Morning Observations is a feature where we break down the previous night's game with an analytical eye.
#1: Classic low-event Devils hockey game
Ever since the mid 90s, the New Jersey Devils have owned the same, distinct identity. Their whole strategy is to choke the life out of teams, and win low-scoring games that contained little in the way of shots or quality chances. The specific tactics in order to achieve that end have changed — their famed “neutral zone trap” can no longer be employed exactly as it was during the franchise’s heyday due to NHL rule changes — but the philosophy remains. Now, the Devils use a persistent offensive zone forecheck combined with a very high third forward to both slow down breakouts and clog up the neutral zone. The result is that the Devils remain one of the NHL’s true “low-event” hockey teams, and that showed last night.
In a little over 44 minutes at 5v5, the Flyers and Devils combined for just 53 shot attempts, with Philadelphia holding a slight 28-25 edge. For the Flyers, that’s a 37.79 Corsi For per 60, which isn’t just way below their season-average of 57.63, it’s also almost 12 shot attempts per 60 lower than the mark of the worst 5v5 shot creation team in hockey (Detroit). The Devils rank 28th in the NHL by this metric, so they are far more comfortable playing at this snail’s pace than the Flyers, who ranked 8th in the league coming into last night. Nothing was really working for Philadelphia — their breakouts were stifled by Jersey’s irritating pressure, speed through the neutral zone was nonexistent, and the team couldn’t seem to buy a puck battle while on the attack. They ended up holding their own in the 5v5 metrics (48.72% score-adjusted Corsi, 48.96% xG) but don’t be fooled. Philadelphia played the Devils’ game, and they looked ugly trying.
#2: Flyers also got sucked into extracurriculars in first period
The Philadelphia Flyers franchise will never shake the “Broad Street Bullies” reputation that was their calling card back in the 70s. But unlike the trapping Devils, the present-day Flyers have mostly shed that on-ice philosophy. As recently as four years ago, the Flyers used to ramp up the chippiness against more talented opponents to “bring them down to their level,” with the classic example being the 2012 playoff series against the Penguins. That’s changed. Sure, Wayne Simmonds is ridiculously tough, and Radko Gudas can go over the edge at times, but this isn’t a team that tries to intimidate their way to many victories anymore. If anything, now it’s other teams that try to get under the Flyers’ skin, and not the other way around. Last night, the Devils succeeded with flying colors in that regard during the opening twenty minutes.
After being called out by their GM in the media for lacking toughness on Wednesday, it wasn’t a huge surprise to see the Devils try to stir the pot early. More surprising was the Flyers’ willingness to engage against an inferior club even after falling behind 2-0 on the scoreboard. The fun was kicked off by Brandon Manning’s collision with Sergey Kalinin, which occurred with about six minutes left in the period and was almost certainly accidental. But the brawls started anyway, and by the end of the period, Philadelphia had lost Manning, Gudas, Claude Giroux and Wayne Simmonds all to time in the penalty box, when the team’s true focus should have been on overcoming an unlikely deficit. Instead, New Jersey was able to squeeze two power plays out of Philadelphia’s willingness to engage, and take key contributors off the ice at an important point of the game. The Flyers simply needed to be smarter.
#3: There was a second period push, but it didn’t last
To the Flyers’ credit, they did respond well out of the gate to start the second period, likely after being read the riot act from head coach Dave Hakstol. They ignored the Devils’ attempts to stir things up after the whistle and went on a 7-2 run in terms of 5v5 shot attempts over the period’s first seven minutes. Maybe the game would have even followed a different path had Michael Raffl been able to slip the puck past Corey Schneider during the surge, but the New Jersey netminder made a stellar save, barely preventing the puck from crossing the goal line with his glove.
The surge halted when Simmonds took a bad boarding penalty on Ben Lovejoy, and even though the Devils did not score on the power play, Philadelphia could not recapture their form from before the infraction. The second was still the best Flyers’ period in terms of 5v5 play-driving, but it was nowhere near enough to engineer a full-fledged comeback.
