Morning Observations is a feature where we break down the previous night's game with an analytical eye.
#1: Game turned midway through
At the midpoint of the second period, last night’s contest between the Oilers and Flyers was setting up to be a quiet end to Philadelphia’s six-game winning streak. They were down 2-0, losing the territorial battle and barely creating anything dangerous offensively. Which was understandable — Philadelphia was facing a tough matchup against a speedy, skilled Edmonton club with key defensive forwards like Sean Couturier and Matt Read out of the lineup. It wouldn’t have been a bad loss, by any means.
Instead, the Flyers dramatically ramped up the pressure. After generating just 15 shot attempts at 5-on-5 in the game’s first 28 minutes, they blasted 31 over the final 32. A three-goal-in-72-second barrage kicked things off, and then after falling behind 5-3 in the third, they scored three unanswered to close out the win.
As a result of their midgame surge, Philadelphia actually earned a slight edge in the advanced statistical categories, pulling down a 50.65% score-adjusted Corsi, 51.12% SA-Fenwick and 50.05% xG% during 5-on-5 situations. I think it’s legitimately possible that Edmonton had the puck more on the whole, but the Flyers extracted more value out of their possession time. Essentially, Philadelphia’s strongest stretches were better than those of Edmonton, and that’s the biggest reason they pulled out a win.
#2: Top line did exactly what it had to do
With the second and third lines in diminished form due to the injuries suffered by Couturier and Read, Dave Hakstol had two realistic options to try and overcome the newfound lack of depth. Option one was to split up his top line of Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek and Michael Raffl, essentially “spreading the wealth” in an attempt to solidify the lower units. Option two was to double down on his top talent, keep the top line together, and hope they could deliver enough results to outweigh the team’s weaknesses elsewhere. Last night, the latter strategy played out perfectly for Hakstol and the Flyers.
Giroux, Voracek and Raffl were all over the ice, especially in the game’s final 30 minutes. The advanced metrics were stellar — all finished over 65% score-adjusted Corsi and 63% xG — but they also flooded the scoresheet, lighting the lamp three times at even strength. Giroux had two tallies, doubling his 5v5 goal total for the season in just one night, and Raffl added the game-winner with just 1:29 remaining in the game via a power move to the net. Not wanting to be left out of the fun, Voracek assisted on all three goals.
I asked Hakstol after the game what has turned Giroux’s 5-on-5 play around in recent weeks, to the point where he’s both scoring and driving play. The coach noted that the effort has always been there for Giroux, even when the results weren’t, but also cited improvement in 50/50 puck battles as a reason for the surge. As Hakstol put it, “When G and his linemates have the puck, they’re going to make some good things happen.” Part of that is on Giroux, and his defensive play has improved in recent games, which was particularly obvious last Saturday against Chicago. But part of it is that he simply has better linemates now, who can get him to the offensive zone more often to work his magic.
#3: Hakstol exclusively matched Bellemare against McDavid
From the opening faceoff, Dave Hakstol made his intentions clear regarding his plans to slow phenom Connor McDavid. With Couturier out, Hakstol’s big plan was to give McDavid a heavy dose of Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Chris VandeVelde and Roman Lyubimov. At first glance, it appeared a questionable strategy. After all, Bellemare has been a below-average play-driving center over his entire NHL career, and was taken to the cleaners on Tuesday against Florida’s top line from a shot attempt differential standpoint. Against McDavid, this had the potential to be ugly.
Instead, Bellemare largely held his own. The full-game numbers aren’t pretty — 38.42% score-adjusted Corsi in 11:01 minutes against McDavid — but that advantage was driven entirely by two strong shifts by the Oilers’ top line in the game’s final ten minutes. Through the rest of the contest, Bellemare and company shut McDavid down, both by breaking up passes through nifty stickwork and by sustaining offensive zone possession time against Edmonton’s best forwards. Bellemare even added his first goal of the season while directly matched up against McDavid. The Oilers star finished with two points, but neither came during 5v5 play. In that situation, Bellemare surprisingly got the better of Connor.
