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Flyers 5, Flames 3: 10 things we learned from a rare comfortable win

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It felt like every win by the Flyers this season was going to have to come via an epic comeback or nailbiting one-goal margin. That wasn’t the case last night.

NHL: Calgary Flames at Philadelphia Flyers Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

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

#1: This was total domination

The Philadelphia Flyers have been far from a perfect team this season. Even in victory, there always seems to be multiple facets of their play to nitpick, whether it be scoring chance prevention, poor starts, underwhelming production from stars, or weak goals allowed by the netminders. All of the games have felt close, and primarily due to the team’s warts, the fans had yet to be treated to an old-fashioned blowout. That finally came last night against the Calgary Flames in a 5-3 win.

Despite falling behind early, the Flyers had control of this game throughout. All of the key statistical battles went their way — raw shot attempts, scoring chances, high-danger chances, and obviously goals. And for once, Philadelphia actually outperformed their raw totals after accounting for quality. Their score-adjusted Corsi was a strong 56.87%, but they absolutely blitzed Calgary in chances, winning 25-9 in regular ones and 15-4 in those of the most dangerous variety. As a result, they finished with a fantastic 65.27% xG percentage at 5v5, showing just how badly they gashed the Flames’ defense all game long. If anything, the 5-3 score actually undersold how well Philadelphia played, especially because two of the three Flames goals were shorthanded. During 5-on-5 situations, Calgary didn’t even look worthy of playing on the same rink at the Flyers on this night.

#2: Raw volume strategy slowly progressed to shot quality

Philadelphia didn’t start out the game by trying to force every pass into the low slot, however. In fact, over the first ten minutes, the entire team seemed to have taken a page out of the book of Radko Gudas’ “Shooting From Everywhere,” simply firing the puck immediately once in the offensive zone and then relentless pursuing missed shots or rebounds. The strategy worked, even if Flames goalie Chad Johnson stood tall early, because Calgary was ineffective in puck battles and races.

Seemingly emboldened by the weak resistance, the Flyers began to repeatedly challenge the heart of the the Calgary defense starting around the midpoint of the first period. That’s when the deluge of scoring chances really began, culminating with Michael Raffl’s goal off a perfect Jake Voracek feed from behind the net. It was a perfect example of the adjusted strategy — rather than rip an ineffective shot immediately after gaining the zone with possession, Voracek circled the net and waited for Raffl to position himself right in front of Johnson in a high-danger area. One pass later, and the Flyers had tied the score. Too often this season, Philadelphia has settled for perimeter shots in the offensive zone rather than attempt incisive passes, so it was especially encouraging to see them add “quality” to their volume as the game progressed.

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#3: Stolarz had a perfectly adequate debut

It’s always a pleasure to watch a rookie make his NHL debut in front of his entire family, and even moreso when that debut proves to be a success. After spending weeks with the big club last season but never receiving a start, Anthony Stolarz finally had his big moment last night and made sure that it counted, earning the victory and stopping 29 of 32 shots. It was a solid performance, especially for a team that has been lacking passable goaltending all too often this year.

At the same time, it would be doing a disservice to Stolarz’s development if we acted like he had an incredible game. Sure, he absolutely made some big saves (especially in the second period) and was fluid in moving from side-to-side, always a concern for a large netminder like Stolarz. But out of the three goals that he allowed, only Matthew Tkachuk’s power play tally was essentially unstoppable. Stolarz allowed a T.J. Brodie backhander to slip through his pads in the first, and then gave up a juicy rebound late that resulted in an Alex Chiasson tally.

This isn’t meant to be overly critical of Stolarz — he truly earned his victory. But he is still essentially a goalie prospect with room to improve. One win should not result in calls for Stolarz to move into a timeshare with Steve Mason, or necessitate a trade to clear a spot for him once Neuvirth is healthy. The Flyers have a promising young goalie with a ton of potential here — just be careful not to overrate him in the here and now due to Philadelphia’s current goalie issues.

