#1: Yes, you’ve watched this game before
It’s tough to find a new way to summarize a Flyers game like yesterday’s, since it’s one that we’ve seen unfold numerous times this year, whether against Tampa or Montreal or Pittsburgh or Arizona. The Flyers seemed to be in control of the flow of the game for a healthy majority of the day on Friday. Dave Hakstol went as far as to say that he thought the team played “three good periods”, something you rarely see coaches say about wins, let alone losses. The Flyers doubled up the Rangers in shot attempts 78-39 despite not having a single power play in the game, and their 5-on-5 score-adjusted Corsi-For percentage in this one (61.81 percent, via Natural Stat Trick) was their best single-game mark of the season to date. And they even won the shot quality battle, routing the Rangers in overall scoring chances (27-13) and getting the better of them, albeit by a smaller margin, in high-danger chances (8-6). Basically, the Flyers won everywhere except the scoreboard, which of course is the only thing that really matters here.
Now, one could point out that the Rangers are a team that’s made a habit of winning games like this in this decade, partly due to the fact that Henrik Lundqvist is their goaltender and partly due to the fact that their overall lack of talent on defense has almost necessitated their playing a counter-attacking type of style. And they wouldn’t be wrong. But this isn’t the first time this year where it seemed like the Flyers were cycling around the offensive zone with regularity and generating steady chances, only to see every mistake of their own end up in the back of their own net. The odds suggest that the process is there and that eventually games like these are going to become less frequent. But when we’ve already watched this exact game four or five times this year, and as the Flyers slowly start to lose ground in the Eastern Conference playoff race, it’s hard to expect people to be comforted by the idea that things may get better. These games need to become wins pretty soon.
#2: Generated offense entirely at 5-on-5 for a change, thanks to strong offensive zone play
The Flyers have been fairly reliant on their strong power play to score goals this year, and while it’s got them sitting in the top-5 in goals per game in the NHL, it can have the Flyers in tough to produce when there’s a game where the power play either goes cold or doesn’t get its chances. Friday’s game was the latter, as the power play didn’t get any chances; for the first time all year, the Flyers didn’t go on the power play even once (their only potential power play of the day being wiped out by a Travis Konecny instigator penalty). As such, you’d be forgiven for not expecting the Flyers to match their season-best mark of 42 shots on goal. Yet that’s exactly what they did on Friday, peppering Henrik Lundqvist with pucks throughout the contest, including 21 in the third period while trying (and nearly succeeding) to put together a comeback.
While the Flyers have been at their best in the neutral zone this year, Friday was a game where their cycle play in the offensive zone really seemed to come to the forefront. Some of this is a matter of facing off with a Rangers defense group that is really not very good, and some more of it was a matter of the Rangers being willing to block shots (27 of them on the day, to be exact) rather than really contest the guys with the puck, and a little more of it was a matter of that counter-attacking style that the Rangers find themselves playing a lot and the fact that that style will by default grant the other team some chances. Still, despite the favorable circumstances, this was the kind of offensive zone play Dave Hakstol would like to see from this team night-in and night-out.
#3: Once again: not Mason’s best, but tough to blame him
The refrain you’d hear after a game like this was how every mistake would end up in the back of the Flyers’ net, which is potentially an exaggeration but a reasonable commentary on how frequently the Flyers’ gaffes are coming back to bite them. Still, you’ve got goalies in place to cover up mistakes, and on Friday it did seem like all of the biggest mistakes would end up on the other side of the Flyers’ goal line. And when you’re saying things like that following a loss in which you outshoot the other team 42-23, it’s easy to point the finger at the goalie. Mason was fine — good, even — when he had a chance to get set and see the play really develop in front of him, but all three of the Rangers’ goals were ones where things kind of turned to shit quickly and he just couldn’t get over in time to make a huge save.
With that said, I thought Mason played better than that narrative — and the numbers — would indicate. The Rangers’ first and third goals were both ones that would’ve taken superhuman efforts to stop, and while the goalie can obviously stop a breakaway like the one Matt Puempel scored on in the first period, just as much blame goes to the guys who made that breakaway possible. While it’s true that one more save would’ve helped the Flyers on Friday, it’s tough to point to any of the saves Mason didn’t make and say “yeah, that’s the one he’s gotta have”. It’s tough to ask any goalie to play three times in four days, with the final game being an afternoon game, and for that reason I’d say Anthony Stolarz should make his NHL debut on Sunday against Calgary. But if the past couple of weeks have led you to think Mason is heading in the right direction after a tough first month of the season, Friday’s game shouldn’t change your mind.
