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Flyers 4, Coyotes 2: 10 things we learned from an opportunistic afternoon win

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The Flyers relied on scoring in transition, good goaltending, and a lot of (too many?) blocked shots to get their second win of this six-game home stand. Here's what we noticed.

Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

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

  • After a couple of weeks of very strong games played at even-strength over the past couple of weeks, the game the Flyers played yesterday afternoon against Arizona was somewhat more reminiscient of the type of game they'd been playing over the month prior to that timeframe. The Flyers' score-adjusted possession numbers on the day weren't catastrophic, but at 46.26% it was the team's worst even-strength performance in a while. And the culprit, by and large, was their work in the defensive zone. Passing the puck in their own end was an issue all day, with errant passes, failed clears and up-the-boards pucks, and generally shoddy coverages allowing the Coyotes to send 61 pucks in Michal Neuvirth's direction during 5-on-5 play. Adjusted for ice time, it was the Flyers' 4th-worst performance of the season in terms of allowing shot attempts, and Neuvirth's continued brilliance and some bad luck for Arizona were chief among the reasons it didn't cost them more.
  • The biggest reason the Flyers were able to keep pucks out of the net despite their general defensive zone sloppiness, though? A willingness to block shots unlike any we've seen from them this year. The Flyers blocked 29 shots -- almost half of the Coyotes' 61 attempts! -- in 5-on-5 play. According to War On Ice, that's the third-highest single-game total for any team in the NHL this season. Almost everyone got in on the action, with 13 of the Flyers' 18 skaters recording at least one block and Shayne Gostisbehere leading the way with six. There are obviously two sides to this. It's nice to see guys willing to cover up their many defensive-zone gaffes by throwing their bodies in the way of the puck, and in fact, Wayne Simmonds' block late in the third period was turned around quickly enough that it allowed the Flyers to score on a rush and ice the game. Still, the fact still remains that you can only spend so much time blocking shots because you don't have the puck in the first place. And it wasn't as if they were all just blocking shots from the point or perimeter -- there were a handful of good Arizona chances that orange and black skaters were turning aside. They'll take the end result, but you have to think it's not something the Flyers are going to want to make a habit of.
  • The trajectory of the Flyers' power play in this game -- pretty brutal in its first two attempts before settling down and cashing in on its third try -- can probably be traced to Claude Giroux getting back to the speed of the game after missing a week. After the team as a whole fumbled through the first two power play attempts with some iffy puck movement amongst the entire unit, a wonderful passing sequence from Gostisbehere to Brayden Schenn to Mark Streit to Giroux gave the Flyers the lead back on their third opportunity, as he let a perfect snapshot go past Domingue (for his 500th career point!) with some help from a Wayne Simmonds screen. The presence of Giroux really does go a long way towards opening things up for that unit. The Coyotes were covering the cross-ice pass from Giroux in the Flyers' first two power plays, but it's the captain's ability to find another opening when the opposing penalty kill shuts one down that really shows how much value he brings to this top unit.
  • In a game where the Flyers generated a fair amount of offense, skated and forechecked pretty well, but routinely looked lost in the defensive zone, it is likely unsurprising who the worst offenders were. The VandeVelde/Bellemare/White trio received third-line minutes for the Flyers and ended up among the team's worst possession players, with each having a Corsi-For in the game at or below 35 percent. And unlike most of the rest of the team, they don't get the "well, at least they blocked shots" argument in their defense -- each of them were still either even or below-average if you only look at unblocked shot attempts, even though most of the Flyers' lineup actually finished as a positive in that stat. Too many shifts saw the Coyotes get a good cycle going against that group, due largely to poor defensive zone coverage as is often the issue. Bellemare gets some credit for putting home the Flyers' final goal after a great effort by Wayne Simmonds and some nice passing, but it's still bizarre how this line can avoid being broken apart at all costs despite its shortcomings.
  • When Jakub Voracek is on the ice, the best strategy for his line to get up the ice is usually "get Jake the puck and let him work", given how skilled he is at getting out of the defensive zone, gaining the offensive zone with possession, and using his body to protect the puck. So with Voracek out of the lineup on Saturday and with Sam Gagner in his place alongside Raffl and Couturier, a different approach was required without one dominant carrier. To my eye, it seemed like that group's best shifts came via great passing -- either quick ones to start chances up-ice or ones that allowed them to cleanly enter the zone. This was how Gagner's first-period goal came to fruition -- a flip pass up the boards by Couturier (one which actually bounced off of the official on the boards, but we'll take the lucky bounce) that gave Gagner a 2-on-1 that he'd cash in on. With two good passers and a guy who has a knack for being in the right place at the right time (Raffl), that line may be able to survive without a dominant puck carrier. Their passing was among the Flyers' best in a game where the orange and black wasn't always so smooth with the puck.
