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Flyers 4, Stars 2: 10 things we learned from another late comeback

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After a poor first period, the Flyers looked primed for their first loss in two weeks. But a late power play surge was enough to earn them their eighth straight victory.

Chicago Blackhawks v Philadelphia Flyers Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

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

#1: Power play won this game for Philadelphia

The Flyers are far from a perfect hockey team. Still in the middle of a roster retooling period, this is a squad with a limited defense, a work-in-progress bottom-six, and a tendency to allow far too many high quality scoring chances. But they’re not without strengths as well, and leading that list is a lethal power play. It’s mostly the personnel — Claude Giroux, Wayne Simmonds and Shayne Gostisbehere all rate among the best PP contributors in the league — but their 1-3-1 offensive zone structure fits perfectly with the talent on hand as well. As a result, there are some games where the power play (which is now ranked first in the NHL with a 25.0% efficiency rate) can carry the team to a win, and that’s exactly what happened against the Stars.

At 5v5, the Flyers were nothing special, as they narrowly lost the raw shot volume battle (46.13% score-adjusted Corsi) and got beat handily in xG (33.49%). But in six opportunities with the man advantage, Philadelphia scored three times, including two power play goals in the final four minutes of the game. Interestingly enough, it’s not like the Flyers were peppering Stars goalie Kari Lehtonen with shots — their 105.68 Corsi For per 60 and 6.89 xG For per 60 are solidly above-average shot creation numbers, but far from eye popping. Instead, they did it with by changing things up a bit strategically, leaning on the Voracek-to-Schenn combination rather than the usual Giroux-Ghost-Simmonds triumvirate. When an elite passing winger and one who scored 11 PP goals last year are your secondary options on the top unit, you know you’ve got a great power play on your hands, and the Flyers reminded us of that yesterday.

#2: Still, they stabilized things at 5v5 in final 40 minutes

Dallas’ big edge in the 5-on-5 metrics yesterday came entirely due to their play over the game’s first 20 minutes. To be precise, it was mostly the final 16 minutes of the first period, because the Flyers actually did get off to a pretty sharp start. But after watching the Flyers buzz in their first few shifts, the Stars took over control of the stanza, winning the overall shot attempts battle 19-7 and leading in scoring chances 9-3. Philadelphia was consistently pinned in their own zone, and couldn’t create much of anything offensively, aside from a Schenn power play tally. It was setting up to be a repeat of the Florida game on Tuesday, which saw the Flyers get butchered territorially but survive due to a stellar game from Steve Mason.

However, Philadelphia regrouped in the second. It’s not like they ever started to look especially dangerous on the attack (creating just four high-danger chances the rest of the way) but they tightened things up defensively, turning the high-flying Stars into a choppy, undisciplined mess. The Flyers won the 5v5 attempts battle 28-19 through game’s final 40 minutes, led in scoring chances, and drew four penalties The massive edge that Dallas racked up in the first period still gave them the advantage overall in the score-adjusted play-driving metrics, but the Flyers controlled longer stretches of this game than did the Stars.

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#3: Brayden Schenn had himself a game

A quick glance of the statistics of Brayden Schenn prior to yesterday’s victory over the Stars wouldn’t necessarily lead one to believe that something was wrong with his play. After all, 16 points in 26 games is a 50-point pace over an 82 game season, which would be Schenn’s second-best scoring performance of his NHL career. However, this was a case where the raw numbers didn’t tell the story. Schenn has struggled mightily this season during 5v5 situations, and as a result, Dave Hakstol has moved him all around the lineup in desperate attempts to finally get him going.

Yesterday afternoon, Schenn was undeniably the hero, scoring three goals including the game-winner with just 2:15 left. But it’s fair to note that all three tallies came on the power play, a situation where few have argued that Schenn does not excel. Power play goals are obviously pivotal to a team’s success, but productivity with the man advantage hasn’t been Schenn’s issue. His big problem has been horrific play-driving and scoring results at even strength. That’s why it was just as encouraging to see his strong results at 5v5, as his line led the entire team in score-adjusted Corsi, with the Konecny-Schenn-Simmonds trio all finishing above 60%. Schenn might be on a 57-point 82-game pace now, but 68.4% of his points have come on the power play, and it’s hard to imagine he’ll finish with close to 40 PP points. He needs to produce more at 5v5 to meet overall expectations, and hopefully yesterday was the start of a turnaround there.

