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Flyers 3, Blackhawks 1: 10 things we learned from a winning streak continued

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After a disappointing start to the season, it looks like the Flyers are finally hitting their stride.

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: This felt like the Flyers’ formula for success

Here at BSH, we talk a lot about things like “sustainable process” and “underlying metrics” with the aim of evaluating players and teams. A win is great in the moment and a loss is miserable, but depending upon the team’s overall performance, the outcome of an individual game matters very little in determining whether the team will win the next game. This is the way great coaches view things (check Mike Babcock’s comments last night for proof) and the way that the analytics movement (at its best) approaches games.

That’s why it’s especially nice when a team both gets the process and the result. Yesterday, the Flyers pulled away for a 3-1 win in a game that stopped feeling close midway through the second period. That’s because Philadelphia never lost control territorially, even after opening a lead. Their score-adjusted Corsi by period was 55.51%, 54.85%, and 52.20% — a slight downward trend, but never once losing their edge over the Blackhawks. The Flyers controlled play throughout, and more than any other reason, that’s why they got the win.

However, that’s not to say the Flyers played a perfect game. Chicago racked up a number of high-quality chances, and actually led in xG percentage at 57.62%. For a while, I expected Philadelphia’s xG to regress towards their strong Corsi For rates, and to a degree, it has. But I’m now leaning towards the possibility that this team will always give back some of their territorial dominance due to allowing quality chances. Part of it may be systemic, but my guess is that it’s a personnel issue on the backend more than anything, as their defensemen either have a history of in-zone coverage issues, is a teenager, or just aren’t very good period.

The Flyers can make up for that inherent weakness in two ways: by continuing to win the raw volume battle, and by receiving above-average goaltending to mask the breakdowns. Going into the year, there was every reason to believe that Steve Mason would deliver that level of performance, and even though he started slow, he appears back in form. So now you have a team with strong neutral zone tactics that allows them to generally win the territorial battle, and good goaltending. That legitimately can be enough to win them a lot of games, even if the xG issue never resolves itself.

#2: Provorov had his “hey, look at me!” game

For the past month, Ivan Provorov has quietly been one of the Flyers’ most effective defensemen, with only Shayne Gostisbehere and Radko Gudas really having statistical cases to rank above him. But solid play-driving in fairly tough assignments has become somewhat commonplace for Provorov over the past few weeks, so in that sense, yesterday’s game was basically just your normal Ivan Provorov game with a few shots off his stick that ended up going in.

Except it really wasn’t. It’s clear to Flyers fans that Provorov is already good and has a chance to be legitimately great, but his performances hadn’t lended themselves to national attention. Especially with rookies like Zach Werenski (who of course was taken one pick after Provorov) having highlight-reel games seemingly once a week, the lack of flash from Philly’s 19-year old defenseman was (fair or not) a little disappointing. But a two-goals-in-thirty-seconds game that saw Provorov matched up primarily against the Kane/Panarin/Anisimov line and still finish with a 64.49% score-adjusted Corsi? And he also prevented a Chicago goal with a heads-up glove stop in the crease area? Yeah, that’ll turn heads.

It was also especially impressive to me that Provorov delivered against the same Chicago team that made him look so bad back in October. Yesterday’s game didn’t even start out great for Provorov — he was clipped by Nick Cousins in coverage early and fell down, giving Chicago an opening to create their first period goal. Following that play, it would have been very easy for a teenager to remember the awful October game and let things snowball. Instead, Provorov did the opposite. Whether it was a case of him being determined to “redeem himself” for the terrible night in Chicago or if he simply has a veteran’s mentality is in the end irrelevant. What does matter is that Ivan Provorov was the best player on the ice for the Flyers yesterday, and he did it in a way that forced the entire league to take notice.

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#3: Flyers got better at scoring chance creation as game progressed

While the goals were not as plenty, this game reminded me a bit of the Flyers’ big win over Calgary last Sunday. Just like in that matchup, Philadelphia fell behind early despite carrying play for the most part, only to storm back and take control in the middle stanza. Just as important, the way that the Flyers took control was almost identical. In both contests, the first period felt mostly like the Philadelphia forwards were probing the defense for weaknesses, taking lots of shots in the offensive zone but primarily staying to the outside and avoiding high-danger areas. The Flyers took 21 shot attempts in the first period yesterday, but only three of them qualified as scoring chances. Even against a mediocre backup goalie like Darling, that’s not going to cut it.

The second period saw Philadelphia be far more creative offensively. This time, they took 20 shot attempts, but a whopping 10 of them were scoring chances. There are a number of possible explanations for this — defenses tire a bit as the game progresses, passing by the Flyers becomes more crisp with time, the Flyers slowly recognize coverage tendencies and begin to exploit them — or it could just be me attributing a narrative to random chance. But the Flyers aren’t going to win many games without creating chances, so it’s always nice to see them improve in creativity as games progress.

