It may not be perfect hockey, but it’s clearly winning hockey.
The Philadelphia Flyers entered Wednesday night’s game against the lowly Colorado Avalanche with a chance to win their tenth straight, a feat that the franchise had not pulled off since 1985. Facing off against one of the NHL’s worst clubs — both in the standings and by advanced metrics — a win seemed if not inevitable, at least expected. And for 50 minutes, the Flyers delivered on that promise, carrying play and racing out to a 4-2 lead. But the Avalanche stormed back, with a Matt Duchene goal and a late charge nearly sending the game to overtime. Philadelphia somehow withstood the barrage, however, and came away with the 4-3 victory.
It was methodical, but largely unthreatening territorial dominance from the Flyers over the game’s first twenty minutes. Generating shot attempts was not the problem — they racked up 19 of them — but they were mostly held to the perimeter. Colorado wasn’t creating anything, period, so it was a solid period for Philadelphia, but they couldn’t break through with a goal. Instead, the score was 0-0, with the feeling that they had taken play to the Avs the only consolation for the Flyers.
The scoreless tie would not survive the second period, which was everything that the first period wasn’t — frantic, eventful, and full of offense. The Flyers kicked things off just four minutes in, as Claude Giroux settled a Voracek pass with his skate, kicked it to his stick blade and then fed Michael Del Zotto with a beautiful cross-ice pass of his own. Del Zotto could not score on his first look, but recovered to bat the rebound out of midair and past Calvin Pickard to give his team their first lead of the game. With the Flyers carrying play at 5v5 and grabbing the first goal against an inferior team, it looked like they were primed to roll the rest of the way.
Colorado wasn’t about to let that happen. After a strong power play by the Avs filled with consistent pressure, they finally cashed in. Rene Bourque earned the tally on a quick turnaround shot right after a Colorado faceoff win. It wasn’t the best look for Steve Mason, who had just made his biggest save of the night on the preceding power play. Back to being deadlocked with their opponent, the Flyers went right back to pushing play, but a Nathan MacKinnon neutral zone rush that saw him leave Brandon Manning in the dust eventually led to Colorado taking the lead. An extended attack in the offensive zone resulted in Mason giving up a big rebound into the slot, which Matt Duchene would recover and promptly deposit into the net. Just like that, the Avs were in the lead, and the Flyers were staring down the end of their winning streak.
Philadelphia needed a pushback, and they got it in the form of power forward Wayne Simmonds. Stretching out to gather a Radko Gudas pass, Simmonds earned himself a mini-breakaway and found room between the pads of Pickard to tie things up yet again. It was Simmonds’ team-leading 16th goal, reaching half of his total from the entirety of the 2015-16 season before the end of the 2016 calendar year. Pierre-Edouard Bellemare nearly followed up Simmonds’ tally with one of his own just minutes later, but his deflection of a Shayne Gostisbehere point shot was later overturned by video review due to a high stick. Still, the Flyers entered the locker room having stabilized the contest, and would have at least 20 minutes to try and continue their winning streak.
Still, not many would have pegged Roman Lyubimov as the player who would send the Flyers on their way to a victory. But the checking forward broke the tie, blasting a loose puck in the slot past Pickard to put the Flyers back in front. It was a reward for an aggressive, physical performance by Lyubimov, who had given the Avalanche fits on the forecheck all night long. Just two minutes later, Brayden Schenn would continue his goal-scoring roll from the weekend, replicating Raffl’s power move to the net to give the Flyers their largest lead of the night.
Of course, the Flyers couldn’t just salt away the game with no drama. Instead, Colorado took full control of the pace of the contest with around ten minutes left, as Philadelphia resorted to short shifts, uncontrolled dump-out exits from the defensive zone, and “keep ‘em to the outside” rush coverage to hold their lead. The latter tactic finally bit them with about five minutes remaining, as Matt Duchene took advantage of especially passive rush coverage from Michael Del Zotto to cut the Avs’ deficit to just one. From then on, the Flyers were simply hanging on for dear life, especially after Pickard went to the bench for an extra attacker. But Colorado simply could not find a way to beat Mason one last time, and Philadelphia came away with the streak-extending victory.
