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Hurricanes 3, Flyers 1: 10 things we learned from a "won every battle except the score" loss

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The Flyers spent the majority of the contest in the Carolina Hurricanes' zone, but a few lapses that ended up in the back of the Philadelphia net proved too much to overcome.

Patrick Smith/Getty Images

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

  • The scoreboard doesn't show it, but the Flyers carried play in this one from start to finish. Clearly entering the game with a "shoot from everywhere" mentality, Philadelphia ended up finishing with a whopping 68.8% score-adjusted Corsi, and peppered Cam Ward with 37 shots on goal in all situations. But after allowing a weak goal to Scott Laughton in the first period, Ward was perfect the rest of the way, standing tall in the face of rush after rush and scoring chance after scoring chance. In terms of process, the Flyers really were doing everything right - tons of controlled zone entries, fantastic backchecking by the forwards in the neutral zone, and clean defensive zone exits. Unfortunately, they ended up losing primarily because of two plays. The first was a terrible pass attempt by Michal Neuvirth that ended up right on the stick of Joakim Nordstrom, giving him a wide open net. The second was a bizarre bounce off the corner boards that went right to Jordan Staal in the slot, magically producing a high-danger chance that he would quickly bury. Neither plays were caused by Carolina executing at a high level, just gifts provided by the hockey gods.
  • The truth is, every team faces at least a few games like this over the course of a long season, when they dominate the territorial battle but fall prey to poor goaltending, bad bounces, or an opposing netminder that simply cannot be beaten. The Flyers have been lucky enough to avoid those games for the most part in 2015-16, probably because their goaltending has been superb. But sometimes, carrying play simply isn't enough. This is the biggest drawback to turning every game in the final two months in the season into a "must-win" because of inconsistency in the first half. Even if the team is playing their best hockey as the regular season wears down, there will still be nights like tonight, when dominating in every statistical category doesn't result in a victory. For a team comfortably placed in the standings, it would be easy to write off the loss as an example of "good process, bad results" and turn the page. Unfortunately, Philadelphia doesn't have that luxury. Instead, this one just feels like a missed opportunity.
  • Not only did the Flyers lose, Shayne Gostisbehere's streak also ended last night. A major reason for both of those outcomes was the complete toothlessness of the power play. In three opportunities, Philadelphia managed only four shot attempts and zero scoring chances. Gostisbehere used the power play to great effect during his streak, but like his teammates, he missed the presence of Claude Giroux dearly. The captain, still battling an upper-body injury (probably a concussion), is the driving force behind the Flyers' power play. Wayne Simmonds may be a great netfront presence, Jakub Voracek adds skill on the other side, and Gostisbehere has a great shot, but the entire unit flows through Giroux, who is the primary playmaker and distributor. Sean Couturier took Giroux's place on the left side, and while he actually did a fine job once the unit was set up in the offensive zone, he could not replicate Giroux's ability to facilitate zone entries. Once Carolina cleared the puck even once, it became nearly impossible for the Flyers to gain entry back into the zone and set up properly. When everyone is healthy, the top unit is truly elite, so it really should be just a matter of getting Giroux back to fix what ails them.
  • Sean Couturier made his return to the lineup last night, and head coach Dave Hakstol certainly didn't ease him back into the lineup, giving the center a whopping 23:25 minutes of total ice time. Couturier was mostly great, and showed off his fantastic instincts on two alley-oop passes that resulted in controlled zone entries and scoring chances. At other times, however, he looked unsurprisingly winded, particularly when trying to keep up on the backcheck. He finished with a negative Corsi relative to his teammates (-9.64%), but that can be mostly attributed to the overall possession dominance of the Schenn line and Cousins line, as Couturier still finished with a fantastic 64.86% Corsi For percentage. The Raffl-Couturier-Voracek line certainly has potential, and it will be interesting to see if Hakstol keeps the line intact once Claude Giroux inevitably returns.
  • Especially in the first two periods, the line of Sam Gagner, Brayden Schenn and Wayne Simmonds was close to unstoppable from a puck possession standpoint. Simmonds, not usually considered a fast skater, was regularly winning races to loose pucks and beating Carolina defensemen to the outside after gaining control. Gagner functioned mostly as the distributor in the offensive zone, setting up his teammates for chances. But it was Brayden Schenn who was most impressive. When moving through the neutral zone, Schenn appears convinced on every rush that he has the ability to carry the puck into the offensive end with possession, completely neglecting the possibility of playing dump-and-chase hockey. He's always had skills -- he didn't get taken fifth overall in the 2009 draft for nothing -- but now those skills are being supplemented with an extreme confidence in his own ability. It's making him an extremely fun player to watch.
