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Flyers 5, Sabres 1: 10 things we learned from an eventful return to the win column

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On the backs of an outstanding second period and a strong effort from its middle-six, the Flyers fended off the Sabres to get their first win in a week. Here's what we noticed.

Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Morning Observations is a feature where we break down the previous night's game with an analytical eye.

  • Last Tuesday's game against Anaheim saw the Flyers largely get sunk by an exceedingly poor first period, one in which the visitors controlled the shot clock 15-5 en route to two goals. Despite not actually getting on the board, the Sabres ended the first period with a significant shot attempt advantage, up 14-6 in shots on goal and 29-11 in total shot attempts (via). Truthfully, though, I thought this first period had a much different feel than the one against Anaheim, even beyond the fact that they didn't give up any goals. Up until about the 13-minute mark, this was a fairly even game -- a couple of chances for each team but nothing too dangerous and all in all pretty uneventful. Things turned quickly in the Sabres' favor after one particularly bad shift that saw the Sabres' fourth line create five shots and several quality chances in about 20 seconds, all against the Claude Giroux line -- a bad thing, but not something that seemed likely to repeat itself. The remaining minutes after that saw the Flyers take three penalties, but only one of those (Mark Streit's first one) was really due to a matter of poor play, while the other two were more careless than anything else (more on that later). And when they were then called upon, the Flyers' penalty kill pretty quickly showed it was up to the task of stifling the Buffalo power play. So while the Flyers didn't end the period well, it hardly felt like they were setting themselves up for disaster moving forward -- which could be seen in how quickly and decisively things turned in the second frame.
  • All the fun stuff came in the second period, and we'll get to that part soon because after a week of hockey-related misery we deserve to talk about fun stuff. But it is worth noting that, with the exception of Nick Cousins' impressive goal, the Flyers completely turtled in the third period, rarely attacking at all and frequently letting Buffalo sustain reasonably long shifts in the offensive zone. Steve Mason -- who, fatigue be damned, played the best game he's played in weeks, and will almost certainly get a much-deserved day off on Saturday against New Jersey -- faced 18 shots in the third period (he stopped 17 of them), and several difficult ones were included in that group. The Flyers as a team gave up 18 (!) scoring chances and nine high-danger chances in the final twenty. On the night as a whole, Buffalo tallied 48 more shot attempts than the Flyers did, and 33 more at 5-on-5. Score effects and penalties obviously fueled that comically large third period edge, and as mentioned above, I don't think the first period was as bad as the numbers may have suggested. But by all accounts, the Flyers won last night's game with only one actually good period of hockey. That won't cut it a lot of nights, and it won't quell the concerns of those who think this team gets into the defensive shell too quickly once it gets a lead.