- Things may have gotten a bit dicey late, but the Flyers were clearly the better team through the game’s first two periods, and even up to the midpoint of the third. They still came out on top in the 5v5 advanced metrics, such as score-adjusted Corsi (52.72%), SA-Fenwick (51.66%) and xG (53.57%). Because of the poor finish, it wasn’t total domination, but Philadelphia was the better team on the whole last night, and deserved the win.
- Still, that defensive shell in the second half of the third period was straight out of Hakstol’s playbook from last season. Uncontrolled exits, quick line changes that neutered the team’s forecheck, and every defenseman playing like Andrew MacDonald in the neutral zone is not a good formula to hold a lead. They were coming off a two-day break, so it’s tough to use the “they’re tired!” excuse. This was just an example of a team sitting back and nearly paying the price for the strategy.
- Claude Giroux’s line received about two-thirds of their minutes at 5v5 against the Nathan MacKinnon line, the second straight game that saw the Flyers go “best against best” rather than chase a matchup of the Bellemare line against top units. It’s definitely harder to line match on the road, but a coach can still pull it off to a degree, since the majority of shifts occur on-the-fly anyway. On the whole, Giroux’s line was okay against MacKinnon and company, falling in the Corsi battle (42.34% score-adjusted), even if a large chunk of Colorado’s volume came late when the Flyers turtled.
- Roman Lyubimov got cheated out of the game-winning goal due to the team’s late shell, but his goal did feel especially well-earned. He was a demon on the forecheck all game long, and a perfect example of that preceded his tally, helping to keep the play alive in the offensive zone prior to receiving a golden opportunity in the form of a loose puck in the slot. Lyubimov’s 71.42% score-adjusted Corsi on the night actually led the team. He sure seems like an above-average NHL fourth liner.
- Yet again, Shayne Gostisbehere found himself near the top of the Corsi charts, finishing with a defense-high 64.95% score-adjusted rate. Ghost hasn’t toned down the aggressiveness at all, at least defensively. He’s still disrupting rushes and cutting off passes, and I’d argue he’s actually been more comfortable this year in keeping the cycle game alive via smart offensive zone pinches. He’s maybe not scoring goals like last year, but Gostisbehere is doing the little things right, and his team is all the better for it.
- In a sense, I love the concept of “sticking up for a teammate,” but the way players start fights after a vicious but clean hit always rubs me the wrong way. Gabriel Landeskog’s collision with Michael Raffl may have been a crushing blow, but it wasn’t especially late nor was it high. It was just a perfectly-timed, painful hockey hit. Jakub Voracek of course had to defend Raffl, and got a five-minute major for his trouble. I don’t fault Voracek, as the response has become a prerequisite to prove that you truly care about your teammates. I just disagree with the concept entirely. Clean hits shouldn’t require a fight, nor should they result in a team’s star player having to leave the ice for 5+ minutes.
- Ivan Provorov’s advanced metrics are taking a dive, and it’s not a big shock considering his current circumstances. Not only is the 19-year old facing top lines in a large portion of his minutes (7:49 of his 16:37 minutes of total 5v5 ice time came against Landeskog), he’s also doing so alongside Andrew MacDonald, a consistent Corsi deflator. Provorov is facing top competition with one of the worst play-driving defensemen in the NHL at 5v5. At least when Ghost was paired with MacDonald, he was getting matchups worthy of a second pair blueliner. Provorov posted a 27.68% score-adjusted Corsi last night, and these poor rates will likely continue so long as the status quo remains the same.
- Brayden Schenn scored his fifth goal in three games, but most encouraging to me was that his line drove play for the second time in three games as well. Schenn lagged a bit compared to his linemates, but he still finished with a decent 51.74% score-adjusted Corsi, and was break-even (+0.75%) relative to his teammates. For Schenn, a passable play-driving game with a goal is exactly what you’re hoping for from him.