Morning Observations is a feature where we break down the previous night's game with an analytical eye.
#1: A game where both teams deserved a point
In recent weeks, the Flyers have lost a number of games where they outplayed the opposition in terms of raw shots on goal and overall even strength play-driving metrics. Last night, they didn’t get taken to the cleaners, but by the advanced statistics, it was a perfectly even contest. Natural Stat Trick had the Red Wings slighly up in score-adjusted Corsi (50.08%), while Hockeystats.ca sided with the Flyers (50.01%). Detroit also had a slight edge in xG on Corsica (51.39%), but again, nothing dramatic. This was a game that went to overtime and a shootout for good reason — the two squads were basically evenly matched.
#2: Choppy game due to two aggressive neutral zone teams
Philadelphia has been involved in quite a few high-scoring, back-and-forth games so far this season, including Saturday’s loss to the Canadiens. This one felt more like the tight checking contests of the back half of the 2015-16 season, however. Both the Flyers and Red Wings favor aggressive play in the neutral zone, which can lead to dangerous rushes when coverages break down, but usually results in choppy play in the middle of the ice due to constant turnovers being forced.
That was the story of last night’s game at even strength. Sure, occasionally one squad would break the quagmire, like the speedy Andreas Athanasiou did to tie the game in the third period. But for the most part, this was a game filled with turnovers and lacking extended cycles or end-to-end rushes on the part of either side. That’s what happens when you have two teams trying to win the same way.
#3: Mason delivered a bounceback performance
The last time we saw Steve Mason in net for the Flyers, he was skating off the ice after allowing three goals (two especially bad ones) in the first period against the rival Pittsburgh Penguins. Dave Hakstol uncharacteristically called out Mason’s play in his post-game press conference, and since then it had been four straight games of Michal Neuvirth. But after a terrible performance against Montreal on Saturday, Neuvirth returned to the bench and Mason got another shot in net.
The start was shaky, to say the least. After the Flyers had taken a one-goal lead due to a Claude Giroux power play goal, Mason misplayed a turnover by Brandon Manning, failing on a cover attempt before getting turned around and later beaten by Tomas Tatar. It was the type of tally that Flyers goalies have been allowing far too often in the early season, one born of poor positioning and a momentary lapse. But Mason did not let that goal affect the rest of his game. He made a number of big saves in the second and third periods, only allowing Athanasiou’s breakaway goal. Corsica had Detroit with an all-situations Expected Goals total of 3.64 (not counting shootouts), and Mason outperformed that metric easily.
#4: Power play continues to be effective
The Flyers’ power play units have surged in effectiveness in recent weeks, and last night was no different. They were 1-for-2, courtesy of Giroux’s first period tally, but also succeeded in peppering Jimmy Howard with shot after shot attempt. In fact, in less than two minutes of ice time, the top unit ripped seven shot attempts at Howard, good for a Corsi For per 60 of 238.64, over double what the top power plays in the NHL average over a full season. Their problem last night was a lack of opportunities on the man advantage — a couple more power plays and this game probably doesn’t even make it to overtime considering how dangerous the Flyers’ top unit was looking.
#5: Strong early start wasted by defensive zone follies
There’s a strong case to be made that the Flyers were most effective in this game during the first six or seven minutes of the contest. They raced out to a 1-0 lead, and were dominating from a shot attempts standpoint (7-1) before a Brandon Manning turnover helped to cause Detroit’s first goal. From that moment through at least the end of the first period, the Flyers seemed to have a severe case of the yips in the defensive zone. It wasn’t one player who was most responsible, as everyone was in on the act. Manning’s made a few more mistakes, Ivan Provorov had a blind turnover on a zone exit, and even Shayne Gostisbehere gave up the puck twice on two of his patented “blast up ice right beside the goalie” breakout rushes. The result was that Philadelphia gave back all of their gains from a territorial standpoint, and actually lost the Corsi battle in the opening stanza by a 16-15 count.
#6: Brandon Manning’s play beginning to sag
One of the biggest surprises of the early season was the stellar play of Brandon Manning, who went from possible waiver candidate to key member of the blueline. His play with the puck took the biggest step up, as he was posting defensive zone exit metrics comparable to those of Shayne Gostisbehere and Ivan Provorov, both viewed as plus puck movers. However, his performance on Saturday night against Montreal was underwhelming, and last night it moved into the territory of disastrous.
