Morning Observations is a feature where we break down the previous night's game with an analytical eye.
#1: Flyers survived injuries, buried by breakdowns
A road matchup with the St. Louis Blues was never going to be an easy one for the Philadelphia Flyers, but current circumstances just added to the degree of difficulty. Michael Raffl’s injury right before Christmas forced Hakstol to go with a makeshift first line, Matt Read’s continued absence weakened the bottom-six, and Sean Couturier was expected to be eased back into the rotation after missing a month due to a knee injury. To add insult to injury, Nick Schultz checked back into the lineup to replace Brandon Manning, swapping in a “keep them to the outside” defenseman for a play-driver. The end result was a Flyers roster far from at its optimal point.
Regardless, the team put together a passable 5-on-5 performance. Philadelphia actually led in score-adjusted Corsi (53.34%), even if they were less impressive in Fenwick (45.34%) and Expected Goals (41.58%). Still, the Flyers hung close enough with the Blues to make victory a possibility, and after regaining the lead with a Brayden Schenn power play goal in the third period, the opportunity was there for the taking.
Instead, the rest of the third period was reminiscent of early season Flyers hockey, when every mistake ended up in the back of the net. St. Louis took just nine shots on goal in the period but scored on four of them, on two point shots that were deflected, one empty-net goal, and one complete defensive zone breakdown by the whole team. Some of it was bad luck (deflections aren’t easy), but on each of the goals, Philadelphia could have been more physical, won a puck battle, or been in better position overall. It’s not the loss that truly stings; it’s the manner in which the Flyers fell.
#2: Flyers again played opponent’s preferred style
Play did ramp up in the third period, but for the game’s first forty minutes, the Flyers and Blues played at a snail’s pace. Disruption was the name of the game, as the teams combined for just 19 shots on goal at 5-on-5 and 43 total shot attempts. The low-event style was far more conducive to the Blues’ preferences, as St. Louis actually averages just 104.58 total Corsi events per 60 from both clubs, second-lowest in the NHL. The Flyers, on the other hand, rank eighth in the league at 114.31. Essentially, Philadelphia prefers to trade shots and chances, while St. Louis wants to slow things down and win in a slog.
For the second straight game, the Flyers played right into their opponent’s hand. It’s not as if Philadelphia wants to struggle in creating shots, of course, but just like in their matchup versus the Devils (27th in the league in pace), they simply weren’t sharp enough in their passing to break through tight checking in the neutral and offensive zones. The injuries haven’t helped (Raffl and Read are two of the best play-drivers on the roster), but the healthy players simply need to execute better at 5v5 if the offense is to get going again. There’s certainly enough talent left to do so.
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#3: MacDonald struggled mightily
It’s no secret that Andrew MacDonald isn’t looked upon favorably by the internet-based Flyers fanbase. Part of the vitriol stems from his enormous contract, but most of the frustration is caused by his poor play-driving metrics at 5-on-5 and penchant for big mistakes defensively. To MacDonald’s credit, in recent weeks he had cut the glaring errors out of his performance, and the result was strong goal outcomes for the Flyers when MacDonald hit the ice. However, the play-driving problems remained, even as he moved up the lineup into a top pairing role alongside Ivan Provorov. Going into last night’s game, the pairing had delivered a Corsi For percentage around 40%, but a Goals For rate of 66.6%. The latter was due for a fall closer in line with the former, and that’s exactly what happened against the Blues.
If you spend so much time defending that you post a Corsi around 40%, mistakes are bound to occur eventually. MacDonald was hit with the devastating blast of regression last night, making error after error from the opening whistle. He was a turnover machine, failed in numerous attempts to clear the crease, and provided his usual passive neutral zone defense. MacDonald finished with a team-low 40.13% score-adjusted Corsi on the night, and was on the ice for four of St. Louis’ six goals. It was a disaster.
