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Devils 2, Flyers 1: 10 things we learned from another missed opportunity

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The schedule keeps giving the Flyers more chances to catch up in the playoff race, and the Flyers keep wasting the opportunities. We break down yet another loss to a conference foe.

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

  • The Flyers may have won the shots on goal battle handily in the second and third periods, but at even strength, this game was played at the Devils' preferred tempo throughout. There was barely any space for either team in the neutral zone, and scoring chances were at a minimum. That suits the talent-deficient Devils just fine - they finished with a score-adjusted Corsi of 57.02% at 5v5. In addition, Philadelphia could only manage six high-danger scoring chances in over 50 minutes of even strength play, as New Jersey kept the Flyers to the outside even when they did set up on the attack. Don't let the shot count fool you - this wasn't a game that Philadelphia "deserved" to win. They scored just one power play goal and played the way that the Devils wanted them to play.
  • The first period was the Flyers' worst of the day by far. The execution in all three zones was poor, but Philadelphia was particularly inept when they managed to push the puck into the Devils' end. The Flyers' forecheck was completely ineffective in terms of puck retrieval, and on the rare occasions when Philadelphia was able to enter the offensive zone with speed, they gave the puck away due to poor passing. The result was zero shots on goal at even strength until there were only two minutes and eighteen seconds left in the first period. The Flyers' complete absence of offense in the first period would have lost them the game if the Devils possessed even a league-average amount of scoring firepower.
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  • Immediately following the game, Flyers general manager Ron Hextall announced that defenseman Michael Del Zotto would be out for "weeks" with an upper-body injury, later revealed to be an injury to his wrist. This is an absolutely devastating loss for the Flyers. Del Zotto leads the team in average ice time per game and 5-on-5 ice time per game, is fourth in average shorthanded minutes per game, and has the second-best even strength Corsi relative among Flyers defensemen. In short, he's been an absolute horse for head coach Dave Hakstol, and replacing him is close to impossible. I suspect that Mark Streit will see the biggest increase in his ice time, and Andrew MacDonald will make his return to the Flyers' defensive rotation. The boldest possible move by Hakstol would be to elevate Evgeny Medvedev's role, as he has the skillset, stamina and experience to take on heavy minutes. He's also delivered comparable even strength on-ice shot attempt differentials to those of Del Zotto. However, it's clear that Hakstol does not trust Medvedev (as seen by his repeated scratchings), so I'd expect the veteran Streit to be the one who essentially "replaces" Del Zotto.
  • Throughout yesterday's game, the Flyers struggled to escape New Jersey's tight checking in the neutral zone. Credit to the Devils for executing their system effectively, but Philadelphia made it easier for them to do so by scratching Matt Read and Evgeny Medvedev, two of the team's best players in the neutral zone. Medvedev had a 50.69% Neutral Zone Fenwick (fourth among Flyers defensemen) as of 2/9, and Matt Read led the entire team at 52.80%. Sure, the Flyers beat Buffalo handily with those players out of the lineup, and Hakstol likely did not want to rock the boat after a victory. But this was a perfect example of the benefits of making lineup decisions based on the the opponent rather than hockey truisms. Philadelphia would have been a better team yesterday had Read and Medvedev been playing against a Devils squad built to control the neutral zone. It's disappointing that they weren't out there to make it more difficult for New Jersey to execute.
  • Jakub Voracek ended up at the top of the Corsi charts for Philadelphia (55%) but to my eyes, he had a less-than-stellar performance. Voracek was one of the big reasons for the Flyers' struggles in the offensive zone during the first half of the game, as he was utilizing a creative style in a tight-checking contest best suited for more straightforward plays. With a lack of space available in the middle of the ice, Voracek was attempting passes with a high degree of difficulty, and they were (unsurprisingly) not working against the Devils. His play improved in the third period, but it was his penalty in overtime that gave the Devils their game-winning power play opportunity. Some had issue with the hooking call, but had Voracek backchecked more effectively on the play, he would not have been in a position to be whistled for obstruction. Overall, a middling performance today from an obviously great player. I expect better from him on Sunday against the Rangers.
  • The pairings will likely be shaken up anyway in the wake of Michael Del Zotto's injury, but the Brandon Manning - Radko Gudas pairing experiment needs to come to an end. Both players have the same weakness - below-average puck skills - which proves to be a disaster when opponents employ an aggressive forecheck. Manning and Gudas have enough trouble engineering clean breakouts while under no pressure. Force the pair to make plays while under a relentless attack (as the Devils employed at times yesterday) and the result is failed zone exits and extended attack time for the opposition. Ideally, a defensive pairing has two players adept at passing and skating, but at the very least, viable pairs need at least one player with that skillset.
  • In my lifetime, I've never seen a Flyers defenseman with more confidence in his shot from the point than Shayne Gostisbehere. The 22-year old seems convinced on every opportunity that he can get his shot through to the net, and more often than not, he's correct. Gostisbehere's scoring streak continued yesterday due to his willingness to blast away at the point on the power play, as he got a low sizzler through Cory Schneider for the Flyers' only goal of the contest. Philadelphia's power play has been a shot attempt machine since Gostisbehere was called up in mid-November. In fact, Ghost leads the entire NHL in on-ice Corsi For per 60 on the power play, coming in at 130.86. When Gostisbehere is out there, the Flyers are firing away, and his mentality is a huge reason why.
  • I theorized that Mark Streit will be the defenseman who sees the largest increase in ice time with Del Zotto out for an extended period of time. Unfortunately, this is not the same Mark Streit from his first two seasons in Philadelphia. I made a point to watch Streit closely in yesterday's game, and it's obvious that the defenseman's acceleration has taken a big hit over the past year. Streit was never a burner, but he had the ability to jump up ice quickly and engineer rushes on his own, and also could challenge opposing forwards at the blue line with the knowledge that he had the recovery speed to not be beaten entirely. Now, Streit resembles Kimmo Timonen in his last few seasons in Philadelphia. Once he gets going, he can still keep up with opponents, but his first steps lack jump. Timonen was able to survive (and even thrive) despite his acceleration decline because his instincts were Hall of Fame-worthy. It's not meant as a slight against Streit to say that he simply isn't at that level. As a result, I'm not sure the 38-year old will be able to hold up in an elevated role.
  • After a shockingly strong performance on Thursday from the "press box" line of R.J. Umberger, Jordan Weal and Sam Gagner, they were back to their old habits yesterday against the Devils. The trio found themselves at the bottom of the shot attempt differential chart, as each finished with a ghastly 25% Corsi For percentage. In addition, they were clearly used as Hakstol's fourth line, receiving less than eight minutes of 5v5 ice time across the board. Only Gagner was able to create even one scoring chance, while Weal often looked overwhelmed from a physicality standpoint and Umberger appeared too slow to beat the Devils' neutral zone pressure.
  • On the other hand, the line centered by Nick Cousins was given minutes commensurate with that of a second line for the second straight game.  The trio basically broke even at 5-on-5, and they combined for five scoring chances. The fact that Raffl and Schenn are receiving heavy minutes in the wake of Sean Couturier's injury is far from surprising, but that the rookie Cousins is their center? Definitely not something that many would have expected. The young forward is taking a role that most thought would go to the more highly-touted Scott Laughton. It remains to be seen when Laughton will find his way back into the lineup, or if he will remain a healthy scratch, giving Cousins more opportunities to shine.