Morning Observations is a feature where we break down the previous night's game with an analytical eye.
#1: Steve Mason basically the only reason the Flyers won
For all of the (justified) concern surrounding the play of the Philadelphia goaltending in general and Steve Mason’s play specifically so far this year, it seems only fair to note that last night was the second time in six appearances that saw Mason bail out a poor play-driving performance from the skaters. However, his performance against the Jets back on November 17th even paled in comparison to the game that Mason put forth against Boston.
For about a 45-minute span in the middle of the contest, the Flyers’ netminder was legitimately the only player doing anything right, aside from two good shifts in the first period that ended in Philadelphia goals. Other than that, the team was getting bulldozed on almost every 5-on-5 shift. Mason ended up facing 47 shots during regulation and overtime, stopping 45 of them. But let’s not stop there. Boston finished with 23 regular scoring chances, 12 high-danger chances, and 3.69 Expected Goals. But Mason would allow just two goals in 65 minutes, and then only one tally in the shootout on a whopping nine opportunities for the Bruins.
To a man, every Flyers player admitted that the team doesn’t win this game without Mason. He hasn’t been perfect over the past few weeks, but it would be tough to argue that he hasn’t put his spotty start to the season far behind him after this dominant showing. He’s up to an 0.898 overall save percentage on the year, and I’d expect that rate to keep rising in the weeks ahead. After the game, I asked Dave Hakstol what he believed changed in Mason’s game from the start of the year to now, and he had an interesting answer. “Oh, very little,” he said, before noting, “It’s not even a game of inches as a goaltender.” Essentially, he was saying that Mason wasn’t in need of some massive overhaul even when he was struggling mightily, but just little tweaks here and there to get back to his old self. He sure looked like it last night.
#2: Flyers were obliterated at 5-on-5
Philadelphia’s performance against the Calgary Flames on Sunday night was the team’s most complete 60-minute performance of the season, a domination on every level imaginable. So of course, as an encore, the Flyers went out last night and did the exact opposite. If you’re looking for a metric that didn’t have Philadelphia getting taken to the cleaners last night at 5-on-5, you’ll be scouring stat websites until puck drop of tomorrow’s game against the Senators. They finished with an awful 32.69% score-adjusted Corsi, lost the scoring chance battle 16-1, and watched Boston rack up 82.07% of the Expected Goals in the game. It was a shellacking.
Interestingly enough, the Flyers didn’t get off to a terrible start. In fact, they held their own over the first five minutes, until a few extended shifts in the Philadelphia end by Boston began to turn the tide. That trend basically held until Boston tied the game in the third, which sparked the Flyers to at least come close to breaking even with their opponent the rest of the way. But Philadelphia executed poorly for over two-thirds of the game, and most nights that’s not going to be enough to give you a victory. Steve Mason truly bailed them out here.
#3: Fair to note that the players and coach seem to get it
One thing that I noted while interviewing players during the Craig Berube era is that often there was a disconnect between what advanced metrics told us about how a team performed and the narratives coming from the players and coach after the game. For example, if the team spent the entire third period in their own zone protecting a lead and came away with a win, the mantra out of the locker room would have been that the final stanza was a success and that they really tightened up defensively in the end, not that they were buried under a deluge of shot attempts and maybe would have been better off trying to push the play more.
That’s not the case under Hakstol. It’s rare when the narrative presented by the stats fails to match what the players (or Hakstol himself) say after the game. Sure, this one was particularly easy, as it was obvious that the Flyers were dramatically outplayed. But each and every player noted dissatisfaction with the performance despite the win, and Hakstol specifically stated, “You take the two points, you move forward and take a look at ourselves and make sure we’re better the next night out,” making it very clear that this wasn’t a game for anyone (aside from Mason) to take pride in. I suspect he made similar comments directly to his club before the media was given access to the locker room, considering how the all of the players echoed his sentiment.