#4: Bellemare’s line is the second line now, like it or not
These past two games have made it clear that Dave Hakstol views Pierre-Edouard Bellemare as his 2C replacement for Sean Couturier, at least in the here and now. For five straight periods, his line has been used as the “shutdown” unit, essentially shadowing an opponent’s top players the second they hit the ice. Last night, there were a few occasions when the Cousins line jumped on for a regular shift, saw McDavid come over the boards, and immediately returned to the bench to be replaced by Bellemare. The 31-year old Frenchman even recalled his coach’s direct orders from earlier in the night: “He told me when [McDavid] was on the ice, I have to be on the ice.” Doesn’t get much more clear cut than that.
But is this a good idea on the whole? It worked last night, as Bellemare’s ability to survive in the toughest shifts gave the Giroux line space to work against Edmonton’s second and third lines, rather than be expected to both shut down and score. But Bellemare does not have a track record that screams “2C fill-in.” He’s struggled to score at 5v5 and is negative in all of the play-driving statistics relative to his teammates. It will be tough sledding for him to try and replicate this performance nightly.
If the Flyers intend on keeping the top line together, however, their options aside from Bellemare for the 2C role are limited. Hakstol is justified in assuming that any line centered by Brayden Schenn (or even containing Schenn) can’t take the tough minutes right now, so that basically just leaves Nick Cousins, who received just 6:24 minutes of 5v5 ice time last night. So unless Hakstol is willing to move Cousins back up with Simmonds and Konecny, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare is looking like the 2C until Sean Couturier gets healthy.
#5: Schenn line was a mess, again
On Monday’s episode of BSH Radio, I had harsh words for Brayden Schenn, specifically stating, “Whatever line he is on, is worse because he is on it.” The numbers speak to Schenn’s struggles this year at 5v5 -- with him on the bench, Philadelphia is driving play to the tune of 53.03%, and just 46.79% when he is out on the ice. We’ve seen it with the top line, as Schenn found a way to drag down both Giroux and Voracek during his brief time with them. Now, we’re seeing it with Wayne Simmonds and Travis Konecny, who are consistently at the bottom of the play-driving charts now that Schenn has taken over the role as their center. Last night was no different.
It’s not all Schenn’s fault right now. After all, he was struggling enough at wing, a less demanding position, and now is being forced to shoulder the added responsibilities of center due to the Flyers’ injury issues. There was a good chance this would cause ugly results. Last night, not only did Schenn finish with a poor 45.90% score-adjusted Corsi (-10.49% relative to his teammates), he was also on the ice for two Oilers goals, and was at least partially at fault on both. He was a bit late in covering for Gudas’ offensive zone forecheck pinch on Draisaitl’s first period tally, and then was turnstiled by Draisaitl in the neutral zone on Pouliot’s goal early in the third.
His turnovers are what make most fans rage, but Schenn’s biggest issues this year have been without the puck. He’s been a defensive disaster, and his mistakes are dragging his linemates down with him. We’re now 29 games into the season — when is it finally going to click for Brayden Schenn this year? Will it?
#6: Gudas a little rusty early, redeemed himself
Radko Gudas did not have a fun weekend. It was public knowledge that Gudas sat out the last three games due to some sort of illness, but on the broadcast last night, it was reported that the Flyers’ defenseman was dealing with the flu, and had lost 12 pounds over the weekend due to just how bad it was. As a result, it wasn’t a huge shock to see the burly blueliner a little out of sorts early. In fact, it was his failed pinch that allowed for Leon Draisaitl to move up ice on an odd-man rush and beat Steve Mason for the game’s first tally.
But in classic Gudas fashion, he played himself back into his comfort zone, and by the third period, he looked back to his old self. In fact, he had of the most impressive shifts of any Flyers player in the seconds leading up to Claude Giroux’s game-tying tally. During the sequence, Gudas used his backhand to keep a puck in at the point, activated down low to take a shot, recovered his own rebound, and then found Giroux creeping into the slot to create the goal. Unsurprisingly, Gudas also graded out well by advanced metrics, finishing with a 57.37% score-adjusted Corsi and 56.91% xG. Anyone who still views Gudas as a goon who lacks skill simply hasn’t been paying attention.
