Morning Observations is a feature where we break down the previous night's game with an analytical eye.
- In their past games against the New York Rangers this season, the Flyers were able to carry play for the most part, even in their two shootout losses. But in the final meeting between the two squads in 2015-16, the Rangers were the better team by far. They won the even strength shot attempts battle (54.9% score-adjusted Corsi) and even controlled the pace of the game in the third period when the Flyers were down by just a goal. Usually, desperation and score effects let a team in the position of Philadelphia dominate in that situation, but the Rangers simply did not let up. While Brayden Schenn's late goal was nice because it allowed for Shayne Gostisbehere's point streak to continue, a 3-0 shutout loss probably would have been a more accurate barometer of the two teams' play.
- For the second straight game, the Flyers struggled to create scoring chances at even strength. They took 39 shots in the general direction of Henrik Lundqvist, but only 11 of them actually hit the net and only seven fell in the category of "high-danger." This is where the absence of Sean Couturier looms large for the Flyers - no forward on the team did a better job at helping to create scoring chances for his teammates. Philadelphia is desperately missing his ability to break down opponents via the cycle. Instead, the second, third and fourth lines on the team are taking lots of perimeter shots, hoping for good bounces rather than making their own luck.
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- The Flyers had a terrible start in Saturday's loss to the Devils, and exited the first period of last night's game down 1-0. But Philadelphia's start wasn't a major issue against the Rangers, regardless of the score. It was an odd first period, kicked off with two fights and then riddled with penalties from both teams. The game lacked anything in the way of flow, but the rare stretches of 5-on-5 play were back-and-forth, tight affairs. Regardless, the Flyers did not look asleep in the first twenty minutes - the outcome just didn't go their way. Unfortunately, the team's play trended downward for the rest of the contest, resulting in a deserved loss. But the "slow start" narrative didn't really fit this one.
- They ended up allowing a late goal to Derek Stepan, but I came away fairly impressed with the Philadelphia penalty kill last night. They allowed only one high-danger chance during the four New York power plays, and seem to be doing a better job at sustained puck pressure. Watching the Flyers' penalty kill this season, the passiveness has been striking. In recent weeks, however, the forwards are attacking puck carriers more often and it's resulting in forced turnovers and clears. The team's personnel weakness on defense will always keep the shorthanded units but being stellar, simply because the back end is prone to puck watching. But there's no reason why the forwards cannot elevate the penalty kill back to above-average status.
- Goaltending is so difficult to evaluate because of games like this one. The contingent of Steve Mason critics will likely point to the first period goal that he allowed as one that put Philadelphia in a needless hole early. On the other side, defenders of the netminder can rightfully note close to a dozen saves made by Mason that kept the Flyers in the game during the first two periods of play. I fall more on the side of the latter group - it's much easier to remember one "should have stopped it" goal than ten saves of an equal or higher degree of difficulty. Mason remains an above-average goaltender, and even though I'd obviously rank Lundqvist over him in terms of overall evaluation, I believe the outcome of this game would have been the same even if the two teams traded netminders.
- Andrew MacDonald has likely been visualizing this game for months, when he would finally get a chance to prove himself again on the NHL stage. Unfortunately, his first game back with the Flyers since December was disastrous. MacDonald was the Flyers' worst puck possession player, finishing with a ghastly 30% Corsi For percentage. He didn't fare any better via the eye test, as he found himself on the ice for two goals against and even struggled with the puck on his stick - usually a relative strength of his game. At this point, MacDonald is in a career crossroads, as he's clearly too good for the AHL but seemingly a liability with the big club. It's just one game, but I find it difficult to value him as anything more than a #6/7 defenseman in the NHL, and the Flyers already have a serviceable player in Brandon Manning who can play that role. It will be interesting to see how long of a leash MacDonald is granted by Dave Hakstol, or if he'll be subject the healthy scratch rotation that the coach has employed in his first NHL season.
- The Flyers' best defenseman by far last night was Evgeny Medvedev, back in the lineup after being scratched for two games. I expressed hope on Sunday morning that Medvedev would be the player to see his role increase with Michael Del Zotto injured, and the Russian blueliner confidently stated his case against the Rangers. His Corsi For percentage of 64.86% paced the Flyers, and he was both strong on the puck and smart with his defensive zone reads. Medvedev's combination of size, skating ability and offensive instincts make him theoretically the most complete defenseman left on the Flyers' roster but his inconsistency in his own end has frustrated Hakstol. But there's still time for his role to increase, just as Del Zotto did not receive his heaviest minutes last season until after Braydon Coburn was traded. We'll see if Medvedev can do the same.
- The Medvedev - Radko Gudas pairing actually received the most 5-on-5 minutes against the Rangers, while the Nick Schultz - Mark Streit duo was relegated to third pair ice time. I suspected that Streit was see his role increase the most with Del Zotto injured, but at least for one game, that was not the case. The distribution most likely was due to Hakstol liking Medvedev's play in the game, as the Russian was truly deserving of more ice time. But just because it was the original plan does not mean that Hakstol won't decide that this distribution of minutes is the best way to go. Right now, the Schultz-Streit pairing is probably the weakest duo on paper, so the idea of limiting their exposure is a sound one.
- The line centered by Pierre-Edouard Bellemare actually was one of the team's best through two periods, but they fell victim to their biggest weakness in the third. At this point, the sample has grown large enough for me to be confident in stating that the trio of Bellemare, Chris VandeVelde and Ryan White simply cannot hold up in the defensive zone. While their forechecking ability must impress Hakstol, they can give away all of their gains with a few shifts where they bleed scoring chances against. That's what happened last night, and it's happened throughout the season. Why that line was been immune to adjustments remains a mystery to me.
- Shayne Gostisbehere may have been able to extend his point streak with a late assist, but I suspect it will not last much longer if he remains paired with Andrew MacDonald. While the thought process behind the pair makes sense (the two played together in Lehigh Valley to start the season), MacDonald was dragging Gostisbehere down all game against the Rangers. Gostisbehere's neutral zone aggressiveness is out of place next to MacDonald and his passive play. The result was too much time spent in the defensive zone with Ghost and MacDonald on the ice. The best move may be to place Ghost with Brandon Manning (the safer, low-upside option) or with Medvedev (high-risk, high-reward). Regardless, I worry that we'll continue to see Gostisbehere's performance dip if the current pairing takes hold permanently.