Morning Observations is a feature where we break down the previous night's game with an analytical eye.
#1: Full game stats won’t look good, but first 40 minutes were fine
A brief look at the advanced metrics for last night’s victory over the Nashville Predators would lead you to believe that they were largely outplayed and got by due to a great power play and heroics from Steve Mason. While those two factors did play a major role in the win, it’s not quite fair to say that Nashville got the better of the territorial battle through the majority of the contest. The Predators won in all the key advanced stat categories — 56.25% score-adjusted Corsi, 55.9% SA-Fenwick, 64.62% xG — but didn’t take a decisive lead in any of them until the third period. For the first 40 minutes, the Flyers weren’t just hanging with Nashville, they had the edge in unadjusted territorial play.
The third period threw everything off, however, as the Preds racked up a 23-4 shot attempt edge at 5v5 while trying to storm back from a 3-2 deficit. You can’t erase that period, and to be sure, the Flyers should not have backed into the shell that they did. But this wasn’t the case of Philadelphia stealing a game that the other team dominated from start-to-finish. Instead, this was a poor 20 minutes that almost wasted a strong opening 40.
#2: Mason continues to come up big
So how did the Flyers hang on in the third period despite a deluge of shots allowed? The primary reason was Steve Mason, who faced twelve shots (on 25 total attempts) and stopped them all. Hakstol noted earlier this week that for goalies, it’s a matter of inches when making adjustments, but Mason’s results couldn’t be more different than they were at the start of the year. He’s tracking pucks better through traffic, moving side-to-side faster, and is now making all of the “easy” saves too. He’s up to a 0.904 save percentage, a metric which jumped five points over the weekend. While he’s not quite in respectable territory yet, he’s ahead of his stats from his three awful years in Columbus, and the trend line is certainly positive.
A main topic of conversation following the game is that the Flyers’ team defense has dramatically improved recently, particularly in avoiding breakdowns. I don’t disagree that the mistakes seem less egregious than before, but I’m of the opinion that a lot of these positive feelings around the defense are really driven by the fact that Steve Mason is finally playing well. It’s not like the back end has been mistake-free — it’s that we’re not remembering the “big” mistakes as much because they’re not immediately ending up in the back of the net. The Flyers still gave up 27 scoring chances and 12 of the high-danger variety last night. Mason was just there to shut the door so we could blot out just how tough many of his saves were.
#3: Top power play unit proved it is fine
A recent run of poor goal scoring outcomes from the Philadelphia power play had many wondering if there was something wrong with the group, particularly the top unit. Theories varied from “they’re bad against pressure PKs” to “teams have figured out their structure” to “blow it up!” There was an alternate explanation for the cold spell, though — just plain old bad luck. After all, the top unit quarterbacked by Claude Giroux was still racking up plenty of shots and chances over the past week, they just were not seeing the ideal end result. But if there’s one thing that the emergence of Joel Embiid this season has reminded Philadelphia fans, it’s that “trusting the process” can pay off big time. That’s exactly what happened last night for the Flyers’ PP.
In fact, the power play provided the margin of victory against Nashville, as Wayne Simmonds’ two goals were enough to overcome a goal deficit at 5v5. On both occasions, it was Simmonds’ inimitable net front presence that created the goals, first via a deflection and then due to a slick spin move shot from in close. The fact is, the Flyers’ top unit has all the pieces necessary to succeed: two great passers, a point man with a blistering shot, a slot man with a strong one-timer, and then the best netfront forward in the NHL. Yet again last night the PP1 racked up the shots (192.57 Corsi For per 60, 20.53 Expected Goals For per 60), but this time, the process brought the intended results.
#4: Top line is rolling now
It took a few games, but the first line of Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek and Michael Raffl appears to be fully back in 2014-15 form. For the second straight game, it was Philadelphia’s most sound line, and again contributed a goal at 5-on-5, this time from Raffl. But not only are they scoring, the top trio is doing the little things right, as well. On Saturday, it was functioning as the “shutdown” line against Chicago’s fearsome top unit. Last night, it was finishing in the black from a play-driving standpoint and also winning the scoring battle when almost none of their teammates could say the same.