#4: Michael Raffl deserves to be on the first line

One of the biggest problems for the Flyers over the past week has been the ineffectiveness of the team’s “top” line, especially now with Sean Couturier’s injury further weakening the top-six. Rather than split Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek up again after Couturier went down, Dave Hakstol chose to keep the two united, with Brayden Schenn functioning as the third forward. The results were underwhelming to say the least, with the line struggling merely to drive play in the right direction, let alone score. Things changed in the third period of Friday’s game, however, after Hakstol dropped Schenn to the bottom-six and replaced him with Michael Raffl. Immediately, the new trio began creating offensively at 5v5, and therefore it wasn’t a huge surprise to see the Raffl-Giroux-Voracek trio still together for last night’s game.

During the 2014-15 season, this was the primary first unit for the Flyers, so it’s not as if the line doesn’t have a history of success. Still, there’s a perception that Raffl should only be on the top unit as a last resort, considering his limitations as a scorer. I strongly disagree with that sentiment. My stance is that even if Raffl is more of a middle-six forward from a scoring standpoint, he drives play at a top-line level. And considering the fact that Giroux and Voracek are both impact offensive zone weapons, it’s more important to give them a linemate who helps them get there in the first place than one who struggles to do the “little things” right but scores more often.

Last night, Raffl was both the scorer and the play-driver, finishing second on the team with a 71.39% score-adjusted Corsi and potting the Flyers’ first goal of the night. One could argue that Voracek did the bulk of the work on the goal, but it was Raffl who knew to attack the net and look for a Voracek pass from behind Johnson. It’s that hockey IQ that makes Raffl a first line caliber player, as long as it’s in a support role.

#5: Calgary was a defensive disaster

The Flyers played a fantastic all-around game and deserve all the credit in the world for their performance. But it would be incomplete if I didn’t mention just how poor the Calgary Flames looked, especially in terms of defensive zone coverage. The Flyers have had their issues in preventing scoring chances in 2016-17, but they usually combine that with a tendency to outshoot the opposition. Calgary was both dominated from a raw volume standpoint and gashed for scoring chance after scoring chance. The concentration of Flyers shots right in front of goaltender Chad Johnson was astounding.

Calgary ices only about half of a good blueline corps on a nightly basis, but impact players like Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie seemed be blowing coverages just as often as Deryk Engelland and Dennis Wideman were. You had to feel bad for the goaltender Johnson, as the Flyers piled up a whopping 4.89 Expected Goals in all situations. He wasn’t incredible, but it’s not like he was allowing cheap tallies, either. He was just totally let down by his team defense. For once this season, the Flyers were the ones pinning that description on an opponent rather than watching it be stuck to them like glue.

#6: Voracek was the most physically dominant player on the ice

One of the special treats of being a Flyers writer over the past 5+ years has been the privilege of watching Jakub Voracek totally take over games, which by my unscientific count usually occurs about four or five times each season. Voracek has the advantage of being bigger, faster and stronger than the vast majority of NHL defensemen, and once every few months, everything is clicking for him on the ice and he looks like a future Hall of Fame forward for a night.

Last night against Calgary was one of those games, as Voracek was creating controlled zone entries at will, manhandling opponents in the corners, and constantly generating scoring chances. He set up Philadelphia’s first goal with a behind-the-net pass after blasting through all three zones and storming wide past a beleaguered Dennis Wideman. Then, he broke his own goalless drought with a little good luck, as an attempted pass on a Flyers power play bounced off Mark Giordano’s skate and past Johnson. That was the perfect karmic reward for Voracek’s stellar effort, which also saw him finish with a 61.29% score-adjusted Corsi and fire eight shot attempts at the Calgary net.

#7: Roman Lyubimov should not leave this lineup

Prior to last night’s game, Dave Hakstol flat out admitted that winger Roman Lyubimov had done nothing wrong to cause him to be removed from the lineup for over two weeks. Reading between the lines, it appeared that Hakstol was saying it was just a numbers game that was keeping Lyubimov in the press box, and that he fully expected the Russian forward to come out strong against Calgary. Boy, did he ever. Lyubimov scored one goal and earned a primary assist on a second, while driving play to the tune of a 64.55% score-adjusted Corsi For percentage.

