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Flyers 6, Devils 3: 10 things we learned from a game that didn't feel like a Devils game

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The Devils have rightfully earned a reputation as a team that doesn't score many goals, but doesn't allow many either. How did the Flyers drop six on them last night?

Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

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

  • The first two periods of last night's game were maybe the most choppy of the season for the Flyers, but it had nothing to do with the quality of the play on the ice. It was due to a whopping 23+ minutes spent away from the standard 5-on-5 situation. Eleven total penalties were called in the game's first forty minutes, including a match penalty (complete with a five-minute major) assessed to Radko Gudas for a hit to the head of New Jersey's Bobby Farnham. As a result, there were some odd statistical quirks. For starters, the Devils were only able to generate a single 5v5 shot attempt during the first period. In addition, War-On-Ice tracked only two 5v5 high-danger scoring chances from both teams during the game's first two periods. Things opened up substantially in the third, with six goals scored and only two meaningful minor penalties called. As the officials became less of a factor, execution with the puck on both sides took center stage. I suspect viewers were thankful for that.
  • When the Flyers faced off against the Devils at the Wells Fargo Center last Saturday, they lost the game and struggled to impose their will on the contest, as we noted. Last night was a different story entirely, especially at even strength. During five-on-five situations, Philadelphia outshot New Jersey 18-11, and won the shot attempts battle as well, finishing with a 57.52% score-adjusted Corsi. But the Flyers didn't carry the play via their preferred neutral zone disruption/offensive zone cycle style that usually leads to high-event hockey. Instead, they played the Devils' game - they just executed within the parameters of New Jersey hockey better than the Devils themselves did. Philadelphia particularly did a commendable job in the defensive zone. While they went through turnover-prone stretches, their positioning was top-notch, keeping New Jersey to the outside on the majority of their entries. Combine that with the usual neutral zone slog that comes with Devils games, and the result was a low number of shots and chances overall. But the Flyers avoided major mistakes in the middle of the ice, which kept New Jersey transition chances to a minimum at even strength. And they did just enough on their own offensive zone entries to generate a solid majority of the pressure in the game.
  • The Flyers may have earned the win, but defenseman Radko Gudas was not on the bench to celebrate with his teammates. Instead, he was in the locker room, due to an early match penalty for a check to the head of Bobby Farnham. As a result of the penalty, Philadelphia was forced to kill off a five-minute major penalty, and fell behind 1-0 in the contest because of Gudas's transgression. Was the match penalty warranted? The contact wasn't overly vicious, but it was completely unnecessary. Gudas and Farnham were nearly two zones away from the puck, and there was no reason for Gudas to check Farnham, let alone make contact with his head. Gudas' lack of restraint has become a major problem in February especially. He now has four major penalties, two game misconducts and one double-minor this month alone. That's not even counting the three-game suspension he received on December 2nd for a hit to the head of Ottawa's Mika Zibanejad. Gudas has been a surprisingly strong performer for the Flyers this year - he leads the entire defense with a +4.93% Corsi Relative, and has received borderline top-pair ice time at even strength. But he simply cannot continue with this reckless style of play. Not only is it dangerous to all players on the ice, it's putting the Flyers behind the proverbial eight-ball way too often in games due to the penalties that he is taking.
  • There was a noticeable change in the style of play from the Devils around the midway point of the second period. Thoroughly stymied at even strength through the first half of the game, New Jersey finally made a conscious decision to open things up a bit, primarily via an aggressive offensive zone forecheck. On a number of occasions, the Devils were sending three forwards below the faceoff circles, even without clear possession of the puck. In addition, the defensemen at the blueline were pinching far more than they had in any other game against the Flyers this season. It resulted in New Jersey's first sustained 5v5 offense of the game, likely because the Flyers were surprised to see such a dramatic shift. However, it also allowed Philadelphia to move through the neutral zone with more speed when they were able to beat NJ's new forecheck. The result was a more free-flowing and aesthetically pleasing hockey game.