  • But it was good enough for now, thanks to what was an impressive and opportunistic display in and through the neutral zone in the middle frame. Each and every one of the Flyers' goals on the night came off the rush, with each one seeing a Flyers carry-in or pass-in end up in the back of the net not more than a few seconds later. In fairness, much of this came due to some extremely passive defense through the neutral zone by Buffalo. Of the Flyers' four second-period goals, I'd say that only Michael Raffl's entry that led to his set-up on Brayden Schenn's tally involved much work in terms of actually trying to get around and beat Sabres defenders, as Raffl snuck past Ryan O'Reilly in a race along the boards before cutting in and finding Schenn. But otherwise, there was just a lot of real estate to work with on each of those goals. Credit the Flyers for seeing it and taking advantage of it.
  • For the second straight game, the Flyers' second line was their strongest one even with Sean Couturier still on the shelf, as each of Raffl, Cousins, and Schenn lit the lamp and looked good in doing so. Raffl moving up to that line raised some eyebrows in practice on Thursday morning after Sam Gagner had played a couple of pretty strong games there, but Raffl answered any of those questions with one of his best games of the season. Cousins, meanwhile, put forth the best performance of his career so far, including an excellent individual effort on his first NHL goal and a perfect pass the length of the neutral zone to spring Raffl on a breakaway that he'd cash in on. Cousins actually had the lowest TOI of any player on the Flyers last night, but it wouldn't be a shock to see him as well as Raffl and Schenn get a bump in ice time after this performance.
  • We (and, really, just about everyone else out there in Flyerdom) voiced our objections yesterday afternoon with the news that R.J. Umberger would be returning to the lineup after sitting for five straight games since the All-Star Break. So it should come as no shock to anyone that Umberger ended his year-long goalless drought, as he buried a wonderful cross-ice pass from Sam Gagner to open up the scoring. It was a nice moment for Umberger, whose goal celebration truly was that of a man who had a very large gorilla to lift off of his back. He and Jordan Weal both actually put forth pretty solid performances in their first games back, as both had their own near-misses in the first period before Umberger's tally in the second. It was just one game, but Umberger's (and Weal's) performance will at least force Hakstol to think a bit about his lineup decisions for Saturday's game.
  • Hakstol's got a lot of interesting decisions to make with his forwards, for that matter. Scott Laughton's healthy scratch last night was, hopefully, just a bit of a wake-up call, not unlike ones that Brayden Schenn and Matt Read received (and reacted positively to) earlier in the season. The team likely knows it would be wasteful to make the 21-year old a regular healthy scratch, so a short-term wake-up call is hopefully the course of action for now. But can the same be said for Read, who's now made two separate trips to the press box this year? How soon does he get back in? Will Hakstol really sit Umberger after he got on the board? And then there's frequent scratch Sam Gagner, who had a beautiful assist on Umberger's goal. That's exactly the type of play that is going to make it hard for Hakstol to keep him up in the press box, no matter how little the Flyers want to use him in a non-top-6 role. Can you sit him with the strong week he's had? It would be ideal if, after a year of the team struggling to get much at all out of its bottom-6 forward lines, all of these guys really got up for the final 30 games of the year in an attempt to simply stay in the lineup. Maybe that's the coach's goal with all of this. Surely he won't mind making difficult decisions if players are playing well.
  • A particularly braindead moment late in the first period from Mark Streit, who in the process of exiting the penalty box played the puck before his feet even touched the ice, made it clear that this was not going to be the game the Flyers shook their bad penalty habit. The team had 25 PIM and spent a total of 13 minutes shorthanded for their efforts, just an unacceptable amount by any standard. Still, the biggest culprit will likely come as no surprise at this point. Radko Gudas took a minor and major on top of two separate fighting majors, and it's the non-fighting major that we may be talking about beyond this morning. Gudas received a major for charging on Buffalo's Daniel Catenacci late in the third. While Catenacci is caught with his head down just after releasing the puck, Gudas' step into the hit could certainly be seen as excessive and dangerous. If Gudas' check is deemed worthy of supplemental discipline, he probably would be sitting for a while, due to his repeat-offender status and the potential injury status of Catenacci (who staggered off the ice following the hit). Gudas' play has tailed off in recent weeks, so a suspension may not be the worst thing for the team, but you would hate to see his absence from the lineup come this way.
  • We've gone this far while only once mentioning the Flyers' top forward line (Giroux, Jakub Voracek, and Wayne Simmonds) and without once mentioning the Flyers' top defensive pair (Michael Del Zotto and Shayne Gostisbehere), and that's because outside of Simmonds' second-period goal, it was a rare night to forget for both of those groups. Each of those five players finished with a Corsi-For percentage south of 30 percent on the night, a number that even score effects can't fully explain. In particular, their struggles came in coverage in the defensive zone, as the whole group of five was on the ice for the aforementioned shift in the first period that sparked things for Buffalo as well as for the Sabres' only goal of the night. A truly rare occurrence for the Flyers this season -- a night on which its top players failed to bring much to the table while its depth forwards were there to pick up the slack and then some.
  • Despite that rough performance, there's something to be said about what Shayne Gostisbehere is doing on the scoreboard right now. You already know that Gostisbehere had an assist on Simmonds' goal, and that that assist extended his point streak to 10 games, and that that ties Mikael Renberg's Flyers rookie record. There was a while last night where the NHL Public Relations Twitter account more or less couldn't stop tweeting about records that Gostisbehere was breaking or tying with his current point streak. It's been a while since any homegrown Flyer took Philadelphia by storm quite the way Gostisbehere has, let alone any homegrown defenseman. You don't need us to tell you how great Ghost is, and at some point this run will end and he may cool off a bit. But enjoy what he's doing right now, because it's as fun to watch and root for as anything the Flyers have had going for them in a while. Hard to imagine any aspect of Saturday's game against the Devils will be as exciting as Gostisbehere's pursuit of extending that record.
  • One reason why it was surprising to see Read scratched is that, with Couturier on the shelf, the Flyers' stock of penalty killers wears thin pretty quickly -- not something to be taken for granted, given that Hakstol has rolled with a rotation of penalty killers six or even seven forwards deep for most of this season. Yet despite the Flyers taking five minor penalties in the game's first two periods, including three in near-succession to end the first period, Hakstol leaned on just four players to kill off Buffalo penalties when the game in that time. The end result was Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Chris VandeVelde getting more ice time than any other Flyers forward on the night, while Giroux and Ryan White got second-unit duty. (Raffl and Umberger did some mop-up penalty killing late in the third following Gudas' major.) The end result worked out, as the Flyers killed off all 13 Sabres penalty minutes on the night, and mostly kept the Sabres out of the dangerous areas of the ice in doing so (Buffalo had just two high-danger chances on the power play all night). Still, you'd have to think Read will be back soon, if only to allow Hakstol to expand that rotation as he's comfortable doing.