Giroux had the best night by advanced metrics, ending up with a 57.70% score-adjusted Corsi, +29.08% relative to his teammates. In addition, he was on the ice for six Flyers scoring chances and only two by the Preds, giving him a fantastic 75% Scoring Chance For percentage. Right now, the Flyers’ top line of old has turned back the clock, and should be kept together for the foreseeable future. Not only is Giroux showing flashes of his former self, Raffl is creating more offensively as well. They’re doing exactly what a coach dreams his top line can do on a nightly basis: everything.
#5: Read injury could really sting
Yesterday morning, I argued that a big reason for the recent play-driving competency of the Bellemare line was the addition of two positive Corsi players to his wing — Dale Weise and Matt Read. Both players have showcased plus neutral zone results in the Hakstol system, and I’ve theorized that strength has been enough to outweigh Bellemare’s historical play-driving issues at even strength. Unfortunately, there’s now a decent chance that Bellemare will lose one of his buddies, as Read left the game in the first due after being checked into the Nashville goal by Filip Forsberg. He originally tried to fight through the pain on the bench, but eventually slowly made his way to the locker room and did not return. Sam Carchidi noted after the game that Read walked out of the arena after the contest and didn’t appear to be in a lot of pain, which is a good sign but nothing concrete on his status.
My big concern was a possible rib injury, which can get pretty scary in the short-term considering the surrounding organs. The fact that he’s heading home with his teammates leads me to believe that he avoided a truly serious injury, but there’s still a chance he misses time. If that’s the case, I’m not sure the Flyers have a good replacement for him on the third line. Raffl is the logical choice as another play-driving winger, except they can’t afford to move him off the top line right now. Maybe Roman Lyubimov is the best bet, but even he doesn’t bring great neutral zone skills — his strength lies on the forecheck. My guess is that they’ll bring Laughton back in and stick him at 3LW, but I worry the result will be a weak Corsi line that puts extra pressure on the Giroux unit to drive all the play, especially with Sean Couturier still out for weeks. Hopefully the Read injury isn’t serious and it doesn’t come to that.
#6: What happened in the third period?
The first 40 minutes saw the Flyers match Nashville stride-for-stride, chance-for-chance, and truly earn their 3-2 lead. But the third period was a different story entirely, as Philadelphia couldn’t create much of anything, even during a four-minute power play opportunity. 5-on-5 was even worse, as the Flyers could manage just four shot attempts and allowed a whopping 23. It was truly a shooting gallery.
I’d argue it was a combination of three causes that allowed the game to turn so far in Nashville’s favor. To start, I suspect the “collapsing shell” strategy was at least partially intentional. While Philadelphia allowed lots of attempts, they only permitted one high-danger chance at 5v5 in the period, hinting that protecting the slot was the primary aim. Second, I believe fatigue played a role in their inability to sustain pressure. While the Predators were in the second game of a back-to-back, the Flyers were dealing with their third game in four nights and a home/road back-to-back of their own. It’s easy to see why they might have been gassed.
Finally, the injury to Read forced an already-prone-to-fatigue team to roll 11 forwards for the final 40 minutes. Considering the circumstances, Hakstol may have deemed that a passive style was the best move. This season, the Flyers have been noticeably more aggressive while protecting leads in the third period (which they showcased as recently as Saturday), so if there was a shift in strategy against Nashville, my guess is that it was one born from a unique situation.
#7: Predators played a mean game
When you think Peter Laviolette-coached teams, you generally think speed, skill and end-to-end play. But his squads have been aggressive physically in the past — don’t forget that it was Laviolette who deemed Zac Rinaldo to be worthy of an NHL debut in a playoff series, when all he had to his resume was nine professional points and 331 penalty minutes. Basically, Lavy-teams can be mean, and the Predators certainly were last night.
Read was the obvious casualty, but Pierre-Edouard Bellemare also took a questionable check to the back in the first period and hobbled off for a time (he returned later). Gostisbehere was boarded as well. MacDonald, Konecny, Weise and Cousins also were banged up during the game, though those bumps and bruises were more due to the fast pace of the game than anything the Predators intentionally did. Still, this proved to be a punishing game for the Flyers even in victory. Hopefully there aren’t too many lingering effects, because the schedule remains packed for Philadelphia over the next week.