  • I've maybe been slow to credit Brayden Schenn for a very solid season on the scoresheet, partially because his even strength possession numbers and his neutral zone performance have remained mediocre. But Schenn is taking a leap forward from a scoring standpoint, and he is now on pace for 25 goals and 25 assists in 80 games this season. A big reason for the extra production? The younger Schenn is becoming a versatile weapon on the top power play unit. Last year, he took the role of the slot shooter from the traded Scott Hartnell, and while he lacked the natural ability to create space for himself and unleash a wicked one-timer like Hartnell could, he added a new element to the power play via his superior passing ability. This season, he's taken the next step. Schenn has been able to score more goals using the Hartnell one-timer (as he did in the second period last night), while also functioning as a distributor in rush situations. His pass to Wayne Simmonds that set up the tie-breaking goal in the third period was not due to his place in the usual formation - it was caused by stellar split-second instincts. In the past, it felt like Schenn was a passenger on a unit filled with elite talents. Now, he looks right at home with them, actually elevating their play.
  • It was fair to be skeptical when the line combinations were released shortly before game time and struggling forward R.J. Umberger was on the opposite wing from star Jakub Voracek. Considering the fact that Voracek had spent extended ice time alongside limited talent like Chris VandeVelde and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare with the experiment proving a failure, this combination seemed also destined to fail. Instead, Umberger had his best game since opening night. While his passing was a bit off, this was the closest Umberger has looked like the faster, stronger player that opened eyes against the Lightning way back in October. He carried the puck regularly, and was difficult to check while actually showcasing some breakaway speed on the rush. Umberger didn't receive a ton of 5-on-5 ice time (a little under nine minutes), but he added two primary assists and finished with a Corsi For percentage of 66.67%. It's just one game, and Umberger could easily regress. But last night, he looked the part of an effective NHL player. We've seen too little of that this season.
  • Speaking of aging veterans, the slower pace of last night's game suited Mark Streit perfectly. As I've noted recently, Streit still can keep up with opposing forwards for the most part, but his acceleration from a dead stop appears to have regressed. The Devils did not do much pressuring up high in their own zone, nor were they very successful in moving through the neutral zone with speed - the two ways that Streit's new weakness can be exploited most effectively. It wasn't surprising to see Streit thrive in this environment. His Corsi For percentage of 78.95% was not only a team-high, it was his his best individual performance of the season by far. Head coach Dave Hakstol clearly noticed, giving Streit a whopping 25:10 of ice time, leading the Flyers. Like with Umberger, I'm not ready to call this the start of a trend. But it does show that Streit still can excel in certain game situations.
  • He's only eleven games into his extended 2015-16 NHL audition, but Nick Cousins is certainly impressing. He added another goal last night, and his 5v5 Points/60 of 2.32 actually tops the Flyers (even exceeding the injured Sean Couturier). Also, he's basically broke even from a puck possession standpoint (-0.57% Corsi Rel). Essentially, he's looked like what the Flyers were hoping for from Scott Laughton this season. Cousins may lack Laughton's high-end speed, but his instincts have allowed him to generate controlled zone entries on the attack while not being a total liability in the defensive zone. Of course, Cousins' ceiling is lower than that of Laughton - he's always projected as a bottom-six forward, while Laughton tops out as a second liner considering his superior skillset. But the thing about ceilings and floors is that they tend to originate from the measurables - size, speed, shooting ability - while things like instincts can be overlooked. So far, Cousins' hockey sense is allowing him to make the most of his talent at the NHL level. We'll see if it continues.
  • One thing that confounds me is Dave Hakstol's continued loyalty to the line of Chris VandeVelde, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Ryan White. While Hakstol shook up the combinations of the top three scoring lines, he chose to keep the "fourth" line untouched. White did add a late empty-net goal, but the Bellemare line was yet again the team's weakest at even strength, with none of the forwards posting a Corsi For percentage above 45.45%. Maybe none of the forwards on the line would be a fit on a "scoring" line, but there's no reason a player like Laughton shouldn't be used as a temporary replacement for a player like VandeVelde or White. Sure, Laughton's defensive zone play has been poor so far this year, but it's not as if anyone on the Bellemare line has done a fantastic job of d-zone shot suppression thus far in 2015-16, either. A shake-up could be just what the unit needs to produce some actual offense, as Laughton does possess legitimate finishing ability to help the line capitalize on their plus forechecking ability.
  • Shayne Gostisbehere did post one of his worst puck possession games of the season last night (31.82% Corsi For), but aside from poor positioning on Kyle Palmieri's late goal, it was difficult to notice much that the young defenseman did wrong. It seemed as if every Devils offensive zone entry that Gostisbehere was on the ice for turned into extended zone time due to a missed clear or lost puck battle by a teammate. On the other hand, Gostisbehere was his usual sound self in terms of zone exits, helping to initiate the breakout repeatedly. My guess is that his neutral zone performance will be much better than his possession statistics indicate, and that he was the victim of some bad luck yesterday evening.