Morning Observations is a feature where we break down the previous night's game with an analytical eye.
#1: Flyers flipped their shot volume/quality script
Yesterday, I wrote an article breaking down the Flyers’ tendency so far this season to win the shot volume battle at 5v5 but lose in overall shot quality. Their score-adjusted Corsi For percentage ranked in the league’s top 10, while their Expected Goals percentage was closer to the league’s basement. Of course, in their first game after the article’s publication, Philadelphia went out and lost the shot attempts battle while holding the edge in xG.
The Flyers had their moments from a volume standpoint, specifically in the second period when they doubled up the Red Wings in shot attempts in a furious attempt to erase a two-goal deficit. But after adjusting for score effects, Detroit got the better of play at 5v5 on the whole last night, holding the Flyers to a 48.51% score-adjusted Corsi. However, the Flyers had a solid edge when adjusting those shots for quality, winning the 5v5 xG battle 2.1 - 1.5, or a 58.33% SA-xG percentage. So what changed last night? Primarily, they avoided the scrambling defensive zone shifts that had become common occurrences in the early season. Sure, there were a few rough moments (such as Matt Read’s early breakout pass back into the low slot), but this was a more defensively-sound team than we’ve seen in over a week, at least.
#2: Only drove play while behind, though
If there was one concerning aspect of this win, it was the fact that the Flyers only played their best when they were behind on the scoreboard. The first period was a sloppy affair, and Hakstol himself even noted that the team’s start was lacking. But once the second period started, the Flyers were playing their preferred style — disruptive in the neutral zone, winning puck battles in the offensive zone, and blasting away at the goaltender. That kept up until around the four minute mark of the third period, coincidentally right after Roman Lyubimov tied the game. With the score now 2-2, Detroit almost immediately retook control of the pace of the contest, racking up 10 shot attempts in less than three minutes and capping it off with a Zetterberg goal.
That’s the main reason why Philadelphia fell short in the score-adjusted shot attempt metrics — they only dominated during situations when they would be expected to dominate (while trailing). On equal footing, the Red Wings looked the better team. I do believe that the Flyers are more talented than Detroit at this point (even with Del Zotto and Raffl out of the lineup), so it’s a bit frustrating that they needed the extra pick-me-up of a deficit to bring that out of them last night.
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#3: First period a classic example of the 2016-17 Flyers
The Flyers may not have gotten out to a great start in this one, but it wasn’t like the Red Wings were leaving them in the dust. Philadelphia’s execution (specifically in the middle of ice) was in need of some improvement, but all in all, they were hanging tough with Detroit in all facets of the game. Then, as it has so often so far this season, bad luck struck. A harmless-looking shot from the point deflected off Jakub Voracek’s stick in the slot and redirected past Michal Neuvirth to give the Red Wings the early lead. It’s tough to blame Neuvirth on the play; it’s also tough to blame Voracek or the defense. It was just a bad luck bounce that put the Flyers in an early hole.
Just 16 seconds later, we got to see the other two elements that have characterized Philadelphia’s start to the season — breakdowns and poor goaltending. This particular breakdown came courtesy of Mark Streit, and actually occurred in the offensive zone, as he pinched halfway down the boards to try and keep a cycle going. The pinch itself wasn’t the problem — it’s a key aspect of the Flyers’ system — but the timing of the pinch. In a 2-1-2 forecheck, when the defenseman pinches down the boards, the high forward (the “1” in the 2-1-2) is expected to replace him up top. In this case, however, Travis Konecny was not high enough in the zone when Streit chose to pinch, increasing the risk of Streit’s maneuver. The veteran needed to be aware of the positioning of his teammates before he made his move.
That mistake led to an odd-man rush, which the Flyers defended about as well as possible, giving Neuvirth a clear look at Andreas Athanasiou and the ability to cut down his angle. Instead, Neuvirth let the Detroit winger beat him to the short side, another example of a Flyers mistake immediately ending up in the back of the net. Just like that, it was 2-0, without Philadelphia even playing that poorly on the whole.