Truthfully, I’m not sure to what degree Hakstol and the coaching staff use analytics. I know from off-the-record conversations that the current front office is aware of them and has been open to their application in the recent past, but that’s about it. However, even if Hakstol isn’t checking Corsi charts period by period, it’s clear he has an intuitive understanding of what a winning process should look like. He’s understandably received criticism from fans this year (specifically for lineup choices), but that fact should be encouraging.
#4: Giroux breaks scoreless drought
Since Sunday’s comfortable victory over the Flames provided little to criticize, certain pockets of the fanbase moved to another favorite topic — fretting over Claude Giroux. After all, he hadn’t scored a goal since November 8th, and his even strength scoring rates have been more befitting a low-end third liner than the 1C that the Flyers expect him to be. So it was definitely encouraging to see Giroux halt his scoreless drought last night, blasting a power play goal past Tuukka Rask in the first period to extend his team’s lead to 2-0.
However, it was a power play goal, and no one has any real worries about Giroux’s PP prowess disappearing in the near future. The big concern in his 5v5 play, and like his teammates, Giroux wasn’t good in that regard last night, finishing with a 26.98% score-adjusted Corsi. However, I was enthused by one thing I saw from Giroux last night — it seemed like he was making an extra effort to carry the puck through the neutral zone and generate controlled zone entries. His drop from being a 60% Controlled Entry rate player to a sub-50% one has mirrored his decline in terms of 5v5 efficiency, and I can’t help but theorize that the two issues are connected. I believe that if Giroux can return to his attacking ways in the neutral zone, better scoring (and play-driving) at even strength will follow. It was nice to see him take a step in the right direction in that regard last night, regardless of the raw results.
#5: Boston played like the well-coached team that they are
The Bruins were missing Zdeno Chara and John-Michael Liles, two of their four most effective defensemen, but you wouldn’t have guessed that by looking at the 5v5 charts. Boston thrived despite the injuries using a method that the Flyers took full advantage of last season when they were trying to shelter a limited blueline corps — completely avoid spending time in the defensive zone due to an aggressive forecheck and tight neutral zone checking.
The goal is essentially to cut the ice in half, forcing the vast majority of play to occur on the opponent’s side of the red line. Offensive zone forechecking with two men below the red line was the standard, and the Bruins’ neutral zone defensive line was stationed dangerously close to the Philadelphia end, ready to gather zone exits that weren’t right on target. So far this season, Boston has been one of the NHL’s best play-driving squads at 5v5, and in watching last night’s game, it was easy to see why. Their execution was fantastic, despite being undermanned.
#6: Flyers actually matched up well with Bergeron line
The line of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak has arguably been the NHL’s most effective trio over the first quarter of the season. Bergeron is obviously elite, but Marchand established himself as a top-tier goal scorer last year to match his play-driving skills, and Pastrnak is clearly a future star. So in a game that saw the Flyers be butchered at 5v5, the Bergeron line had to be a driving force behind that, correct? Surprisingly, it wasn’t the case. In fact, Pastrnak, Marchand and Bergeron finished with -20.21%, -21.72% and -22.31% score-adjusted Corsi relative to their teammate rates respectively, and they all just barely finished above break-even on a night when the best-performing Bruins were over 80%.
It wasn’t as if the Flyers tried to hard line match, either. Giroux’s line got the most time against Bergeron, but Cousins, Bellemare and Schenn’s lines all faced them as well. In fact, it was the Cousins and Bellemare units that had the best shifts against Bergeron and company, which I certainly wouldn’t have predicted going into the game. Unfortunately, the dominant performance of the Boston second line (centered by David Krejci, long a Flyers killer) nullified the team’s decent play against the top unit, but preventing the Bruins’ top trio from running wild definitely made life a little easier for Steve Mason, at least.
#7: Gudas - Provorov pairing got buried
The pairing of Ivan Provorov and Radko Gudas was one that fans had wanted to see for quite a while. After all, both defensemen seem to be play-drivers, both have plus instincts in the neutral zone, and they bring a perfect lefty-righty handedness combination to boot. The pair showed real potential against Calgary, posting strong advanced metrics and looking great doing so, but they took a real step back last night.
