, and how the Flyers were able to essentially erase their poor first period.
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#3: Weakness at 5-on-5 was due to struggles in offensive and defensive zones
The Flyers weren’t dominated in the raw shot attempt metrics — 47.72% in score-adjusted Corsi and 48.88% in Fenwick — but for a team that has tried to make up for its issues in scoring chance suppression by overwhelming teams with pure volume, it’s never a good thing to see them below 50 percent in those categories. The biggest issue last night (to my eyes) wasn’t their neutral zone play, as they seemed to be limiting the Lightning’s potent speed through the middle of the ice quite well. Instead, the Flyers were struggling in two equally important areas — shot creation in the offensive zone and shot suppression in their own end.
CSNPhilly highlighted a perfect example of the former during the first intermission. Due to fantastic forechecking by the Bellemare line, the Flyers spent a good 30 seconds in the Tampa zone, winning puck battles and preventing zone exits. However, all that zone time could only generate one shot from the point (which was blocked). Aside from the aforementioned ten-minute stretch in the second period, the Flyers’ game was marked by repeated, fruitless zone entries. On the other side, Tampa seemed to create shots at will once they set up on the attack. Particularly against the MacDonald-Gostisbehere pairing, the Lightning turned the Flyers’ end into their own private property, possessing the puck and constantly firing away at Mason. The neutral zone is undeniably important, and Philadelphia’s tactics there have actually frustrated Tampa repeatedly over the past year. But they can’t forget the other two zones if they want to carry play against such a talented squad.
#4: Numbers don’t tell the story for Mason
A quick glance at the stats would lead one to believe that Steve Mason struggled last night. After all, he finished with a save percentage of 0.862, and faced 2.99 Expected Goals (per Corsica), allowing four total. However, this was a game where the numbers failed to capture his true level of play. Mason held down the fort admirably over the game’s first 30 minutes, making save after save as Tampa Bay dominated in the offensive zone. He was even better during the deluge of power plays in the third period, keeping the Flyers in front even as they simply could not stay out of the box.
The three goals that he allowed in the third period really weren’t on him. Killorn’s tally was due to a bizarre, unpredictable bounce off the back boards and more of just a fluky play than anything to pin on Mason. Callahan’s goal was on a redirection right in front that would have required an unreal stop to prevent. Kucherov closed things out with yet another redirect of a perfect Tampa pass into the low slot, in a play that was more caused by a defensive breakdown on the part of Brandon Manning and less at Mason’s feet. It’s unfortunate that the goaltender’s numbers — basic and advanced — will suffer as a result of this game, because Mason gave his team every chance to win it.
#5: Andrew MacDonald is dragging everyone down with him
Rather than insert Michael Del Zotto back into the Flyers’ lineup after just one game as a healthy scratch (like he did for Shayne Gostisbehere and Michael Raffl), Dave Hakstol chose to keep the defenseman in the press box for last night’s game against the Lightning. It was a move with some merit — Del Zotto has legitimately struggled in coverage this year and the Flyers did play well in his absence on Tuesday — except for one problem: Andrew MacDonald remained in the lineup in his place.
MacDonald receives an endless stream of criticism from the fanbase, which often goes over the top in demonizing the player rather than solely focusing on his play. In addition, it’s hard to argue that the six-year, $30 million contract that remains tied to MacDonald doesn't serve to increase the level of vitriol that he faces. Still, the hard truth is this — Andrew MacDonald has not merely been bad in 2016-17, he has not even played at an NHL-caliber level.
The numbers are so poor, it’s painful. With MacDonald on the ice, the Flyers have posted a 44.94% score-adjusted Corsi, worse than the 30th-ranked Arizona Coyotes (who sit at 45.03%). With him on the bench, they’ve delivered a 53.69% rate, comparable to the third-ranked Los Angeles Kings (who are at 53.76%). Essentially, the Flyers look like the worst play-driving team in the league with MacDonald on the ice, and then mirror the best play-driving team of the decade with him on the bench. That is unfathomably bad.
Even worse has been his impact on Shayne Gostisbehere, MacDonald’s primary partner when he plays. Gostisbehere sits at 44.99% while playing alongside the veteran (they were an atrocious 28.57% last night together) and a whopping 58.76% away from MacDonald. We’re talking fourteen percentage points here — that’s the difference between the performance of the Cup winning Blackhawks team in 2014-15 and the final Randy Carlyle-coached Maple Leafs squad that same year. Part of this is because the pairing doesn’t work — MacDonald allows too many clean entries into the defensive zone, Gostisbehere struggles there — but most of it is simply because MacDonald has just not played at an NHL level this year. This would be happening with anyone. It’s tough to say this about a guy who clearly worked very hard last season in the minors and was the good soldier throughout, but Andrew MacDonald should be playing in the AHL right now. The numbers present an air-tight case, and I can’t think of one eye test that he’s passed this year. It’s time.
#6: Flyers need more from top line
Though Hakstol was forced to shuffle the lines in the wake of Sean Couturier’s injury, he chose to keep the new line of Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek and Brayden Schenn together as the top unit at 5v5. Unfortunately, the trio did not justify the coach’s faith, generating just five shot attempts and finishing at a 35.71% Corsi For percentage. Like the rest of the team, their issues were not in the neutral zone, where they seemed to control play fairly well. Instead, they were impotent on the attack, fumbling away pucks and wasting possessions due to poor passing and general giveaways.