#4: Jakub Voracek is elite

One of the most infuriating narratives that arose last year (and lingered into the offseason) was that Jakub Voracek was merely a decent player, getting paid like a superstar because of one really good season. The talk came from everywhere — Flyers message boards, comment sections, even rival fans (Japers Rink, for example, ranked him behind Simmonds in their evaluation of the best RWs in the division).

The talk spread to hockey lifers in the game, as well. I heard one story a few months back of a scout claiming that Voracek was a “$4 million dollar a year player, that’s it,” which ignored that even in Jake’s season from hell, his 55-point-in-73-games rate bettered that of Phil Kessel in 2015-16 (who Japers’ Rink ranked #1 in the division, by the way). Voracek shot 1.41 percent on the power play, played the final month of the season on a broken foot, and even spent a few weeks trying to drag Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Chris VandeVelde to even strength respectability, yet he still produced like a top-line winger on the whole. A bounceback season in 2016-17 wasn’t just possible — it was expected.

Voracek has met the challenge. With 32 points, he currently sits second on the NHL scoring charts behind only Connor McDavid. He’s driving play (+1.2% CF%RelTM), contributing on the PP (two goals, 11 assists), and is tied for the NHL lead with 27 primary points. In fact, since 2012, Voracek ranks fifth among wingers in total points with 276 in 315 games, behind only Patrick Kane, Alex Ovechkin, Phil Kessel and Joe Pavelski. The fact is, Jakub Voracek is worth every penny of his $8.25 million cap hit. Funny how one “just-okay” season can make people forget that.

#5: Poor defensive zone play caused early issues

The Flyers’ first period struggles yesterday can be traced back to one area — the defensive zone. Far too often, Philadelphia was getting pinned in their own end due to a particularly effective Dallas cycle game, usually for shifts at a time. The result of heavy offensive zone pressure is that fatigue makes it tougher to execute on clean defensive zone exits. Sometimes, you’ll see defensemen just chip the puck out to the neutral zone and then race off for a much-needed change, but just as often, the trapped team will make a conscious attempt to link up enough passes to cleanly exit the zone, but just can’t execute. That’s exactly what happened to the Flyers.

The best part about an effective cycle and offensive zone forecheck is that it can trap opponents into an endless sequence of defending. If a team can’t pass the puck effectively from the defensive zone into the neutral zone, their opponent will simply re-gather a loose puck in the middle of the ice, push it back into the attacking end, and go right back to work. Then, fatigue sets in, exits become even harder to execute, and the process continues. That’s how the Flyers ended up with a 24.82% score-adjusted Corsi in the first period. But once they finally broke out of the death spiral with a few strong forechecking shifts of their own, the game became far more even.

#6: Surprisingly a low event game

So far this season, both the Philadelphia Flyers and Dallas Stars have established themselves as what can be called “high-event” teams. Essentially, that means that their games tend to include a lot of shots for, and a lot of shots against. Dallas ranks seventh in the NHL in total 5v5 in-game shot attempts per 60 minutes at 116.97, and the Flyers are right behind in eighth (115.3). But instead of getting an action-packed Saturday afternoon game, the fans saw something of a slog. In a little over 43 minutes at 5-on-5, the teams combined for 73 shot attempts, or 101.81 total attempts per 60. For reference, the team with the lowest “pace” this season is Winnipeg at 103.46.

So how did the two teams get bogged down? To start, it was a tight checking game, especially in the neutral zone. Once the Flyers got over their early defensive zone issues, they were able to make life difficult for the Stars to move through the middle of the ice. Most of Philadelphia’s issues came in the offensive zone, however. On a number of occasions, the Giroux and Bellemare lines were able to spend entire shifts on the attack but generated little in the way of tangible shots. Usually a weak defensive club, Dallas did a great job of keeping Philadelphia out of the high-danger areas, allowing the Flyers just 1.01 Expected Goals at 5v5. Rather than the sprint we expected, Philadelphia and Dallas instead gave us a grind-it-out battle, and only the Flyers’ stellar power play could regularly break the gridlock.