The biggest problem was passing. You expect it from Gudas, who goes through stretches of being incapable of completing a tape-to-tape pass from time to time. But Provorov has been the blueline’s most accurate passer this season, and even he was making bad reads and even flat misfiring on feeds. The result was a 20.77% score-adjusted Corsi For percentage from Provorov and 18.84% from Gudas — both season-lows by far. One bad game certainly isn’t enough to give up on a pairing, especially because I don’t expect Provorov in particular to repeat his poor passing performance. But a couple more nights of poor results and it might be time to shake up the pairs again.
#8: Andrew MacDonald had a solid game
It’s not inaccurate to say that if Andrew MacDonald has a case to be considered one of your team’s best players on the night, then you probably didn’t deserve to win the game. However, that shouldn’t take away from the fact that MacDonald did truly play well, and it’s not even grading him on a curve because the rest of the team looked so bad. The 30-year defenseman was consistently making positive plays, whether it was timely clears of loose pucks from the crease area (this happened at least twice) or even defensive disruptions in the neutral zone. MacDonald also drew two Bruins penalties, the second of which was a borderline roughing penalty sold perfectly by the oft-criticized Flyers defenseman.
Now, one game doesn’t change the fact that Andrew MacDonald has been ineffective for Philadelphia during the 2016-17 season. But if we’re going to criticize him for poor performances, it’s only fair to praise him when he provides positive results for the Flyers. The numbers back it up as well — MacDonald led the defense in score-adjusted Corsi For percentage and was +28.32% relative to his teammates. With Brandon Manning dealing with a possible concussion and Nick Schultz little better by advanced stats than MacDonald, this isn’t time for fans to fret that one good game may blind the coaching staff to his obvious limitations. MacDonald is going to play for a bit, so you might as well root for more games like this one rather than scream for a benching.
#9: Raffl not at his best
Following the same line of thinking as the MacDonald praise despite my negative overall opinion of his play this season, I believe the reverse was true for Michael Raffl last night. I’ve advocated for Raffl to return to the top line with Claude Giroux, and while it wasn’t all bad for Raffl against the Bruins, he definitely looked like the “just a bottom-sixer” guy that his critics often accuse him of being. His worst moment came early, after he squandered a picture-perfect passing play by Giroux and Voracek by pushing the puck wide past an open net.
Raffl was also suffering from the same team-wide epidemic that sapped their effectiveness in puck battles, usually a key strength for the Austrian winger. When Raffl isn’t exerting his dominance down low, it’s pretty difficult for him to justify his spot up the lineup, simply because his whole role is that of support. If he’s not doing the little things, the high-end skill just isn’t there to make up for it. I still fully expect Raffl to bounce back, and he even seemed to improve as the game progressed, eventually setting up Bellemare for a rare Flyers scoring chance later in the game. But like with MacDonald, I feel like it’s important to note when usually-good players aren’t at their best, just to ensure I don’t travel down the road of personal bias overshadowing critical evaluation.
#10: Schenn not ready for promotion
Midway through last night’s game, Dave Hakstol apparently chose to move Brayden Schenn up from the “fourth” line alongside Chris VandeVelde and Roman Lyubimov to the pivot position flanked by Matt Read and Dale Weise, dropping Bellemare down to 4C. You could see where Hakstol was coming from — Schenn remains a scoring forward, and linemates like VandeVelde and Lyubimov aren’t exactly going to be making creative moves to get Schenn the puck in high-danger areas. Read and Weise bring a bit more skill to the table, and the hope was probably that they could drag Schenn to play-driving respectability as they’ve done with Bellemare.
But the trio delivered disastrous results. In fact, in over four minutes with Weise and Read, Schenn was not on the ice for even one Flyers shot attempt. More importantly, he directly helped to cause the ineptitude, consistently fumbling passes in all three zones and constantly turning over pucks. Again, I understand why Hakstol wants to give Schenn every chance in the world to move back up the lineup. But when you’re on the ice for a team-low three Flyers shot attempts over eight minutes of ice time, it’s tough to justify even a minor promotion.