#1: This was a golden opportunity wasted
While it was fun to watch with the rest of the world and laugh at Montreal on Friday night, as they took the biggest single-game beatdown that many of us have ever seen in an NHL game before, the truth was that this game was always going to be tough for the Flyers, for one obvious reason: Carey Price. Price is probably the best goalie in hockey, and if you’re listing the top five reasons why the Canadiens were 9-1-1, he’s probably three or four of them. He entered last night with a borderline-unfair save percentage to date of .964, and no team had scored more than two goals on him in any of the six games he’d played in (all wins). Cracking him right now is not just difficult, it’s almost impossible, and last night, the Flyers were tasked with finding a way to do it anyways.
Naturally, then, they did do it. Price made his fair share of good saves, particularly in a second and third period where the Flyers tested him 29 times. But they’d get four shots past Price, through a combination of great work in front of the net and Price just not being at the top of his game (Chris VandeVelde’s goal in the first period, for instance, is one you’d expect Price to stop almost every time, even granting that VandeVelde probably surprised literally everyone watching with how quickly he got that shot off). In a season so far where Price has looked every bit like the Vezina winner he was in his last healthy season, the Flyers caught him on a night where he was human. This is not a luxury that most teams get, and to come out of it with no points in the standings is a very, very bitter pill to swallow.
#2: If not for careless errors, Flyers still played well enough to deserve a win
It’s hard to get too upset with the team for not taking advantage of the favorable situation it created for itself, though, because for the most part they played well enough to win this game. The Flyers outshot the Canadiens 38-17 in total. They won the shot attempt battle 70-45 overall and 51-41 at even strength, with a score-adjusted 5-on-5 Corsi-For of 55.41 percent (via). And via Corsica.hockey, the Flyers outperformed Montreal in expected goals, by a count of 2.97 - 2.21 overall and 1.81 - 1.75 at 5-on-5 (not to mention, that’s with Montreal receiving about 0.4 of their xG on the night from Phillip Danault’s third-period goal, which was far more on Michal Neuvirth than it was on the team’s skaters). It wasn’t a perfect performance, but most who watched would likely come away agreeing that the guys in orange controlled play better than the guys in red.
So why’d they lose? You can point to two factors here: goaltending and careless errors. We’ll get to the former in just a second, but here, let’s lament the latter. With the exception of Montreal’s third goal, which came on a rush chance that the Flyers just didn’t get back for in time, every Montreal goal came after some sort of error that is just going to make you bang your head against a wall. A poor clearing attempt by Sean Couturier, a similarly poor attempt by Shayne Gostisbehere, a puck-handling gaffe by Neuvirth, and a Montreal clear that wrapped around the boards and past Jakub Voracek’s stick all the way down to the offensive zone were the catalysts on Montreal’s other four goals on the night. That these mistakes came from players who (other than Neuvirth) all had excellent games is frustrating enough; that the Flyers would’ve come away from the night with at least a point had any one of them not happened makes this all that much tougher to accept.
#3: Neuvirth, in possible bid to grab the starting job, fell way short
The easiest way to interpret the fact that Dave Hakstol elected to give Michal Neuvirth the start in Saturday’s game, which was his fourth straight start (including his third in four days) and fifth straight appearance, is that Hakstol was simply riding the “hot hand”. Neuvirth has started in three wins in a row and wasn’t egregiously bad in any of them, so no need to mess with what’s been working. Still, the decision to give Neuvirth this many appearances in a row is a bit eye-opening, and suggests that Hakstol (who, as our own Charlie O’Connor has pointed out this week, was vocally frustrated with Steve Mason following his appearance against Pittsburgh last weekend) is OK with giving Neuvirth a long chance at trying to win the “starter” role in the Flyers’ goalie duo.
Unfortunately, the decision didn’t work out quite the way Hakstol was hoping. While Neuvirth isn’t the only reason the Flyers lost this game (see point #2), the fact is you’re not going to win many games (any games?) in which your goalie lets in every fourth shot that he faces. The circumstances were tough, between defensive zone turnovers, arguable goaltender interferences, and rush chances for Montreal. But at some point, you just need to see your goalie make a save, and though Neuvirth did have some good ones, one more really would’ve helped. And go figure that, through all of that, Neuvirth’s worst moment of the night had almost nothing to do with his own goaltending, and was instead the puckhandling error that gave Danault a tap-in. Whatever Hakstol’s justification was for giving Neuvirth his fourth straight start, it’s hard to think that it’ll be enough to give him a fifth one on Tuesday against Detroit.