#4: Provorov - MacDonald took on Kane line and won

With Radko Gudas out of the lineup due to illness, the Flyers were missing the only defenseman on the team who qualifies as a traditional “tough minutes” blueliner, due to his combination of solid statistical results, physicality, and NHL experience. Replacing him on the top pair was Andrew MacDonald, who despite a very poor season, has actually posted solid results over the past week. Dave Hakstol was clearly convinced enough by MacDonald’s recent play to still use the Provorov pairing as his “shutdown” duo, even with Gudas out. The Blackhawks’ top line of Artemi Panarin, Artem Anisimov and Patrick Kane is their only truly fearsome one with Jonathan Toews still injured, and Provorov and MacDonald were given the primary task of shutting them down, as Kane received 10:22 of his 16:46 minutes at 5v5 against MacDonald and 9:31 versus Provorov.

The results were surprisingly positive. MacDonald finished with a 54.1% score-adjusted Corsi against Kane; Provorov dominated him to the tune of 61.85%. That’s despite the fact that the duo took seven defensive zone draws against Kane and company and only received two in the offensive zone against them. Provorov was unsurprisingly the more impressive defenseman — his hip check along the boards to seal off a possible Kane rush was his best moment. But while MacDonald made more mistakes, he also engineered a number of slick breakouts, and even broke up a Panarin entry attempt at one point. I’m not saying that this pairing should be kept together in the long-term, as Provorov-Gudas obviously has more potential. But as a one-game stopgap, Provorov-MacDonald performed admirably.

#5: Manning perfectly solid in return

Brandon Manning almost certainly wasn’t going to play yesterday. Sure, he had just been cleared for activity after suffering a likely concussion against the Rangers on November 25th, but with the team on a three-game winning streak and Manning having barely skated this week due to protocol, the general expectation was that he would take a seat. But the illness of Radko Gudas forced him into action, and Manning ended up paired with Shayne Gostisbehere, a reunion of a regular pairing from last season.

Manning didn’t look very rusty. While he surely benefited from the usual sheltering of Gostisbehere, Manning finished with a strong 61.39% score-adjusted Corsi, +17.05% relative to his teammates. and made a number of sharp defensive plays, particularly early. In fact, I’d argue that Manning looked better yesterday than he had in many of the pre-concussion games, when his play was taking a noticeable dip. Some of that might be due to his partner Gostisbehere, as he can take a support puck-moving role with Ghost which he can’t do with former partner Gudas. Regardless, it was encouraging to see Manning not miss a beat, especially in the wake of a concussion, which is always a scary injury.

#6: Second line doesn’t drive play, but way better offensively

Even though the Flyers are on their longest winning streak of the season, the second line has remained a problem ever since the loss of Sean Couturier to a knee injury. First, Hakstol tried Nick Cousins at 2C, but the unit couldn’t create much of anything offensively, clearly missing Couturier’s physical presence down low on the attack. In response, the head coach recently made the decision to move Brayden Schenn up to the second-line center role. That came with its own set of risks — Schenn has delivered awful play-driving results at 5v5 this season and has a skillset better suited for the wing — but the new 2C is clearly more offensively gifted than Cousins, and added a scoring touch that the unit lacked.

As a result, the unit’s performance yesterday was pretty predictable. They were the only line to get buried from a play-driving standpoint, as all of Konecny, Simmonds and Schenn finished below 44% in score-adjusted Corsi, and were below 31% in xG. But they did provide offense, in a way that wouldn’t have been possible with Cousins at 2C. It was a transition rush, as Konecny and Schenn executed a beautiful passing play in the offensive zone at speed before Schenn let loose a laser of a shot past Darling. Cousins has his strengths as a player, but offensive creativity and a high-end shot are not some of them. It’s pretty obvious that the second line is going to have its weaknesses with Couturier out, regardless of who fills in at 2C, but at least with Schenn there, scoring isn’t an afterthought.

#7: Del Zotto reverting back to Rangers era form?

Last season, Michael Del Zotto was a big pleasant surprise for Flyers fans. Long viewed as an offense-first player with serious defensive deficiencies, Del Zotto played a smart, conservative style in 2015-16 and rightfully earned the trust of first-year coach Hakstol, who moved him up to #1 on the depth chart. Del Zotto’s scoring took a hit, but he was driving play and regularly matching up with opposing top lines and holding his own. The hope going into this season was that Del Zotto’s point totals would creep up, but the play-driving gains would hold, forcing the Flyers to make a very difficult decision regarding his soon-to-be-expiring contract.