#8: Raffl has never looked better
Less than a month ago, Michael Raffl found himself in the press box for a game due to a scratching ordered by coach Dave Hakstol. What a difference just a few weeks can make. Now, he’s clearly back in his coach’s good graces, and it’s totally justified — Raffl can make a strong case as one of the team’s most effective forwards at 5-on-5 so far this season.
He’s scoring at the rate of a high-end second liner, and that’s with not one secondary point. All seven of his points at 5v5 (five goals, two assists) have been primary points, hinting at his direct impact on positive outcomes. He’s also leading all Flyers with at least three games played with a +7.75% score-adjusted Corsi relative to his teammates. Raffl has always had the skill of making his linemates look better when he is with them, but recently he’s been making himself look pretty darn good too. On his goal last night, Raffl blasted by Mattias Ekholm — one of the NHL’s most underrated defensemen — with a power move to the outside before wrapping the puck around Preds goalie Juuse Saros. It was a move more expected of Jake Voracek than the player who many argued wasn’t skilled enough to play on the top line long-term. I ask this — if the numbers have long said he can be a top-liner at 5v5, and the eye test is now saying the same thing, how can you justify placing him anywhere else in the lineup?
#9: Is Provorov the #1 d-man now?
Ivan Provorov didn’t follow up his three-goal performance (two scored, one saved) on Saturday with more points. Instead, he merely drove play to the tune of a 55.39% score-adjusted Corsi, and finished +28.29% relative to his teammates while receiving a defense-high 16:30 minutes of 5v5 ice time. With Radko Gudas out yet again due to illness, the Provorov-MacDonald duo was again used as the top pairing, and again they justified their coach’s confidence.
That leads me to an intriguing question: where exactly is Provorov on Dave Hakstol’s depth chart at this point? Gostisbehere gets lots of minutes, but he’s still sheltered in terms of zone starts more than any other Flyers defenseman nor does he usually face top lines, treatment more befitting a second-pair guy (which suits his skillset best anyway). Last year’s #1, Michael Del Zotto, seems constantly in danger of being scratched due to defensive miscues. Mark Streit is showing his age this year and probably is best served in a third pair role. So that essentially leaves Provorov and Gudas as realistic options for the #1 role.
With all due respect to Gudas, who has consistently surprised me with his ability to drive play despite spotty passing skills, he simply can’t make the kind of plays with the puck that Provorov can, even at age-19. So does that make the rookie the number one defenseman? At the very least, Provorov is quickly locking up a top-pair job, and considering the fact that he plays both the PP and the PK, it’s obvious that he’ll be getting a lot of minutes this season so long as his play keeps trending upwards. Provorov’s development the rest of the season is going to be a fascinating subplot.
#10: They’re doing this without Couturier
Some have started to note that the Flyers have engineered this season-high five-game winning streak while Sean Couturier sits due to a knee injury. Couturier has long been a lightning rod among the Flyers fanbase, caught between those who praise his strong advanced stats and those who rail against how overrated he is and bemoan his lack of eye-popping raw point totals. So it’s not a surprise that the skeptics would use this run to argue that Couturier’s value to the team has been dramatically overstated.
Don’t buy it. The fact is, the second line has been dramatically weakened in Couturier’s absence. No longer does it drive play at 5v5, with last night being no different, as all of Konecny, Schenn and Simmonds finished with score-adjusted Corsis negative relative to their teammates and below 42% overall. I also believe that Konecny’s recent scoring slump (no goals and two assists in his last seven games) can be directly attributed to the fact that he no longer has Couturier on his line. He’s spending less time in the offensive zone (where he has proven to be borderline-elite in helping to directly create shots) and instead is being forced to defend more often.
The Flyers may be winning, but don’t for a second believe that they’re better off without Couturier. The second line’s play-driving metrics have dropped off considerably, and there is no player on the current roster who can replicate Couturier’s results as 2C. The truth is, Philadelphia is on this streak in spite of Couturier’s absence, not because of it.