It was his turnover that directly led to Detroit’s first goal, but that wasn’t Manning’s only mistake. He continued to struggle with the puck on his stick all game long, and finished with a poor 44.33% score-adjusted Corsi, coming in -12.80% relative to his teammates. Manning also was a mess in coverage, often cheating over to his partner’s side of the ice to directly attack the puck carrier even when his partner (usually Gudas) seemed to have to side covered. Manning showed real regression last night, and the Flyers can only hope he bounces back, or else they’ll have to turn to one of Nick Schultz or Andrew MacDonald (when healthy), and neither are particularly appetizing options.
#7: Gostisbehere-Del Zotto pairing continues to thrive
Shayne Gostisbehere received a great deal of criticism in the early season for what was perceived to be underwhelming play, specifically in the defensive zone. While that talk wasn’t totally unwarranted, it was fair to note that Gostisbehere’s strengths as a player never lay in d-zone coverage or winning puck battles along the boards. It was his ability to control the neutral zone and create in the offensive zone that made him such an effective defenseman in his rookie season. That’s why it never made much sense to pair him with players like Andrew MacDonald or Nick Schultz, whose offensive instincts are limited and whose plan on defensive is to concede zone entries and keep opposing forwards to the outside. Gostisbehere was never going to flourish alongside those types of defensemen.
Now, Ghost Bear is playing with Michael Del Zotto, who fits his preferred style far better. The result has been superior play-driving statistics and a far more dynamic-looking Shayne Gostisbehere. For the second straight game, Ghost’s Corsi metrics were in the black, as his finished with a strong 58.98% score-adjusted Corsi and was +18.66% relative to his teammates. He still made mistakes — those two defensive zone turnovers in the first period especially — but when playing an aggressive style in the offensive and neutral zones, he can overcome them. With Gostisbehere on the ice, the Flyers generated four high-danger chances and allowed just one, lending even more support to that claim.
#8: Couturier finally breaks his scoring slump
Sean Couturier didn’t have his strongest night. His Corsi For percentage was a mere 48.65%, far below his best games so far this season, and the Red Wings generated nine scoring chances with the shutdown center on the ice. But one great shift by he and his linemates resulted in Couturier finally adding to his goal totals, scoring right in front of the net in the dirty area. His offensive production had disappeared after a hot start, and even though he and his linemates were clearly driving play, the hope was that at some point, all of that offensive zone time would eventually turn into tangible points for Couturier. His underlying individual metrics remained strong (such as PSC/60), so it really was just a matter of time before he lit the lamp. Even in a loss, it’s good to see him break his cold streak.
#9: The Bellemare line is officially the fourth line
Over the few few weeks of the season, Dave Hakstol seemed dead-set on testing out Pierre-Edouard Bellemare as the team’s third line center. Granted, the forward corps was not fully healthy, but with other, better options on the roster, the insistence upon Bellemare as 3C was mystifying. But as they’ve moved into the second month of the season, it appears the 30-year old French forward is moving back to his past role as 4C on the depth chart.
Last night, his linemates were clearly behind the Raffl-Schenn-Weise line in terms of 5v5 time on ice, finishing with under nine minutes while Schenn and his unit easily cleared double digits. Bellemare line was actually fairly effective in that role, as Roman Lyubimov in particularly remained a demon on the forecheck. All of Bellemare, VandeVelde and Lyubimov finished with score-adjusted Corsi For percentages over 66%, a solid performance for the line in their limited minutes.
#10: Despite the outcome, this game doesn’t bode poorly for the Flyers
Obviously, you’d like the team to come away with a victory, especially against a Red Wings squad that they appear to have the talent edge over on paper. But to be clear — the biggest reason for Philadelphia’s early-season mediocrity has been goaltending, or a lack thereof. The fact that Steve Mason finally delivered an above-average performance for the team in net, without the skaters totally sacrificing the territorial advantage that had become their trademark over the first month of the season, is a good sign for Philadelphia moving forward. With two goalies both having delivered above-average results in the past, they just need one to steady himself in order to take full advantage of their strong offensive play and improving defensive results. While Mason will obviously have to prove he can string together multiple solid efforts, this was a good start.