Morning Observations is a feature where we break down the previous night's game with an analytical eye.
- The Flyers won their final game before the All-Star break thanks largely to a superb effort by Jakub Voracek, who was excellent throughout that game before winning it in overtime. A week has come and gone since that contest, but the Flyers' first game back from the break had the same hero as the one before it. Voracek had assists on all three of the Flyers' non-empty-net goals of the night, and he absolutely earned every one of them. In the first period, Voracek had two spectacular spots from the right wall to Brayden Schenn on the power play -- one of which was tipped in by Schenn himself from the slot, one of which Schenn then whipped over to Simmonds for the finish. And in the third, Voracek got the game-winning puck over to Simmonds on an impressive move from behind the net, all while having Nathan Beaulieu draped all over him. Despite an unimpressive 5-on-5 performance by the top line on the whole (each member of the Simmonds-Claude Giroux-Voracek line finished in the red in even-strength possession), the group had some impressive offensive zone shifts, and they made the last really good one count. They've got Voracek to thank for that.
- The Flyers may have headed to the first period with a 2-1 lead thanks to their power play, but it was probably a period the Flyers were lucky to have grabbed a lead from. The Flyers had some decent offensive-zone play in the frame (including two drawn penalties that led to those goals), and it appeared to the eye that they were winning a lot of puck battles in the neutral zone and generating some pressure off of those. But for swaths of the opening 20 minutes there wasn't much of a forecheck to pressure Montreal from their own end, and even more noticeable of an issue was the Flyers' sloppy play in their own zone in that frame. The Flyers were out-shot, out-chanced, and really out-everything-but-scored in that first period, and that last part was thanks to special teams and some great play from Steve Mason. The play would tighten up as the game went on, but the start was definitely a bit precarious.
- The biggest offender in terms of questionable play in that first period was probably Radko Gudas, who by the eye test had one of the worst games he's played this season (not that his Corsi-For% of 45% paints a glowing picture, either). Three or four different occasions in the first two periods saw an aggressive offensive-zone move, hit, or pinch by Gudas turn into an odd-man chance in the other direction for Montreal. None of them ended up in the net, and in a perfect world, aggressiveness over the long run will work out for Flyers defensemen who are capable of making aggressive plays (the way Gudas has shown he can at points this year). But those ones went against him -- and when he's paired with Evgeny Medvedev, who we pretty well know Dave Hakstol doesn't trust in the defensive zone, you have to think the coaching staff would like him to reign that in a bit, let Medvedev take the chances, and play simple.
- Interestingly enough, it was been Medvedev who was quite possibly the Flyers' best defenseman on the night. His play in the neutral zone was as impressive as it usually is, making quick decisions that helped send the Flyers into the offensive zone with possession. And he had three individual scoring chances on the night at even strength, an impressive number for a defenseman (can we call it a Gostisbeherian number?). Finally, it's worth noting that he was usually the one back to cover when Gudas was up in the offensive zone laying a hit or making a mistake with the puck to spring Montreal. Defense in transition can cover up a lot of ills, even if Medvedev wasn't perfect in the defensive zone itself and remains a work in progress there.
- Gudas' final miscue of the game -- a truly bizarre clipping penalty and game misconduct that wasn't blown dead and called until about 30 seconds after Gudas hit Montreal's Lucas Lessio -- set the stage for an impressive five-minute penalty kill, which saw the Canadiens send eight shots towards the net but largely kept them out of the scoring areas (the Habs didn't record a single high-danger chance in the entire power play, per war-on-ice). It was an interesting night for the penalty kill, which -- to my eye, and I could be off here -- seemed to be a bit less stationary than they sometimes are. Somewhat often, all four guys seemed to be on the same side of the ice that the puck was on, all moving as a unit towards it. There are some pitfalls to this. For instance, Montreal had what seemed like more than a few open looks at the point and the top of the circles on different power plays, which maybe isn't the best chance to take when P.K. Subban is the one there waiting for them. And on Andrei Markov's goal in the first period, Mark Streit had no chance to get over in time to a puck that took an unlucky bounce right onto Markov's stick at the far post. But that seemed like one of the only truly great chances the Habs had on the PP all night, so if the Flyers really were trying something different, it's tough to argue they should stop.