  • The goaltender matchup heading into this game appeared slanted heavily in the Flyers' direction. Philadelphia started Michal Neuvirth, he of the league leading 0.930 save percentage. On the other side, the Hurricanes sent out Cam Ward, clearly past his prime and the subject of ridicule at the start of the 2015-16 season after a number of bad goals allowed. And after Ward let Scott Laughton beat him with a barely-off-the-ice shot through the five-hole in the first period, it appeared that the pre-game prognosticators were correct. But it was not to be. Ward completely shut the door in the final two periods, stopping all 24 Flyers shots. Instead, it was Neuvirth who struggled, giftwrapping a goal to Joakim Nordstrom via a horrific turnover, and then failing to prevent the Staal brothers from clinching the game for the Hurricanes. Ward actually has been solid since the turn of the calendar year, but Neuvirth's underwhelming game was something of a surprise considering his consistently strong play. Still, this is a goaltender with a career save percentage of 0.914, and expecting him to perform at this stellar level of play through the remainder of the year may be a bit unfair. Last night, he certainly looked more like an above-average backup than an elite starter.
  • Scott Laughton continues to look extremely comfortable on the wing, adding another goal last night (even if it was mostly due to a poor effort from Cam Ward). His standout skill is clearly his speed, which is more obvious now that he's allowed to spend less time playing a support defensive role and more time creating havoc on the wing. Many have long compared Laughton and Nick Cousins, due to their similar ages and close junior statistics. Cousins has certainly impressed in this recent stint with the big club, and his 85% Corsi For percentage led all Flyers last night. But Cousins' ceiling still remains that of a very solid bottom-six forward, probably a third-line center if he can stick at the pivot position. He simply lacks the type of plus skill that will allow him to consistently score at the level worthy of a position on a team's first or second line. On the other hand, Laughton has his world-class speed. If he truly is a winger, his ceiling is probably that of a 2LW, though he too needs to prove that can score consistently at the NHL. He's definitely been passing the eye test recently.
  • It's amazing to me that Shayne Gostisbehere has went from "not ready for the NHL" at the start of the season to "carrying Andrew MacDonald" right now. The Gostisbehere - MacDonald pairing received the most minutes on the team at even strength, and it's obvious which defenseman of the duo is driving all of the possession. Gostisbehere is engineering almost every single defensive zone exit, and is also the primary threat in the offensive zone. I understand that Hakstol is trying to replicate the Gostisbehere - Del Zotto pairing by placing the rookie with another skilled blueliner, but the problem with that strategy is that MacDonald's weaknesses far outweigh his strengths. He's still incredibly passive without the puck, at the blue line and even within the defensive zone. This does not fit with Gostisbehere's preferred style of defensive play, which is predicated upon aggressive neutral zone tactics and forcing dump-ins. Ghost intuitively understands that he's not great once the other team has possession in the defensive zone, so he does his best to snuff out plays before that even occurs. MacDonald is the opposite - he lets opponents into the zone freely, with the hope that he can keep shots to the outside. It's a clash of styles, and one that forces Gostisbehere to spend too much time defending and too little time on the attack, where he's already one of the best blueliners in the NHL.
  • In good news, the Flyers may have built themselves a legitimate top-nine forward corps, even with Claude Giroux out of the lineup. The line centered by Pierre-Edouard Bellemare was a true fourth line last night, receiving less than eight minutes of even strength ice time together. Instead, Hakstol leaned heavily on Sean Couturier and Brayden Schenn, and even allowed the unit centered by Nick Cousins to overshadow Bellemare's line. In my opinion, it wasn't a coincidence that the Flyers dominated possession in a game where the fourth line was marginalized in terms of ice time. Hopefully this is the start of a trend, and Hakstol's newfound trust in Cousins gives him the confidence to use his fourth line talents like an actual fourth line moving forward.
  • Prior to the game, Hakstol noted that he chose to start Brandon Manning over Evgeny Medvedev due to a need for a more physical defenseman against the Hurricanes. While the Flyers did dominate the possession game with Manning in the lineup, I still question whether the Flyers are best served with the Russian blueliner on the bench. Brandon Manning isn't a terrible defenseman (his on-ice shot attempt differentials are basically break-even this year) but Medvedev brings plus skating ability, an above-average shot, and more brute strength to the table. Manning may hit opponents a bit more, but Medvedev is more likely to win a key puck battle due to his strength advantage and experience. And even if Medvedev checks back in for Thursday's game against the Minnesota Wild, I'm concerned that he's essentially the sixth defenseman on the depth chart. That spot should be reserved for MacDonald, who was in the AHL only weeks ago. Scratching MacDonald wouldn't disturb the pairings too much - either Hakstol could place Medvedev back with Gostisbehere (the two have produced a 60.6% Corsi For together), or try him with Manning or Gudas. MacDonald simply hasn't played well enough this year to rank above Medvedev on any depth chart.