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Flyers 3, Wild 2: 10 things we learned from a well-earned regulation win

Michal Neuvirth may have been the hero with his monster last-second save, but the Flyers outplayed the Minnesota Wild from the start and fully deserved to come away with a victory.

Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

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

  • Two weeks ago, I wrote about how the Flyers' shot attempt differentials had cratered, a process which started near the end of January and continued into February. The culprit? Horrific defensive zone shot suppression, which was dragging the entire team's performance down. It appears that issue is now a thing of the past, as Philadelphia is on its best five-game run of the season in terms of score-adjusted Corsi. Since been thoroughly outplayed by the New York Rangers on February 14th, the Flyers have carried play at even strength in each of their games, finishing with score-adjusted Corsis of 57.5%, 58.4%, 53.4%, 68.9%, and tonight's 59.4%. The return of Sean Couturier on Tuesday has surely helped, but things were trending in the right direction even prior to his return. Suddenly, this is a team playing some of its best hockey of the year, and about to face off against four teams (Arizona, Calgary, Edmonton and Columbus) all in the bottom-third of the NHL in score-adjusted possession. It's now on the Flyers to keep this up and prove that they deserve to be in the playoff race by taking care of business against these weaker teams.
  • With Claude Giroux still out of the lineup (though he was up and about in the press box last night), the Flyers were going to need their role players to elevate their games to make up for his absence. Luckily for Philadelphia, a number of season-long underachievers made impacts on the scoresheet. Oft-benched Sam Gagner was first to strike, scoring a garbage goal to put the Flyers on top through twenty minutes of play. Then, after the Wild tied things up, Mark Streit and Matt Read took center stage. Read found Streit with a perfect pass on the Flyers' only power play opportunity of the night, and Streit did the rest, beating Devan Dubnyk with a quick wrister from the slot. Streit has battled injury this season and looked a step slow for weeks after his return to the lineup, while Read has been criticized by many for his diminishing scoring touch. But last night, the two were able to team up and pick up the slack for a first power play unit struggling without Giroux. Still, the unlikeliest heroes were the much-maligned "fourth" line, which came through with the game-winning goal. Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, who had not scored since early December, finished off an extended cycle in the offensive zone by diving for a loose puck and knocking it over a surprised Devan Dubnyk for a goal. Philadelphia obviously is hoping that their captain and best player will be back soon. But at least in this game, the unheralded skaters on the roster stepped up to fill the void.
  • The Flyers finished with a fairly substantial 5-on-5 shot attempt differential advantage (59.4% score-adjusted Corsi), but it almost entirely came from their stellar play in the first period. From the drop of the puck, Philadelphia was all over the Wild, hemming them in their own zone while Flyers forwards took turns blasting away at Devan Dubnyk. They looked like the same team that thoroughly dismantled the Hurricanes on Tuesday night in every statistical battle except goals for and against. Was there carryover from what players considered a heartening loss? I'd argue that it was more sustained execution on the part of the players than any nebulous concept of momentum. The biggest common thread between Tuesday's game and the Flyers' play in the first period was their clean breakouts in the defensive zone. This is a team now comfortable in the tactics preached by Dave Hakstol, and you're seeing more blind (but designed) passes to forwards streaking up ice and less pointless chip-outs. The result is more speed through the neutral zone and in turn, far more time spent in the offensive zone.
  • This season, the Flyers have been criticized by analysts and fans alike for their inability to protect one-goal leads late in games. At first glance, last night's contest would appear to be yet another example - if not for an incredible Michal Neuvirth save, Minnesota would have snatched at least a point from the jaws of defeat. But that narrative doesn't quite hold water, and would not have been accurate even if Charlie Coyle did beat Neuvirth. On multiple occasions under Dave Hakstol, Philadelphia has chosen to sit back in the third period with a lead, hesitant to employ its forecheck and shortening their average shift lengths to the point that sustained offensive pressure would be nearly impossible. Last night was different, as the Flyers continued to push play even in the final ten minutes of regulation. They actually outshot the Wild at even strength in the third period (6-3), and were a far cry from the passive late-game club fans have come to expect. Maybe Neuvirth's miracle save was a cosmic reward from the hockey gods for the Flyers not abandoning their usual aggressive tactics in the third period.