#4: Bottom-six passed one of its toughest tests yet, and with flying colors
As much as anything that isn’t named Lundqvist, the biggest reason for the Rangers’ success this year is their impressive forward depth. The Blueshirts have 11 forwards this year with 10 or more points, and even with injury problems they’ve got the ability — and, to Alain Vigneault’s credit, have shown the willingness — to roll four skilled forward lines in a way that maybe no other team in the NHL can. This figured to be a tough test for the Flyers, who have what you could reasonably call a more “traditional” NHL bottom-6.
Instead, not only did the Flyers’ third and fourth lines rise to the challenge, they put together outstanding performances. The Michael Raffl - Pierre-Edouard Bellemare - Matt Read trio was unquestionably the Flyers’ best line through the first two periods of the game, as each member of that group was aggressive in the offensive zone to generate chances on Lundqvist. And the Flyers’ only 5-on-5 (non-extra-attacker) goal of the day was scored by the much-maligned Chris VandeVelde, whose line (he alongside Dale Weise and Scott Laughton) also had a pretty good day in terms of creating offense. All six of the players mentioned in this paragraph were at least +10 in raw 5-on-5 shot attempts while on-ice, and much of the Flyers’ territorial dominance of the day can be credited to their work.
#5: Similarly, top line came to life when Raffl jumped up to it
Despite the fact that neither of them scored, at first glance you may look at the box score lines for Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek, who had a combined 13 shot attempts on Friday, and think that they had a pretty active game. Yet, up until the third period, the Flyers faithful had barely heard much at all from their two redheaded star forwards — in fact, five of Voracek’s eight shot attempts, and four of Giroux’s five, came in the final frame. So what changed? The personnel. In particular, Michael Raffl mostly switched spots with Brayden Schenn on that top-line left wing, and whether as a simple spark to the lineup or as a personnel fit, it’s hard to say the move didn’t work.
I asked Hakstol after the game if there was anything in particular to the decision to move Raffl up to the line, and he simply chalked it up to a matter of wanting to shake things up a bit when down 3-0 heading into the third period. But while that could be true, it’s not too hard to draw a line here to Schenn, who hasn’t been particularly strong at 5-on-5 this year despite spending much of the season alongside Giroux. Despite deflecting in the Flyers’ second goal late in the game, Schenn was the only Flyer to finish in the negatives in shot attempts yesterday, a tough feat to pull when your team outshoots the other team by 37. Of course, some credit here should be given to Raffl, who has played well on Giroux’s wing before and did again on Friday. If Hakstol decides Raffl should get a longer look on that top-line wing spot, it suddenly becomes tough to say where Schenn should go. But getting that top line going is a priority, and more play like what we saw in the third period — with Michael Raffl on the ice — would go a long way there.
#6: Mixed performance from MacDonald probably keeps him in the lineup
Charlie got right to the point with Andrew MacDonald following Wednesday’s game, expressing an opinion that you’ll see in a lot of Flyers fan circles nowadays: that MacDonald’s play this year has been more worthy of the AHL than the NHL. Frankly, I would agree with said assertion. But the fact is that right now the Flyers see Andrew MacDonald as someone who’s one of the six guys on their defense who’s best-suited to help them win games, and it’s going to take a bad performance for that to change, the same way it did for Michael Del Zotto to find his way into the press box (where he’s been for three games now).
And if you’re a MacDonald detractor, the Rangers’ second goal was ammunition enough for you, as MacDonald pinched down into the offensive zone only to make a weak attempt at the puck and then find himself just far enough out of position that he couldn’t catch up with Matt Puempel, who broke the other way and buried a perfect pass from Jimmy Vesey to double the Rangers’ lead. (I saw some on social media argue that it was more a forward’s responsibility to cover for MacDonald up top once they see him come down, but which forward should be expected to do that in that case? Only Matt Read is in position to get back there in time, and he was in a better position to make a play on the puck deep in the zone than MacDonald was. Not to mention, MacDonald did have a chance to get back, only to outright lose a footrace to Puempel.)
Still, if Hakstol was OK with MacDonald in the lineup going into Friday, the game as a whole isn’t likely to change his mind. For one, MacDonald had one of his best offensive shifts in a Flyers uniform in the third period, when he carried the puck in around three or four Rangers, chipped the puck around them and won a race to it near the boards, and then tapped the puck in front of the net for Chris VandeVelde to tap it into the goal. And in addition, the goal against was the MacDonald/Gostisbehere pair’s only real glowing error on the day, as they both posted strong possession numbers on the game, even relative to the team. While I think that was more a product of Gostisbehere’s work than MacDonald’s, I don’t think Hakstol is going to see enough here to make a change in the lineup for Sunday.