#7: Bellemare line again used as shutdown line

For the third straight game, the unit of Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Chris VandeVelde and Roman Lyubimov were given the responsibility of containing the opponent’s top line. In this case, it was the feared Benn-Seguin-Spezza trio, who Bellemare faced for about nine of his 12 even strength minutes. They got off to a horrid start, and were one of the worst offenders in the first period in terms of failing to generate controlled zone exits. But like the rest of the team, they did stabilize over the final 40 minutes. The raw percentages aren’t especially impressive — Bellemare had a 35.71% Corsi against Seguin — but they did hold Dallas’ stars to just nine shot attempts for (and zero high-danger chances) in nine minutes. Ideally, you’d want the shutdown line to actually outplay the competition, but slowing them offensively isn’t an awful outcome, either.

#8: Provorov - MacDonald pairing struggled as well

The bigger problem than the Bellemare line was the performance of the new shutdown pairing of Ivan Provorov and Andrew MacDonald. Despite solid results in recent games, yesterday both the rookie (25.84% score-adjusted Corsi) and the veteran (30.73%) struggled mightily in terms of results. Neither had many “obviously-bad” plays, and Provorov even nearly scored at the tail end of a PP. But they just spent the whole game defending, and had serious trouble in the defensive zone containing the Stars’ cycle game and forcing changes of possession.

Watching Andrew MacDonald post solid results over the past week has been a treat. But the truth is, this is a player who has delivered some of the worst 5v5 play-driving statistics among NHL defensemen over the past four seasons. It was always unlikely that he would be able to keep this up, especially getting usage befitting a first-pair defenseman. After a strong start, the Provorov-MacDonald pairing now has a Corsi For percentage of 43%, which is about what you’d expect from a rookie and a third-pair talent at best. MacDonald is coming back to earth, and I hope that Dave Hakstol recognizes that and quickly gets his prized rookie away from him soon.

#9: Giroux with a strong passing performance

The Flyers’ top line wasn’t at its best yesterday, finishing with a 40% Corsi For percentage when all of Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek and Michael Raffl were on the ice together at even strength. But Giroux found a way to still finish with a solid 50.18% score-adjusted Corsi, due to a few extra shifts away from his usual linemates that saw the Flyers take play to the Stars. Giroux had an odd game — he missed on a few golden shooting opportunities, but his passing game was on point. Both on the power play and at 5v5, Giroux was consistently sending high-difficulty passes to his teammates and truthfully, his advanced metrics are a little deflated because the recipients of those passes often did little with them. It was satisfying to see Giroux finally earn a primary assist on Voracek’s empty net goal, because he could have gotten one much earlier if some breaks went his way.

#10: Odd game for Gostisbehere

Just like last season, there’s been a disconnect between the general consensus of Shayne Gostisbehere’s play and the story that advanced metrics tell. In 2015-16, Gostisbehere was a highlight reel machine, but by 5v5 play-driving metrics, he was nothing special. There were legitimate explanations for that discrepancy (extended time with Andrew MacDonald, a deflated Offensive Zone Score) but it couldn’t be ignored entirely. This year, Gostisbehere has been criticized for turnovers, supposedly lacking the “burst” from 2015-16, and declined scoring at 5v5. However, his play-driving metrics have went through the roof. In fact, his +6.0% CF%RelTM not only leads the Flyers defense, but ranks fifth in the entire NHL. Good things are happening with Ghost Bear on the ice.

It was a similar story yesterday. Gostisbehere killed it in on-ice metrics, posting a defense-high 62.85% score-adjusted Corsi and an incredible 92.23% xG percentage. However, he also took a slapshot to the hand in the second period, spent some time in the locker room, and then was removed from the top power play unit late, possibly due to aftereffects of the bone bruise. The success of the PP late with Ghost on the bench and a couple turnovers that occurred following the injury may have some observers thinking this was another underwhelming game from the sophomore. But don’t be fooled.