Instead, we’ve seen the Del Zotto that so frustrated the Rangers years ago. He’s scoring like crazy, and actually leads the entire team in 5v5 Points/60 with a 2.36 mark. Some of that is luck (he probably won’t continue to get a point on 87.5% of the goals scored while he’s on the ice), but Del Zotto is clearly jumping into the play more, both on the rush and (especially) in the cycle game. But defensively, Del Zotto has been a disaster. It was especially obvious yesterday, because the MDZ-Streit pairing was given secondary duties against the Kane line. Every time Del Zotto hit the ice, Chicago’s top line was all over him, as Kane posted a 63.41% score-adjusted Corsi versus MDZ and racked up three regular scoring chances and two high-danger chances, including the first period goal. Del Zotto’s 18.93% xG% yesterday also speaks to how poor he was in preventing quality shots.

The play-driving stats are suffering, too. After a strong start, Del Zotto is down to a -1.41% Relative Corsi (score-adjusted) and a -6.56% Relative xG%. It’s tough to keep blaming this on the injury that kept him out for the first month of the season, as he’s now been back for a full month and his defensive play, if anything, seems to be getting worse. While the Flyers don’t have many better options than to keep putting Del Zotto out there and hoping he works through his issues, he’s making the decision regarding his next contract very easy for Ron Hextall. Even a raw Travis Sanheim can’t be much worse defensively than what MDZ has shown this year.

#8: Top line impressive even if not on scoresheet

While Provorov-MacDonald was the pairing used most against Chicago’s top line, Hakstol chose to fight fire with fire when it came to the forwards. Claude Giroux’s unit received 10:12 of ice time against the Blackhawks’ fearsome trio, and like the “top” pairing, they came out on top. Giroux finished with a 58.33% score-adjusted Corsi against Kane, and a 59.83% rate total.

The forwards may not have scored (though they were on the ice for Provorov’s second tally), but it was a virtuoso performance defensively from Giroux, Voracek and Raffl. They constantly frustrated the Chicago scorers, through a combination of tenacious backchecking and neutral zone obstruction. Normally, you’d say that you still want to see elite forwards like Giroux and Voracek on the scoresheet to call it a truly “good” game by them, but this was a special scenario. Chicago’s forward depth (especially with Toews out) is low-end, so the Flyers could rightfully assume that if they slowed Kane and company, Philadelphia’s depth scorers would give them the edge. That’s exactly what happened, and it’s a credit to the top line that they helped to minimize the impact of the Blackhawks’ best forwards.

#9: Weise and Read deserve credit here

One of the biggest reasons for the Flyers’ recent surge has been the ability to roll four competent lines. Frankly, I wasn’t sure that would be possible so long as Hakstol continued to hold to his belief that Pierre-Edouard Bellemare is capable of functioning as an NHL 3C, as he was butchered from a play-driving standpoint early in the season and has never in his NHL career shown that he can do otherwise. But the third line has taken a big step forward, if not in goals, at least in underlying metrics. Personally, I give the lionshare of the credit to Matt Read and Dale Weise, whose play-driving capabilities are masking Bellemare’s deficiencies.

Read established himself last season as a strong neutral zone player, and Weise has done the same so far. Intentional or not on the part of Hakstol, putting Read and Weise with Bellemare has basically given him two of the team’s four best play-driving wingers (Raffl and Voracek the others), and the results have been strong. In fact, Weise and Read led the way in score-adjusted Corsi yesterday (71.74% and 69.92% respectively), with Bellemare posting a perfectly-solid 63.16%. But it’s been their impact on Bellemare overall that is most impressive. Without Weise, Bellemare is a 48.66% Corsi player; with him, he’s at 54.17%. Read has also had a positive effect — 51.67% with, 46.63% without. It’s becoming clear to me that if Bellemare must function as 3C, he needs to be with not just one, but two legitimate play-drivers to keep his head above water.

#10: Mason quietly very good

Ivan Provorov may have gotten the headlines, but Steve Mason was just as pivotal to the team’s 3-1 victory. He stopped 26 of 27 shots, and they certainly weren’t all easy ones. In fact, the Blackhawks racked up 18 regular scoring chances and seven high-danger ones, topping the Flyers in both categories. But Mason erased that edge. He’s now above a 0.900 season save percentage (0.902) and it’s a testament to his strong recent play that solid goaltending yesterday could be pushed to the backburner in terms of the overall narrative of the game. We’re quickly moving back into the comfortable feeling of “Mason had a good game, as expected,” which is a complete turnaround from just a month ago, when remotely competent goaltending was celebrated. I’d expect that save percentage to continue to creep upward in the coming weeks.