#7: Michael Raffl is awesome
Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek may have racked up the points last night — three and four points, respectively — but it was Michael Raffl who came through with the game winner late in regulation. It was another power move to the net on the rush, reminiscent of his highlight-reel goal against Mattias Ekholm of Nashville from Sunday afternoon. For Raffl, this clutch goal is just a continuation of an especially-strong season from the Austrian winger, which truthfully itself is a continuation of a quietly-great career with the Flyers.
So far in 2016-17, Michael Raffl has eight points in 20 games. Not particularly impressive, until you dive a little deeper. He leads all Flyers players with six even strength goals, and more importantly, all eight of his points are either goals or primary assists. No cheap points for Michael Raffl — when he gets on the scoresheet, it’s because he directly helped to create the goal. In addition, he’s been his usual play-driving self at 5v5, leading the team in score-adjusted Corsi Relative (+6.71%) and xG% Relative (+11.07%). Raffl doesn’t get PP time, so his raw numbers will always look unimpressive compared to anyone who gets minutes on the top unit. But don’t be fooled — Raffl has a strong case to be considered the team’s best forward at 5v5 so far this season.
#8: Streit had a solid game
Rapidly approaching the age of 39 and in the final year of his contract, Mark Streit has become one of the fanbase’s favorite targets for criticism this season. It’s not all unjustified — Streit clearly has lost a step, and has definitely made his fair share of mistakes in coverage. But his overall performance hasn’t been nearly as bad as the outcry on social media and the internet at large would have you believe. He’s just barely negative relative to his teammates at 5v5 (-0.71% Corsi Rel, -1.92% xG% Rel) and he’s still racking up the points (14 in 29 games). This isn’t a useless player.
Last night, Streit actually delivered one of his better performances. He avoided the backbreaking mistakes that have haunted him at times, was disruptive in the neutral and defensive zones, and even chipped in with a key goal. His play-driving metrics were solid as well, as he finished with a strong 60.35% score-adjusted Corsi. At the beginning of the game, he was forced to cover for a still-rusty Gudas, and he held his own. Then, as the game progressed and Gudas became more comfortable, the pairing really began to take off.
#9: The second PP unit is weird
More tweaks were made to PP2 for this one, though they were structural and not in terms of personnel. Travis Konecny was used as the netfront man in Wayne Simmonds’ spot, Nick Cousins replaced Konecny on the left half-boards, and Dale Weise moved up the “bumper” or slot position.
You can see the logic behind moving Konecny to the front of the net. While he isn’t the biggest guy, he’s tenacious and also has showcased a real talent for deflections. But Cousins and Weise’s new spots make less sense. Not only does Cousins lack high-end offensive talent, he’s a lefty shot on the left side boards, which means his one-timers are a little bit slower and his passes take a hair longer to reach their mark than if he shot righthanded. Dale Weise in the slot makes the least sense of all. I don’t have an issue with Weise on the power play, but only in front of the net, essentially replicating Ryan White’s role from last year. Weise doesn’t have an especially great shot, making him a strange choice to be a trigger man. Why not use the guy who leads the team in even strength goals in the slot instead? Seems like that might have potential.
#10: Ghost-Manning pairing struggled
Shayne Gostisbehere and Brandon Manning ended up basically breaking even in terms of score-adjusted Corsi last night, but this was a case of the stats not telling the whole story. The duo was mistake-prone, especially early and particularly on the defensive side of the ice. Ghost was uncharacteristically sloppy, even in areas of his game where he usually excels, such as rush coverage. On a couple of occasions, he seemed torn between aggressively challenging an oncoming forward and trying to keep him to the outside, which resulted in Gostisbehere succeeding at neither task. Expected Goals does a better job of evaluating their nights, as Ghost finished with a 35.47% in the category and Manning was even worse, at 32.41 percent.
On the whole, Gostisbehere is having a strong season. He’s driving play at 5v5 far better than he did last season (+5.6% CF%RelTM this year vs. -1.0% in 2015-16) and has also improved his overall performance after adjusting for shot quality (xG). The only area where his performance has seen a dip is in his even strength scoring, which feels more like a small sample size anomaly than anything, especially with how effective fellow (and less skilled) Flyers defensemen have been scoring at 5v5 this year. Basically, this wasn’t a great game for Gostisbehere. But he’s fine on the whole, and by most metrics, has actually been better in his sophomore season than he was in his dynamic rookie year.