#4: There’s one thing the defense can try to fix to help him, though
With all of that said, there’s one trend that has reared its head a lot for the Flyers this year that is a thorn in any goalie’s side, and we saw it come into play twice last night in the first period. On Montreal’s first goal, the puck bounced off of the glove of Ivan Provorov as he was jostling with Montreal’s David Desharnais in front of the net, and from there the puck changed direction just enough to pop over Michal Neuvirth’s glove and into the goal. (Now, this was probably also a case of goaltender interference that should’ve been called, but if the puck doesn’t change direction off of Provorov, it may not matter.) On the second goal, a scramble in front of the net led to a wall being formed in front of Neuvirth, who had absolutely no clue that Greg Pateryn was shooting a puck until the second it whizzed past him on the blocker side.
Neither of those are perfect examples of the point I’m about to make here, but how many times this year have we seen a long shot by a Flyers opponent change direction right in front of the goaltender off of a Flyers player and end up in the net? Or how many times have we seen a defenseman standing right in front of his own goalie, providing more or less a perfect screen for the other team to work around? Few things can throw a goalie’s game off quite like getting in front of him to block a shot and then not doing it, and we’ve seen moments like that burn the Flyers too many times already this season. It’s simple, yet so important: either block the shot or get out of the way. Hopefully Provorov — who, it seems, has had his fair share of these moments already in his young career — has fewer of them as the season goes on and he and the goalies get more familiar with one another’s tendencies.
#5: Shayne Gostisbehere might have a defensive partner now
Since February 13, 2016, Shayne Gostisbehere has spent most of his even-strength ice time with either Andrew MacDonald or Nick Schultz, the team’s defensemen with its least impressive 5-on-5 performances. Of course, that date was the day Michael Del Zotto played his final game of the 2015-16 NHL season, and last night was the night Del Zotto played his first game of the 2016-17 season due to an injury that took him out for the first few weeks of the year. Del Zotto slid right into Schultz’s place in the lineup next to Gostisbehere, bumping Schultz to the press box (while MacDonald remains out with an injury). For the first time in nine months, Gostisbehere was playing next to a legitimate top-4 NHL defenseman, and he played like it.
Gostisbehere (+23/-10 in 5-on-5 shot attempts) and Del Zotto (+23/-8) were easily the Flyers’ best pairing in terms of driving play. While it’s fair to note that much of the pair’s ice time came against Montreal’s bottom-6, there was a lot to like here, as Gostisbehere — who also picked up the Flyers’ second goal of the night — no longer had to take on almost all of his pairing’s puck-handling responsibilities and also skated with a partner who can play aggressive hockey in the neutral zone. The pair wasn’t without its warts in the defensive zone — Gostisbehere’s failed clear led to the scramble before Montreal’s second goal — but all in all, the pair didn’t give Dave Hakstol any reason to break them apart.
#6: The Konecny line — that’s what it was — was strong yet again
Many, many words have been spilled in this space already this year about the excellence of the Travis Konecny - Sean Couturier - Jakub Voracek line in most games, and here we’ll be spilling a few more on them. While the goal-based numbers may not be flattering, thanks to Couturier’s mishap on Montreal’s first goal and due to their being on the ice for Neuvirth’s blooper in the third, this was another game where that trio generated a ton of zone time and chances. All three members of the line were at least plus-10 in 5-on-5 shot attempts, making them the only three forwards on the night that finished with positive possession numbers relative to the rest of the team.
Still, the trio’s best player of the night was by far the rookie winger. While Konecny’s only point came on a power play deflection in the third, the man was a maven with the puck on his stick. He showed outstanding speed through the neutral zone on several occasions, generating what looked like at least half a dozen controlled entries to set up chances. Perhaps most impressive was his work about 15 seconds before Gostisbehere’s first-period goal, where he split two Canadiens in the neutral zone and created a breakaway for himself. While he muffed the shot on Price, the ensuing chaos as Montreal attempted to recover gave the Flyers an opening, which they’d pounce on to take a short-lived lead. We already know Travis Konecny can score points in the NHL at a respectable rate, and that alone puts a decent floor on what he’ll become as a player. If he’s able to make a habit of skating like he did last night, then his ceiling in this league is going to be extremely high.