#4: For the second straight game, Neuvirth was just good enough
The hard truth for a goalie is that when it comes to stats like save percentage, the difference between a great night and a bad night is often just one single mistake. Last night, Michal Neuvirth faced 25 shots and stopped 22 of them, for a poor 0.880 overall save percentage. Of course, one more save and he finishes at 92 percent, an above-average night for an NHL netminder. It’s especially perfect in this case for Neuvirth because two of the goals that he allowed were essentially unstoppable. The first came on the bizarre deflection from Voracek, and the second (or third of the night) was the result of a perfectly-executed Detroit two-on-one.
That, of course, leaves the second Red Wings goal as the one that turned Neuvirth’s night from “potentially-great” to “kind of poor.” And to be fair, it wasn’t an easy shot to stop, as Athanasiou comes in isolated on the rush since Ivan Provorov chose to cut off a possible pass. Still, with Neuvirth being able to square up the shooter and cut down on the angle, you do hope to see your goalie make the big stop there. To Neuvirth’s credit, that was the only “bad” goal he gave up last night, and he did come away with his second straight victory. That may even be enough to earn him the start tonight versus the Islanders. But his numbers still look ugly (0.865 save percentage on the season), and will probably continue to do so until Neuvirth (or Mason) can go a few games while avoiding any goals against that resemble Detroit’s second one last night.
#5: Line shuffling weakened top unit
Following a disastrous first period in terms of outcomes, Dave Hakstol chose to shuffle his lines to start the second stanza. The major shift came in the form of Brayden Schenn moving to the “fourth” line with Nick Cousins and Chris VandeVelde, while Dale Weise was elevated to replace Schenn on the top unit. For Schenn, the move actually worked out, as he ended up creating a rare VandeVelde tally with a beautiful pass across the offensive zone. Weise, on the other hand, was far less successful with Claude Giroux and Wayne Simmonds.
It’s not hard to see why Ron Hextall targeted Dale Weise in the offseason. He’s a big body who appears to be effective on the forecheck and in front of the net, who also bringing some speed and scoring touch. You can even envision him functioning as the “unsung hero” of a skill line, winning puck battles in all three zones and clearing space for his more talented linemates. But I’m not sure I understand the thought process behind moving him to a line that already contains Simmonds, who basically possesses a much more effective version of Weise’s skillset. The result was Giroux being forced to carry the play-driving load almost entirely on his own, making it no surprise that the “first” line just barely finished with its head above a 50% Corsi with Weise. Hopefully, this “Weise on the top line” move was just a case of Hakstol searching for a spark and not a sign of things to come.
#6: To my eyes, Provorov had a very effective game
Ivan Provorov was one of the few Flyers who really struggled in Sunday evening’s victory over the Carolina Hurricanes, as he played a role in two goals against. It wasn’t quite as noticeable as his struggles in Chicago earlier in the year, but Provorov looked tired and panicky in Carolina, a major shift from his usual calm and controlled on-ice demeanor. His performance last night was far more successful, as the rookie again showed the ability to bounce back from a tough game.
The numbers back up the claim that Provorov played well. He finished with a team-high 68% score-adjusted Corsi, and was on the ice for three Flyers high-danger chances at 5v5 and just one by the Red Wings. However, according to those watching the national broadcast of the game, former GM and current TV analyst Mike Milbury criticized Provorov for his handling of Athanasiou’s goal. In Milbury’s opinion, Provorov should have challenged Athanasiou rather than cut off the passing lane as he did. In my opinion, however, Provorov played the rush well, limiting the Detroit forward’s options and putting his goalie in a manageable situation. Just because Neuvirth flubbed the ensuing shot does not mean that Provorov’s decision was necessarily wrong.
Curious as to whether I was looking at the play incorrectly, I asked Hakstol after the game if Provorov had made the right move in his eyes. But the Flyers’ head coach simply referred to the play in team terms, stating, “We just got caught on a speed play, bottom line. We got spread out.” Whether that means that Hakstol would have preferred his rookie defenseman to challenge Athanasiou, or if he just wanted to avoid throwing anyone else (such as Streit or Neuvirth) under the bus is a matter of personal opinion.