  • It's becoming more and more obvious that Mark Streit was playing himself back into game shape during the month of January and into the early portion of this month. Luckily for the Flyers, Streit finally looks close to 100% in terms of health, and it's showing in his play. He looked like vintage power play weapon Mark Streit in the second period, jumping into the play on the rush and quickly capitalizing on a golden opportunity in the slot. In addition, his performance at even strength was stellar, despite being primarily paired with possession-drag Nick Schultz. Streit finished with a 66.67% Corsi For percentage, tops among Flyers defensemen. His acceleration remains diminished, but the intelligent Streit has found a way to compensate for that issue. Watching his play away from the puck, Streit is careful to stay in motion as much as possible, and not to settle in one area if he can help it. That allows him to get up to speed easier, rather than depending upon his lower-body strength to launch him from a dead stop. It remains to be seen whether Streit will still be a Flyer after Monday's trade deadline, but it looks like he'll be a solid player for whichever city he calls home.
  • Despite the victory, it's easy to point at one lineup decision that isn't working on the ice - the third pairing of Radko Gudas and Brandon Manning. They were caught puck watching on Mikael Granlund's second period tally, which tied the game and necessitated Pierre-Edouard Bellemare's third period heroics. In addition, they were the worst pairing in Corsi For percentage last night, both hovering a little under 52 percent. The big problem with the pairing is that neither Gudas nor Manning are very good with the puck on their sticks, making each defensive zone exit a true adventure. The truly frustrating part is that there is such an easy fix - Evgeny Medvedev surely should be in the lineup over Manning and Andrew MacDonald, and the Russian defenseman seemed to be functioning quite well with Gudas prior to his recent scratching. Hakstol will most likely not make a change to his lineup due to the team's strong overall play, but the Flyers could be even better with Medvedev in the lineup over inferior talent.
  • The Flyers have a number of potential trade pieces, and it's hard to imagine that Sam Gagner isn't one of them. Gagner has been unable to gain the full confidence of Hakstol, and has become a regular scratch as a result. But with Giroux injured, Gagner has one more chance to showcase his skills to contending NHL teams in the hopes that just one may think he can provide some scoring punch for the stretch run. He certainly made his presence felt in this one, scoring the game's first tally in very un-Gagner-like fashion - a dirty goal in front of the Minnesota net. Long categorized as a finesse player, Gagner's willingness to battle for a loose puck in traffic surely caught the eyes of any scouts in the press box there to evaluate his play. I'd still guess that there is a less than 50% chance that a contender takes a shot on Gagner, but last night's performance certainly didn't hurt his odds.
  • After a solid but unspectacular performance against Carolina on Tuesday night, the Sean Couturier was was back to its old dominant puck possession ways in this one. Again given ice time commensurate with that of a top line center in Giroux's absence, Couturier posted a fantastic 68.97% Corsi For percentage and was his usual "impossible to knock off the puck" self, especially in board battles. But it was linemate Jakub Voracek who really stood out last night. Voracek had his skating legs from the start, and he was the first to start turning all of those controlled defensive zone exits into controlled offensive zone entries for the Flyers. He ended up with only a secondary assist on Streit's power play goal, but his impact on the game was far greater than that.
  • The Flyers may have went one-for-one on the power play last night, but it had nothing to do with the usually-formidable first unit -- they struggled yet again in the absence of Claude Giroux. The Philadelphia captain brings two skills to the top unit that are not easily replaced. First, he's the Flyers' only above-average faceoff man. Faceoffs tend to be overrated by many, but they do have extra importance on the power play, since the opposition is free to ice the puck as soon as they gain control. But replacing Giroux with a poor faceoff center would not be terribly harmful if the unit was still strong in terms of generating power play zone entries. Unfortunately, that happens to be Giroux's second plus skill. When bringing the puck up ice, Giroux is an expert at disguising his intentions, which forces the penalty killers to account for each member of the top unit at speed. This often results in a blown assignment and a controlled entry for the Flyers. Without Giroux, they're losing too many faceoffs and are struggling to re-enter the zone. It's resulted in a power play that is tough to watch.
  • The line of Scott Laughton, Nick Cousins and Matt Read stood out in a positive way on Tuesday night, but they were the Flyers' least effective line against the Wild. While their play in the neutral zone was decent, the line was incapable of extracting value from their zone entries. Minnesota was able to keep the trio away from high-danger areas, and then found a way to strip the forwards of the puck along the boards. This was the big fear regarding the line when it was constituted - that their lack of size would make them easy to nullify on the cycle. The Wild certainly used that strategy to render them useless last night. Unsurprisingly, Dave Hakstol recognized the line's struggles, and used them as his fourth unit at even strength. Last night, they earned the demotion.