#7: Mixed results for Raffl on Giroux’s line so far
When Michael Raffl made his way back into the lineup this past Thursday, he was placed not in the bottom-6 where he’d been before his injury but instead on the Claude Giroux line next to the captain and Wayne Simmonds. Brayden Schenn’s had a very up-and-down start to his season while mostly playing in that very spot, and in putting Raffl there, Hakstols’ hope was likely that Raffl would provide a strong dose of puck possession and two-way prowess that Schenn, a more offensively-oriented player, may not bring to the table. It’s a reasonable thing to try — after all, the Flyers tried a similar line last year with Schenn in Simmonds’ place, and the trio actually fared well for itself. But the thing is that to justify sticking with it, Raffl and Giroux need to both be posting strong possession numbers.
Through these two games, when Raffl and Giroux are both on the ice, the Flyers are +19/-17 (52.8 percent) in even-strength shot attempts. That’s a solid performance in a vacuum, but it’s fair to ask if we should be expecting a bit more here, particularly considering that a) the line, both by the numbers and the eye test, hasn’t generated much high-quality offense in that time, and that b) the Flyers themselves have collected 57.6 percent of all of the even-strength shot attempts in the past two games. Raffl has shown he can be a really good support player on a top-6 line, and odds are that with a few more games we’ll start to see the play-driving success we’re used to from him and the captain. But Hakstol will likely have an eye on how his “top” line does on Tuesday against Detroit.
#8: The bottom-6 had an actual third and fourth line
On Thursday in Brooklyn, the Flyers’ bottom-6 consisted of two lines that were both a sort of hybrid of middle-6 players and fourth-liners. Among other oddities, this led to Brayden Schenn (he of 59 points last season) skating alongside Chris VandeVelde (a career fourth-liner). The bottom-6 has already taken a lot of twists and turns this season, and with Michael Raffl back in the lineup, it was bound to take another one.
Last night, though, it took a somewhat more reasonable turn. Hakstol broke the two lines into a more clear hierarchy, with an obvious No. 3 line (Schenn centering Matt Read and Dale Weise) and No. 4 line (VandeVelde on Pierre-Edouard Bellemare’s left wing, with Roman Lyubimov on the right). While this came at the expense of the fourth line’s ice time — each of its members were around 7 minutes of 5-on-5 time, after each received around 10 on Thursday — the Schenn line looked like a solid group. After seeing two near-interchangeable bottom-6 lines for much of the year, it’d be something if the best combo the team could find consisted of an actual third and fourth line.
#9: The Manning/Gudas pair struggled in its own zone
Radko Gudas and Brandon Manning have been two of the most pleasant surprises of the Flyers’ season so far, and to say that they’ve made up the Flyers’ best pairing this season would be a pretty reasonable claim. Still, it’s easy to forget that Gudas and Manning are both guys whose successes tend to come in the two zones of the ice that aren’t their own, and every once in a while that leads to a game like the one they had last night. Both of them seemed jittery with and without the puck in the defensive zone, and while the official stats don’t credit either of the two with a giveaway on the night, I have a feeling that watching the game a bit closer would lead to those figures being questioned a bit.
Manning’s game in particular was an interesting one. Montreal seemed to have no issue with going after him as he tried to handle the puck, and the same in-game numbers had him down as being hit by Montreal in his own zone at least five times during the game. Now, being hit repeatedly isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As the adage goes: if you’re getting hit a lot, it’s because you have the puck a lot. But this didn’t appear to be a game where Manning was just getting hit after starting the play up-ice, and the fact that Manning (+15/-17 in 5-on-5 attempts) and Gudas (+12/-18) were the team’s two worst possession defensemen last night lends credence to that idea. (It is, though, fair to note that they saw more time than anyone else against Shea Weber and against Montreal’s top line.) Whatever the cause, the Manning/Gudas pairing has been good enough this year that it should get a chance to bounce back.
#10: PP was very strong yet again
What made the bad-luck hop past Voracek’s stick that led to a short-handed goal so frustrating was that it came after what had been yet another very strong night for the Flyers’ man-advantage. In 8:29 on the evening, they’d fire 10 shots on goal and 16 total attempts at Carey Price, with two of them — one a Giroux shot with some help from a perfect Simmonds screen, the other a Travis Konecny deflection in front of Price — finding their way to the twine. There was little to complain about in terms of puck movement and passing/receiving last night, as there’s been for much of this season. So far this year, the Flyers’ power play has looked much more like the unit that was one of the NHL’s best from 2011-15 than the one that was just OK in 2015-16. If they’re able to keep that up, it could go a long way.