#7: MacDonald legitimately had a good game
There’s no two ways around it — Andrew MacDonald’s play had turned into a full-blown disaster last week. After two straight poor defensive games against Buffalo and Arizona, the Flyers scratched MacDonald for Saturday’s battle with the Penguins, only to bring him back into the lineup a day later against the Hurricanes. However, in the two games since his return, the beleaguered defenseman has so far avoided the “big mistakes” that had fans vehemently calling for his ouster from the lineup.
His performance against Carolina was more “not awful” than “actually good!” but last night’s performance fell closer to the latter description. MacDonald made a number of solid plays in the defensive zone at 5v5, and was even active on the cycle. In fact, it was his smart delay at the point that opened up a shooting lane on Lyubimov’s game-tying goal, for which he justly received a primary assist. It wasn’t all good, of course — MacDonald remained passive in the neutral zone and his gap control was (as usual) the worst on the defense. He also was oddly used in the first shift of overtime yet again and didn’t look particularly impressive in the role. But if MacDonald can be decent in both the offensive and defensive zones at 5v5 like he was last night (his 54.29% Corsi For was perfectly average), he can get by as a #6 defenseman at the NHL level.
#8: Lyubimov scored his first NHL goal
Aside from Brandon Manning, one of the pleasant surprises of the Flyers’ early season has been the quick transition of Roman Lyubimov to the NHL level from the KHL. So far, he’s exhibited signs of being a real play-driver in North America at 5v5, and has quickly climbed the lineup to the point where he is now playing on the nominal third line with Bellemare and Read. Last night, he was rewarded with his first NHL goal, collecting an Andrew MacDonald rebound and depositing it past Petr Mrazek to tie the game in the third period.
Following the game, I asked Hakstol how Lyubimov has been able to transition to the NHL so efficiently this year. The Flyers’ coach specifically praised the Russian for “his absolute attention to detail and his tireless work ethic, those two things. [Lyubimov] does not miss a detail in terms of systems and his work ethic.” It’s interesting to compare Lyubimov to Evgeny Medvedev, another KHL transplant who failed to earn the trust of Hakstol last year and spent most of the final two months of the season in the press box. My guess is that the difference between the two is that Lyubimov is playing exactly the way Hakstol wants, according to his preferred system, while Medvedev often liked to freelance, frustrating coaches. Whatever the reason, the Flyers sure seem satisfied with their newest KHL import.
#9: Schenn hit on Smith more dumb than dirty
Late in the second period, Brayden Schenn collided with Detroit defenseman Brendan Smith high in the Red Wings’ offensive zone. At first glance, the hit looked terrible — Schenn left his feet and made contact with Smith’s head despite the defenseman not being in control of the puck. Considering the amount of boxes of illegality checked off and Schenn’s previous record with DoPS, it appeared that a long suspension might be in the cards.
But the more you looked at the hit, the stranger it seemed that Schenn would intentionally target Smith’s head on the play. Upon repeated viewings, it looked more that Schenn was trying to “jump-cut” around Smith and accidentally clipped him in the head in the process. After the game, Schenn clarified to the media that was the case, and that he had apologized to Smith early in the third period. Schenn also noted that he talked to two officials after that play, and each one viewed it as an unintentional hit. In addition, Smith himself apparently agreed with Schenn, as the Flyers forward relayed their third period conversation in which Smith said that after watching the replay at intermission, it looked like an accident to him as well. Even if you consider this a reckless play by Schenn, I doubt there is any supplementary discipline forthcoming here.
#10: Gudas - Manning pair finally struggled a bit
For the first time this season, a pairing with Radko Gudas actually struggled in terms of driving play. While the Provorov-Streit and MacDonald-Gostisbehere duos both finished above 50% on the Corsi charts, Gudas and Brandon Manning were pasted to the score-adjusted tune of 38.40% and 40.91%, respectively. The pairing had been successful due to especially strong neutral zone play, but last night their defensive zone passing proved to be a weakness, and their usual strengths weren’t at their best, either.
Zetterberg’s goal, in fact, came following a Gudas turnover in the middle of the ice. In Gudas’ defense, it looked like he was the victim of an uncalled obstruction by Detroit immediately prior to the turnover, but the scoreboard is unforgiving. It’s fair to grant the Gudas pair one poor game after four straight strong ones, but the hope is that this is just a slight blip and not a sign that opponents are starting to learn how to attack Gudas and his partner.