It’s tough to pin their struggles on one person. The stats point to Schenn as the weak link, and he was a big offender last night, especially in terms of turnovers in the offensive zone. But Giroux was invisible as well, aside from a brief period after his third period penalty when he was clearly amped up and angry. Giroux remains a stellar offensive zone player, even if his neutral zone performance might be in decline, so it’s tough to see his unit fumble the puck constantly while there. Maybe this is simply a chemistry issue, and the trio will figure things out with more time together. But if you’re going to stack a line with Giroux and Voracek, they simply need to create chances and drive play. If they can’t do it with Schenn, then he needs to be demoted to the bottom-six immediately. And if they can’t do it period, then the Flyers have bigger problems.
#7: Ivan Provorov a huge bright spot
Even if the Flyers cannot right the ship and make a serious run at a playoff spot, this season will be worthwhile viewing if only to watch the continued development of rookies Travis Konecny and Ivan Provorov. Last night, it was Provorov’s turn in the spotlight, as he finally scored his first NHL goal and drove play to the tune of a 62.70% score-adjusted Corsi, +22.35% relative to his teammates. Provorov was an all-three-situations monster, looking poised on the power play, relentless on the PK, and a perfect balance of offensive instincts and defensive soundness at 5v5. It was a virtuoso performance.
There was something for everyone to like from Provorov in this one. A new-school “take more risks” fan? You had to love Provorov activating deep into the offensive zone on his goal, showcasing ideal instincts to drop into the open area in the left faceoff circle before ripping a shot past Vasilevskiy. And if you’re an old-school “rub some dirt on it” fan, you must have swooned when Provorov sacrificed his knee to block a massive shot on a third period PK, crawled back to his position, and then on his very next shift, got in the way of another Lightning power play shot before successfully clearing the zone. Last night, we got a glimpse of “future first-pair defenseman Ivan Provorov,” and it was glorious.
#8: Gudas adding the meanness back into his game, still effective
Radko Gudas stormed out of the gate from a play-driving standpoint following his start-of-season suspension, but it was noticeable that he had dialed back the physical play a bit. It’s not that Gudas wasn’t hitting, but he wasn’t in “destroy mode” like he was so often last year. In many ways, that was a good thing — the Flyers could ill-afford to lose Gudas to another suspension. But it’s undeniable that watching the burly defenseman deliver vicious (but still clean!) hits was a blast for Flyers fans last season. Over the past few weeks, however, Gudas has been bringing that element back into his game without stepping over the edge in terms of legality. Last night was no exception.
Gudas racked up five hits last night, including two devastating ones on a single shift. For some players, a high hit total means that they’ve spent most of their shifts chasing the play, but that wasn’t the case for Gudas, who finished with a strong 64.94% score-adjusted Corsi despite throwing his weight around constantly. And Gudas isn’t just avoiding suspension-worthy hits so far this year — he’s avoiding penalties, period. In 15 games, Gudas has earned just two minor penalties after being guilty of 33 last year (ninth-most in the NHL). That’s such a dramatic improvement that it’s tough to believe it’s not an intentional focus of Gudas in 2016-17. So far, he’s been able to strike that perfect balance between toughness and discipline, and he deserves a ton of credit for doing so.
#9: Penalty kill came through
Six-for-seven isn’t a perfect night for a penalty kill, but it’s tough to fault them for their performance on the whole yesterday. In fact, the Flyers shorthanded units held the potent Tampa Bay power play to just 54.93 unblocked shot attempts per 60, a rate that would rank Philadelphia second in the NHL in shot prevention behind the Los Angeles Kings. The Lightning had their shots, but the Flyers did a fantastic job keeping them to the outside and blocking many of their blasts.
For years, Tampa tried to get by on their ridiculous shooting talent rather than actually put together strong structure on their PP, and the result was a unit totally dependent upon shooting percentage surges to be successful. That isn’t the case this year, as the Lightning rank in the top-10 in all of the shot creation categories. This was a tough assignment for the Flyers, and they performed admirably. Unfortunately, their even strength play in the last ten minutes of the game let them down.
#10: Forward role players stepped up
With the top line struggling and the second unit adjusting to the Sean Couturier-less life, it was up to the bottom-six to provide necessary spark at even strength last night. Three players in particular stood out in a positive way — Dale Weise, Scott Laughton, and Matt Read. Weise obviously scored his second goal in two nights (even if Vasilevskiy probably should have stopped it) but he also drove play better than any other Flyers player, finishing with a strong 65.40% score-adjusted Corsi. Laughton may not have gotten on the scoresheet, but he was solid through, showcasing his plus speed and looking very much like an NHL forward.
Read was the only member of the trio to finish in the red from a Corsi standpoint (48.38%) but he set up Provorov’s tally with a beautiful cross-ice pass, recognizing that the rookie would know to jump into the play and taking full advantage. You’re starting to see the makings of a useful bottom-six coming together here, filled with play-drivers and forwards with defined roles. Adding the forechecking prowess of Roman Lyubimov back into the lineup could be the final piece.