It’s immediately obvious via the eye test as to what makes Lyubimov successful — he’s an absolutely relentless player. On the forecheck, he’s constantly attacking the puck, taking direct routes and always arriving in ill-humor. This results in extended zone time for his line and, at least so far this season, stellar advanced metrics. Both Voracek and Wayne Simmonds praised Lyubimov’s effort level after the game, with Voracek specifically calling Lyubimov “one of the hardest working guys I’ve ever seen.” I don’t see how you can remove a guy like that from your lineup.

#8: Flyers deliver solid third period with lead

Considering the fact that Philadelphia entered the final stanza with a three-goal cushion, it would have been understandable if their aggressiveness sagged a bit. After all, score effects are a real thing, and last year the Flyers under Hakstol had a propensity to get sucked into playing passive with a third period lead. Last night, however, Philadelphia had no intention of sitting back. From the start of the period, they continued to activate their defenseman while on the attack, and every time the Flames made a push, the Flyers answered.

In fact, Philadelphia actually won the raw 5v5 shot attempts battle in the third, 16-14, and generated more high-danger chances (4-2) as well. They may have been outscored 2-1 in the period, but the overall outcome never felt in doubt. If there’s one area where Hakstol’s team has seemingly improved from this year to last, its been in cutting down on the passive third period shells that plagued them in 2015-16.

#9: Second line missing Couturier’s offensive zone presence

With Sean Couturier on the shelf for at least a month, the Flyers have chosen to promote Nick Cousins to the role of second line center in his absence. It makes sense to a degree — Couturier functioned as the conservative, defensively-sound counterbalance to Travis Konecny’s freewheeling offensive zone play and Jakub Voracek’s regular treks up ice. Cousins’ biggest strength so far in the NHL has been his ability to facilitate defensive zone exits and push the play forward, regardless of forechecking pressure. The thought process is likely to have Cousins continue to do the “little things” (like Couturier did) while Konecny and now Wayne Simmonds create on the attack.

However, the unit is missing Couturier’s puck protection game significantly, and his play without the puck in the defensive zone as well. In fact, the trio were team’s only three forwards in the red from a score-adjusted play-driving standpoint, and all three came in under 40%. Cousins still gets knocked off the puck too easily in the offensive zone and isn’t fantastic in puck battles in his own end — two areas where Couturier excels. The line did score a goal last night, but it drew on Cousins’ strength, as he sprung Simmonds with a transition pass originating from (where else?) the defensive zone. That doesn’t solve the deeper issues with the unit. Unfortunately, I’m not sure what other options the Flyers have at 2C. Bellemare is a stretch at 3C, let alone in the top-six, Laughton just got benched, and Schenn has been a disaster this season at 5v5. This may simply be a problem with no good solution.

#10: Are shorthanded goals an issue?

With two more shorthanded goals allowed last night, the Flyers now lead the NHL with six permitted so far in 2016-17. That’s obviously not ideal, but the important question is whether this is more of a curiosity, or if it points to a larger, structural issue with the Philadelphia power play.

The good news is that from a shot and goal creation standpoint, the Flyers’ power play has been fantastic. It went 1-for-6 last night, and that actually qualifies as a bad game for the PP, since they held a 25.7% efficiency rating entering last night’s game. But could that same aggressiveness be leaving them open to shorthanded goals? I do think that Shayne Gostisbehere can be a bit cavalier with the puck on the PP, but his high-end offensive skillset more than makes up for the occasional turnover.

On this night, however, the shorties occurred with the top unit on the bench, as the second unit was victimized for Brodie’s tally and a makeshift line was at fault on Chiasson’s goal. It seems to me that the Philadelphia shorthanded goal “problem” is the result of three things: goalies missing on a few stoppable shots, using point men (Ghost, Streit) who can be prone to turnovers, and just plain bad luck. Out of the three reasons, only #2 is structural, and the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks there, especially with Gostisbehere. I lean towards the conclusion that the six shorthanded goals allowed this year aren’t worth worrying about too much, at least at this point.