- The big lineup news yesterday was that, after 47 games, R.J. Umberger was finally going to be watching a game from the press box. When a line of Michael Raffl - Scott Laughton - Matt Read was revealed in practice on Tuesday morning, the hope was likely that that group -- a group of three solid skaters, and one that has two plus defensive forwards on the wings to help out their young center -- would end up playing well and earning third-line minutes against a Montreal team that doesn't have much in the way of impressive bottom-6 forwards. Unfortunately, that didn't come close to fruition. Outside of a couple of decent cycle shifts in the first two periods, the group failed to generate nearly anything at all in the way of offense, and while they were decent defensively, it wasn't nearly by enough to make up for the lack of offensive pressure. Laughton and Raffl each only got two shifts in the third period, with Read getting more thanks to his penalty-killing (and his being called upon in the empty-net situation). Dave Hakstol has been loath to tinker with his lineup after wins, so we may just see the same group again on Thursday in Nashville. But this game was hardly the vindication the "bench Umberger" crowd was hoping for.
- Elsewhere in lineup tweaks, Sean Couturier was back in the lineup for the first time in two weeks, and though he was eased back in at first (just 4:24 in the first period), Hakstol's unrelenting trust in him was on display yet again. With two wingers -- Brayden Schenn and Sam Gagner -- who can reasonably be described as below-average defensive forwards, Couturier still almost exclusively faced off with the Canadiens' top two lines centered by Tomas Plekanec and David Desharnais. The group wasn't buried in defensive zone starts (the Flyers only actually had four of them at 5-on-5 in the entire night), but it does seem clear that Hakstol will ask Couturier to take on the tough minutes no matter who's on his wings, and that line was interesting enough in the offensive zone (Gagner had some nice setups that just went awry, and the announcers couldn't stop talking about the "confidence" that Schenn has been playing with lately) that you have to hope they'll get another look.
- The VandeVelde - Bellemare - White line has drawn a lot of ire in recent weeks from fans on social media, largely for how Dave Hakstol refuses to break them up and often gives them more ice time than the Read/Laughton line. So go figure, then, that that group had one of its most impressive showings in weeks against the Canadiens. While they had their near-typical quota of cringe-worthy defensive zone coverage moments, the group was solidly above-average in almost every other facet of the game. They got out of the defensive zone with ease (when they finally were able to chase the puck down), moved through the neutral zone with speed and possession much more than we usually see from them, and were able to generate chances off the rush and the cycle. The group had four scoring chances, and if any of them were solid finishers you have to wonder if they light the lamp on one of them. It won't do much good for the folks looking to see the line broken up or its ice time scaled back, but we saw them do some good things on Tuesday.
- Mark Streit had an up-and-down game on the evening (little thanks to partner Nick Schultz, who was back to his old tricks with a worst-among-defenders 33.3% Corsi-For rating on the evening). Particularly of note was what he did on the penalty kill: namely, he actually played on it. The 4:39 he played while shorthanded was easily the most he's ever played in a single game for the Flyers, and though he was boxed out by Brendan Gallagher on Markov's first-period tally, he otherwise did a solid job, including a key block on Subban late in the five-minute kill for Gudas' clipping penalty. By itself, this doesn't mean a ton -- Streit has been the team's fifth penalty-killing defenseman since returning to the lineup, meaning he gets spot shifts here and there. He won't be expected to kill five-minute penalties without one of the team's quality PKing defensemen late in games very often, like he was on Tuesday. But his overall minutes are worth watching. Streit's 22:11 last night was the most he's played in a 60-minute game since before he had surgery in November. He was struggling before surgery, but even then he was getting huge minutes most nights. Obviously, with Shayne Gostisbehere setting up shop on the top power play, Streit's minutes will probably not ever be regularly as high as they were in October and November. But we'll see on Thursday if his high ice time from last night was a blip on the radar or if the team is going to start getting him close to the minutes he was playing pre-surgery. If he can return to even the levels he played at last year, that's a huge step for a team that can always use a bit more from its defensemen.
- Lastly, a point that has little to do with the Flyers but something I wanted to mention: NHL.tv debuted last night, and I have to say, it was really cool to have a chance to watch the Flyers on the new program. Hey, while we're at it, does anyone know why Brayden Schenn and Wayne Simmonds look so different than they usually do?
So close, NHL. So close, yet so far.