This game was an anomaly, in the sense that MacDonald hasn’t looked this sloppy since before Thanksgiving. But the poor play-driving rates are nothing new. That’s the inherent risk of playing such a passive style — more opportunities for mistakes to creep in. At the very least, MacDonald is overmatched receiving top-pair minutes (he was second in 5v5 TOI yesterday) and primarily facing top competition. Pulling back on his minutes and seeing if the performance improves as a result is a good place to start in trying to solve this obvious problem.
#4: Couturier not sheltered in return
When it was announced yesterday that Sean Couturier would officially return to the Flyers’ lineup, there was some concern regarding his role in his first game back. Rather than replace Brayden Schenn as the pivot between Travis Konecny and Wayne Simmonds, Couturier would instead center Dale Weise and Nick Cousins, on a line that had been used as the fourth in recent games. The prevailing theory was that Hakstol was planning to ease Couturier back into the lineup, giving him limited minutes until he proved he was physically capable of more. Well, Couturier quickly showcased the speed and physicality that makes him such a useful player and even strength, and Hakstol did not hold back on the minutes granted to his shutdown center.
Rather than move Couturier up in his lineup, Hakstol instead just elevated the whole line. Couturier finished with 13:30 minutes at 5-on-5, the third-most among Philadelphia forwards, with Weise and Cousins both receiving over 10. Couturier also received nine defensive zone faceoffs and just one offensive draw, showing that the coach had no qualms with putting the center back into a tough-minutes role. And while it wasn’t an especially flashy performance, Couturier’s metrics were strong, as he finished with a perfectly-fine 53.87% score-adjusted Corsi and 51.15% xG%. At least in terms of driving positive 5v5 outcomes, Couturier didn’t miss a beat.
#5: Top two centers drove play, other lines not so much
In the wake of the Couturier injury, the Flyers’ lack of high-end depth at the center position was severely tested. They tried everything at 2C — first Nick Cousins (too limited offensively), then Brayden Schenn (a mess defensively), before finally settling on Pierre-Edouard Bellemare as the best of a number of bad options. And to be sure, each had their moments. Bellemare was still receiving praise from the NBC commentators for his “shutdown” games in December, and the team was satisfied enough with Schenn’s play in between Konecny and Simmonds to keep that line together even with Couturier back. But let’s not kid ourselves — there are only two players on this roster capable of playing center at a high-end level in the NHL, and they are Claude Giroux and Sean Couturier.
As a result, it was no surprise to see Giroux and Couturier check in as the only Flyers centers to finish above water in terms of Corsi For percentage against Blues. Giroux led the way, posting strong Corsi and xG percentages (59.09%/57.37%) with Couturier close behind. Schenn and Bellemare, on the other hand, were buried especially in xG, with the former posting a poor 34.09% and Bellemare somehow finishing at 0.00% in limited minutes. The 2C replacements may have done their best with Couturier out, but the master of the role has returned, and there’s no reason to pretend otherwise.
#6: Bellemare line relegated to fourth line duties
The biggest adjustment from a line usage standpoint came in how Hakstol chose to deploy the trio of Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Chris VandeVelde and Roman Lyubimov. While Brayden Schenn has been given the 2C designation by many in the media, the time on ice numbers didn’t lie — it was Bellemare and company that was truly the Flyers’ second line over the past few weeks. As a result, it was a surprise to see them dropped not only below Couturier’s line in terms of TOI, but Schenn’s line as well. In fact, none of the trio received even seven minutes of 5-on-5 ice time, with Lyubimov the trailer at 4:36.
Maybe the demotion shouldn’t be too surprising, though. After all, Bellemare’s line was getting heavy minutes primarily because of their role as a shutdown unit tasked with directly matching an opponent’s first or second line. With Couturier back, they no longer need to take up that mantle. However, Hakstol still wants scorers like Simmonds and Konecny on the ice at 5v5, so that leaves Bellemare’s unit as the one on the bottom of the depth chart. Truthfully, it’s a good sign for the future, even if the top-nine probably could use some additional shuffling.