#4: Still, let’s not forget the stellar results of December
Momentum is a curious thing — not necessarily for NHL teams, who are filled with professional players trained to avoid getting too high after a win and too low following a loss, but for the fans. Because Philadelphia will not play another game until December 28th, it’s very easy to let this dismal performance cloud the prevailing view of the Flyers’ current status. However, we’re just two days removed from an impressive victory over a Stanley Cup favorite, and less than a week removed from a ten-game winning streak. Had the Devils and Capitals games been switched on the schedule and the same outcomes earned, my guess is that fans would be feeling far more optimistic about their favorite team while discussing sports around the Christmas dinner table than they will in two days.
Despite the recent losses to the Devils, Predators and Stars, the Flyers still hold a stellar 9-2-1 record during the month of December, and even if they drop both games of next week’s west coast trip, a 9-4-1 record is perfectly respectable. After you account for the fact that second-line center Sean Couturier missed the entire month, and play-driving winger Matt Read also was out for nine of the games, the record becomes even more impressive. This has been a ridiculously successful month for the Flyers, a month that saw them climb out of the conference basement and move solidly into playoff position. Let’s not lose sight of that.
#5: Gostisbehere one of the few standout Flyers
In a poorly-played game like this, it’s tough to praise any individual members of the team for their performance. However, Shayne Gostisbehere was maybe the only Philadelphia player to bring his “A” game, at least at even strength. On the rare occasions that the Flyers looked dangerous at all, Ghost always seemed to be on the ice, and it was no coincidence — Gostisbehere was the one putting the team in position to be on the attack in the first place. Only Ghost on the defense was regularly trying stretch passes to get around the Devils’ tight neutral zone checking, and he was also one of the few players on the team who was actually able to get his shot through to the net, finishing with four on goal (leading the Flyers).
The advanced metrics also liked Gostisbehere’s game, as he posted a defense-high 56.47% score-adjusted Corsi For percentage. But it wasn’t just Ghost’s play with the puck that stood out. He also was throwing his weight around, which is certainly not something you expect to see from the sub-200 pound Gostisbehere. Two hits stood out — a neutral zone standup of a Miles Wood rush, and then a depositing of Kyle Palmieri into the Devils’ bench. Surely, Gostisbehere can’t be expected to that on a regular basis, as his body likely wouldn’t be able to withstand the pounding. But I’m sure his teammates took notice that Ghost moved out of his comfort zone in an attempt to help his team engineer a comeback.
#6: Raffl injury is not good news
Around the midpoint of the second period, winger Michael Raffl disappeared from the Flyers’ bench without any obvious on-ice issue apparent to those watching the game on television. The initial assumption was that it was a minor bruise or even an equipment problem, but Raffl did not return for the rest of the period. At the start of the third, the Flyers announced that he had suffered a lower-body injury, and in unprecedented fashion, immediately announced his timeframe for return (1-2 weeks) prior to the game even ending.
The Flyers did get lucky from a timing standpoint. After all, if this timeline holds, Raffl may only miss two games, and at most would sit four, far from a devastating blow. Still, Philadelphia really needs to hope that one of Couturier or Read is ready to return on Tuesday. Since the start of the 2015-16 season, the three highest ranking Flyers forwards in Corsi For% RelTM are Read, Raffl, and Couturier, and now there’s a chance that all three could miss games against St. Louis and San Jose, two fantastic hockey teams. While the ten-game winning streak gives the Flyers some breathing room, you’d hate to see them fall right back onto the playoff bubble due to two straight losses next week. Absent their three best play-driving forwards at 5v5, that seems like a plausible outcome.
#7: Penalty kill lethargic and tentative
The Flyers have been on quite a run recently in terms of penalty kill efficiency, jumping all the way up to ninth in the league with an 83.0% efficiency rate. They did it by breaking up more entry attempts in the neutral zone, by pressuring the outside of opposing power play formations once they set up, and by receiving awesome goaltending from Steve Mason. Last night, however, the PK appeared to regress, allowing two goals on six opportunities. A poor goal-based outcome night can happen, and isn’t necessarily cause for alarm — power plays do have the inherent edge over penalty kills, and are going to beat even the best ones sometimes. More concerning was the poor defensive zone execution on the part of the skaters.