#7: Laughton mistake on first goal highlights progress to make at center
Scott Laughton’s 2015-16 season was largely viewed as a disappointment by many fans and observers, but while his point totals weren’t quite where fans maybe wanted them to be, the thing that was even more disappointing was his work defensively. Laughton’s defensive zone performance was among the worst for all Flyers forwards, which was likely a key reason why the team mostly gave him minutes on the wing at the NHL level last year. Yet during his conditioning stint this year with the Phantoms, Laughton was used primarily as a center, and the results were positive enough that the Flyers have had him as their fourth-line center in the two games since his call-up.
Yet, despite the aforementioned good work by the fourth line offensively, the Rangers’ first goal showed that Laughton still has work to do when it comes to his own third of the ice. Under no immediate pressure, Laughton attempted to make a pass along the end boards, only to see it swallowed up immediately by J.T. Miller. Miller would then find Derek Stepan in front to open the scoring. It’s easy to say in hindsight, but Laughton had the time to make a safer and higher-upside play than the one he made there, and in this system the Flyers need their centers to be able to make those kinds of plays rather than the one that was made. Laughton’s shown some offensive promise in his time back with the Flyers, and they appear ready to give him a chance to prove himself on that front. But they also need to find out pretty soon what his position is going to be.
#8: Streit with a rough game
Brandon Manning didn’t play in the final 10 minutes of Friday’s game, and Ron Hextall said they’d have an update on his status today, which may mean that the team won’t even find itself in position to make any performance-based scratchings among its defensemen for Sunday’s game. But in a team that’s talked a lot about “accountability” and being in the business of winning hockey games, that doesn’t mean minutes can’t be moved around from/to players who deserve it, and Mark Streit was the guy who appeared to struggle his way through Sunday’s game more than any of the team’s other defensemen. His egregious turnover seconds before New York’s third goal looms largest here, as he tried to clear the puck to no one in particular only to set up the Rangers for a deflection in front. But he also had a few particularly brutal shifts in the third period, and the fact that he led the Flyers in giveaways on the day is something that no one who watched the game would find hard to believe.
On the whole, it would take a number of performances like this one before I’d advocate scratching Streit for either MacDonald or Nick Schultz with any sort of regularity. But if Gostisbehere can be healthy scratched, then Streit shouldn’t be 100 percent safe from facing the same fate, even if only for a game. And among the guys who seem to be locks to stay in the lineup, Streit is the one whose play may be most befitting of third-pair minutes at this point, which is a reasonable thing to say about a guy who turns 39 next month. Streit’s still an asset on the power play and in the offensive zone, but you may need to limit his overall exposure in some areas.
#9: Provorov was excellent yet again
Of course, if you want to limit Streit’s exposure, you’re going to need to change up the defensive pairings a bit, because right now one could somewhat easily make the case that the Flyers’ best defenseman is his defensive partner, Ivan Provorov. In a game played almost exclusively at 5-on-5, Provorov led the Flyers in ice time, and that’s a totally reasonable decision by Dave Hakstol since right now there’s not much Provorov doesn’t do well. Challenge in the neutral zone and make plays at the blue line to try and create entries? Check. Find lanes to get shots in on Lundqvist? That, too. Cover the dangerous areas in the defensive zone? That’s also working. From a raw numbers standpoint, Provorov had the best on-ice scoring chance differential of any Flyers player in this one, and it seems likely his role is only going to increase in the near future.
#10: Cousins at 2C experiment not working in the offensive zone
Nick Cousins was the player who was given the first crack at replacing Sean Couturier in the Flyers’ second-line center position, and he’s spent two games in that role alongside Wayne Simmonds and Travis Konecny, two of the Flyers’ best forwards this year. While that trio managed to be the only Flyers forward line that wasn’t on the ice for a goal against on Friday, the group was very quiet offensively, moreso than any of the team’s other lines. In fact, Konecny and Simmonds were also the Flyers’ only two forwards who weren’t on the ice for a single high-danger chance for, which shouldn’t happen in any game given Konecny’s speed and playmaking ability and Simmonds’ ability in front of the net. Some of this can be attributed to the fact that Konecny missed 17 minutes in the middle of the game due to penalties, but things didn’t improve much once he returned to the ice.
This was also the case in Wednesday’s loss to Tampa, and through two games the Flyers’ new second line has been just-OK in overall possession and hasn’t been able to generate much actual offense. Cousins has been a passable bottom-six center, but his first look in the top-six hasn’t been anything to write home about. (He’s also been wrecked in faceoffs, losing 80% of them in the past two games, and while I think faceoffs are overrated, the Flyers definitely care about them.) At the same time, the Flyers may not have an obvious 2C replacement in the short-term while they wait for Couturier to heal. If the Flyers want to reward Raffl for his aforementioned strong play without keeping him on the top line, he could get a shot to center the second line, also giving Cousins a chance to drop back to the bottom-6.