#7: Penalty kill struggled, Blues attacked it perfectly
After an especially dominant stretch by the Philadelphia penalty kill, it’s struggled in recent games, allowing two goals against the Devils last week and two more last night versus St. Louis. But often, it’s not merely poor penalty killing that results in goals against. In many cases, the opposing power play is simply executing their gameplan to perfection, with a prior knowledge of the PK’s tendencies. That’s exactly what happened last night.
Take the first goal, for example. The Flyers run a Czech Press defensive zone strategy in the defensive zone, which mandates that the high forward (or F1) put constant pressure on the outer edges of the PP formation, and trades off with the slightly lower forward (F2) if the puck is moved to the other side. In this case, Chris VandeVelde pressured Kevin Shattenkirk who dished the puck down to Steen, which should result in F2 (Bellemare) quickly switching to attack Steen. However, Jaden Schwartz set a pick in the middle of the ice, blocking Bellemare from rushing to challenge Steen as he should have done.
Given time and space, Steen moved into the slot before passing back to Shattenkirk, who now was facing a collapsing PK formation in chaos, and he didn’t miss on his golden opportunity. That’s not to say it couldn’t have been played better by Philadelphia — Bellemare should be more aware of his surroundings and take a better route, or Provorov needs to step up and create puck pressure himself — but it’s important to note the impeccable play design on the part of the Blues. Sometimes, you just have to tip your cap.
#8: Power play struggled, then robbed, then came through
You have to give the Philadelphia top power play unit credit — they sure seem to have a short memory. After two disastrous opportunities in the second period that saw the PP seemingly allow more chances than they created, the unit quarterbacked by Giroux and Gostisbehere came out firing during their first chance in the third. In fact, they should have scored about a minute before they actually did, and were only thwarted by some bad luck. Simmonds was able to knock a loose puck that was under the elevated pads of Carter Hutton, but the referee in back of the net could only see that it was seemingly covered by the pads and blew the play dead. But the Flyers weren’t to be denied, and eventually Schenn scored on a slick zone entry and backhand pass courtesy of Gostisbehere.
On the whole, it wasn’t a great night in terms of process for the Flyers’ top unit — they generated just 67.62 shot attempts per 60, far below their season average. But the strong performance in the third period does give some hope that they may be coming out of their recent slump.
#9: Was it a bad game by Mason?
It’s easy to look at the raw stats and wince when glancing at Steve Mason’s 0.792 save percentage from last night’s game. However, when breaking down each of the goals, Mason’s performance looks far more acceptable. On each, Mason was either screened (first, second and fifth goals) or victim of a perfect deflection (third and fourth). Those circumstances aren’t going to be properly captured by a statistic like xG, which had Mason as only being “expected” to allow 2.07 in all situations. Instead, this was more like many of the early season performances by Mason, where he maybe could have came up with a big save at some point, but on the whole was more a victim of poor defensive zone coverage and some unfortunate bounces.
#10: Flyers actually did a great job on Tarasenko
After two straight 35+ goal seasons, Vladimir Tarasenko has rightfully established himself as one of the NHL’s most dangerous forwards. So in a game that saw the Blues rack up six goals, Tarasenko was obviously a key part of the offense, no? As it turns out, the Flyers must be commended for their stellar work in neutralizing Tarsenko, even if they struggled against the rest of the St. Louis roster. In 12:52 minutes at 5-on-5, the Russian sniper finished with a 29.14% score-adjusted Corsi, and was on the ice for just one Blues scoring chance. In addition, Tarasenko had just one shot attempt all game long, which missed the net.
He received the bulk of his minutes against the Giroux and Couturier lines, and Tarasenko was essentially stymied, earning just one secondary assist on a power play tally. Generally speaking, if you erase an opponent’s best player from the equation, you’re likely to win the game. That didn’t happen last night, but Philadelphia’s successful efforts against Vladimir Tarasenko should still be praised. It’s not an easy task to slow him down.