  • It's been a particularly interesting week or so for Gagner, who clearly relished in scoring a goal against a team that unceremoniously threw him aside over the summer. Whether playing at center or wing, the hockey he's played in the past week is among the best he's played all season, and while he's not going to keep scoring goals quite this frequently, he's as pure a scoring option as this team has among all of the forwards who haven't been fixtures in the lineup all year. Dave Hakstol has shown all year that he's loath to use Gagner in any role that's not a top-6 position, and when everyone's healthy he may be stuck as the odd man out yet again. But with Voracek out (and apparently seen wearing a walking boot after the game), it's very possible that his value to the Flyers down the stretch as an injury replacement is greater than whatever he'd fetch in a trade right now. He may be an interesting case in seeing just where Ron Hextall stands between "sell everything you can" and "let this group try and get in".
  • More likely a trade piece for the Flyers right now is Mark Streit, who very much helped raise his own trade value with three assists yesterday, all in the first period. Streit showcased some skill at both evens and the power play in this one. At 5-on-5, he had two earned secondary assists, both on quick passes to forwards from deep in the defensive zone that helped the Flyers get up-ice quickly. And on the top power play, Streit -- who was mostly used in Jakub Voracek's role on the top unit -- moved out to the point to cover for Gostisbehere and quickly got the puck out to Giroux, who then had time to tee it up and bang it past Louis Domingue. Streit and defensive partner Nick Schultz alike both struggled a bit in terms of trying to clear the puck and exit the zone cleanly (Schultz's failed clear right before Oliver Ekman-Larsson's goal in the second period comes to mind as particularly rough), but that was an issue for the entire team on Saturday, and Streit certainly wasn't much worse in that sense than many of his teammates. I ultimately think Streit's contract scares away a team from taking him on, but his play today will almost certainly make some teams think a bit about what he can add to their blue line down the stretch this year.
  • It was almost comical how wide open Scott Laughton was on the break that led to the game's first goal, to the point where it would've been easy to think that he was almost cherry-picking on the play. In reality, though, it was a very heads-up play by both Laughton and Nick Cousins, who both are looking increasingly comfortable in their current positions.With four Coyotes strides below the blue line and Kevin Connauton in the neutral zone but more on the right side of the ice, Laughton quietly slipped behind everyone along the left side of the neutral zone as soon as he saw Mark Streit turn up-ice with control of the puck. Cousins, meanwhile, could not have made a much better pass, flipping it over Jordan Martinook's head to spring the wide-open Laughton for the breakaway. The goal doesn't happen without Cousins' awareness and precise pass, but Laughton is really starting to take advantage of the freedom he seems to have on the left wing, and you can see it in plays like that one.
  • With the Flyers protecting a lead in the third, Dave Hakstol leaned pretty heavily on his his current top-4, which consists of the Streit/Schultz and Gostisbehere/MacDonald pairings. All four of those players got at least six minutes of time at 5-on-5 in that period, while Brandon Manning and Radko Gudas both got a touch over four. Gudas was called upon in the final minutes in Gostisbehere's place when Arizona had pulled their goalie while down by two. Still, it's fascinating to me how the Michael Del Zotto injury has, in Hakstol's eyes, moved Gudas from the role of key defensive stopper and borderline top-pair player to that of a third-pair defenseman below a guy who was buried in the AHL all year. Gudas' well-documented disciplinary problems in February likely contribute to that -- can you give big minutes to a guy who's clearly got the refs' attention at all times? -- but he's now gone five straight games without taking a penalty of any kind. With MacDonald -- who, somehow, led the team in ice time on Saturday -- struggling to make a big-time positive impact alongside Gostisbehere, it may soon be fair to ask if Gudas should be getting a bigger share of the ice time.
  • Michal Neuvirth has now started three games in a row, and with his heroics on Thursday against Minnesota acknowledged, Saturday's performance was probably the best one of the three. Neuvirth got a bit of good fortune at times, with the Coyotes hitting a number of posts and with the Flyers, as mentioned, stepping up to block shots quite often. But they very likely don't win this game without him, and this is probably the second Flyers game in a row where that can be said. I think the idea of a "goalie controversy" before the playoffs is pretty much always silly, and it's especially true in this case, as if having two goalies playing well is a bad thing. But unless Mason is injured and the Flyers are hiding it -- not out of the question, given that he obviously left his last appearance early with an injury -- it's tough to hand-wave away the fact that the "backup" has started and finished three games in a row now, in the middle of a stretch the entire team is calling "must-win", all despite a day off in between each game. It'll be interesting to see who's in net on Monday against Calgary.