This season, the Flyers have adopted a “Czech Press” as their primary defensive zone penalty killing tactics. Also dubbed a “Triangle +1” by some, the point of the Czech Press is to use the high man in the PK formation to press down on the player on the half boards, forcing him to move down closer to red line or move the puck. The goal is to take away time and space from a power play, creating mistakes. Last night, the Flyers used their Czech Press, but it appeared half-hearted.
Rather than truly attack the half-boards forwards, Philadelphia seemed more interested in preventing a pass back to the defenseman up high rather than actually trying to force turnovers. It may have been intentional, but to my eyes, it looked more like the penalty killers were just playing more tentative than usual. Combined with poor work in clearing the crease, the shoddy execution of the Czech Press was a big reason why New Jersey’s power play was so successful.
#8: Little offensive creativity
Frankly, there wasn’t a zone of the ice where the Flyers looked especially impressive, but in order to finish a game with just 20 unblocked shot attempts in over 44 minutes of 5v5 play, it’s necessary to be really, really bad while on the attack. The Flyers have run into this issue before, due to the fact that much of their offensive zone structure stems from low-to-high passing and lots of point shots, which are inherently lower percentage shots. On Wednesday, the Capitals aggressively attacked the point men, trying to force dangerous turnovers, but instead only succeeded in giving Philadelphia free reign in the slot. The Devils, on the other hand, smothered everything.
Most of that was due to extremely poor decision-making on the part of the Flyers, and it started in the neutral zone. Even when Philadelphia would gain the zone with control, their passing leading up to that point was predictable, allowing the Devils to be set in perfect position for blocks. Cut off from immediate shooting lanes, Philadelphia tried to move around the perimeter with the eventual goal of getting to the slot, but their passing was inconsistent and their play in puck battles was worse. The result was repeated wasted zone entries and little in the way of dangerous attack time.
#9: Who replaces Raffl on the top line?
It doesn’t seem like Michael Raffl’s injury is too serious, but he still should miss at least two-to-four games, leaving a tough decision for Dave Hakstol. The top line has been flourishing since Raffl was added to the unit alongside Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek, and they noticeably struggled in the shifts after Raffl left the game. Especially if Sean Couturier cannot play next week (still a dicey proposition), Philadelphia will need impact performances from their best forwards in order to come out on top against teams like the Blues and Sharks.
So who is the best fit? Hakstol tried Dale Weise up there last night, and truthfully, the move wasn’t that ridiculous. After all, you’re looking for more of a support player with Giroux and Voracek, and Weise has driven play very well at 5v5 this year. However, Weise’s performance in the offensive zone has also been a straight-up mess, and I’m not sure that’s a player you want with your stars right now. For me, there are two good options. If they want to stack the top line with talent, the Flyers could elevate Travis Konecny to 1LW, which would certainly give them a spark of offensive firepower and creativity, no disrespect to Raffl. The other option would be Roman Lyubimov, who has excelled in a checking role this year. He doesn’t bring Raffl’s high-end hockey IQ to the table, but he could replicate the Austrian’s tenacious play in board battles.
#10: Smart move to start Mason?
Following the first period, starting goaltender Steve Mason was removed from the game in favor of Anthony Stolarz. At first, it appeared that Hakstol had made the switch with the intention of sparking his struggling squad, a tactic that head coaches around the league often employ. But following the conclusion of the game, it was announced that Mason was a little banged up in the first, and that’s why he was removed. That’s obviously the correct call — Mason has been one of the biggest causes of Philadelphia’s resurgence, and with the holiday break coming up, there was every reason to play it safe.
The bigger question is whether he should have been starting at all. Past research from Eric Tulsky held that starting a goaltender in both games of a back-to-back was setting that netminder up for failure. However, there is also evidence that in the years since, the negative impact has been far less obvious, so the issue is not cut-and-dry at this moment. Still, Mason did appear a bit out-of-sorts at the start of this game, and with Michal Neuvirth expected back from injury soon, this may have been the last opportunity to give Anthony Stolarz a start. At the same time, Mason struggled with rebounds early against the Capitals as well, and by the end of the game he was the Flyers’ best player, so maybe fatigue wasn’t affecting Mason at all. Personally, I probably would have went with Stolarz, but with the way that the Flyers’ skaters played last night, I’m not convinced that prime-age Dominik Hasek would have escaped North Jersey with a W anyway.