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Rangers 3, Flyers 2: 10 things we learned from yet another late lead lost

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The Flyers watched another Eastern Conference victory slip through their fingertips, as they could not hang out to a lead with seconds left in regulation. We break down the loss.

Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

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

  • Yesterday's loss was particularly difficult to swallow because of the degree of domination that the Flyers exhibited from the conclusion of Wayne Simmonds' major penalty through the end of the second period. Philadelphia was executing its neutral zone pressure system to perfection, turning a skilled Rangers team into the Buffalo Sabres in terms of puck movement. On the other side of the puck, the Flyers were entering the New York zone at will, and setting up shop as if they were leasing the area. After two periods, Philadelphia was up 36-20 (64.2%) in five-on-five Corsi, and led in high-danger scoring chances (in all situations) by a whopping 15-3 margin. This game should have been out of reach for the Rangers after forty minutes of play.
  • Instead, the Flyers could not hold a lead in the final minute of regulation and then unsurprisingly lost once the game ended up in a shootout. Their inability to close out games can be attributed to two main issues, both related. First, there's a personnel problem in terms of shutdown skaters, especially now that Sean Couturier is on the shelf. During the pivotal shift where Yandle scored the game-tying goal, the Flyers had Voracek (fine), Raffl (ok) and Bellemare (hoo boy) on the ice as forwards, and Michael Del Zotto and Radko Gudas as defensemen. I'm not sure what's worse - that Gudas and Del Zotto were on the ice, or that they are probably the best options for the Flyers in a late-game role. But limited personnel only explains so much. Philadelphia also tends to lose any sense of aggressiveness in 6v5 situations, preferring to block shots rather than putting any pressure on the puck carriers. The personnel weakness plays into this, as Hakstol may not trust his 5v6 units to stay in their lanes if the structure becomes a bit chaotic. But the current strategy simply isn't working, especially with top defensive forward Couturier out for four weeks.
  • The match penalty to Wayne Simmonds left an already-thin Flyers forward corps without a ton of scoring options up front, and certainly didn't help Philadelphia in capitalizing on their numerous chances in the first two periods. Kicking Simmonds out of the game for his punch on Ryan McDonagh was definitely a controversial call. Prior to Simmonds' punch, McDonagh cross-checked the Flyers' winger directly in the head in a very dangerous play. Simmonds responded seconds later by hitting McDonagh in the face and knocking him to the ice. Both were dirty actions, but only Simmonds' did severe damage, and therefore he was thrown out of the game. The real question here is whether you agree with the NHL's tendency to "penalize to the injury," or would rather actions be judged independent of results. It's clear in this situation that Simmonds was ejected because McDonagh could not get up immediately (he did not return). Whether you are okay with that decision speaks to a larger debate on the punishment methods in the NHL.
  • The new pairing of Michael Del Zotto and Shayne Gostisbehere worked exactly as intended all game long, but especially in the first two periods. Like the Ghost-Medvedev pairing, they give up a bit of defensive zone soundness, but replace it with stellar neutral zone play and fantastic offensive instincts. In addition, Del Zotto's positioning has been his biggest improvement this season, which helps to minimize the impact of Gostisbehere's occasional lapses. The possession statistics told the tale - Gostisbehere posted a 60% Corsi For while Del Zotto was right behind at 59.46%. It's also clear that Hakstol believes the pairing to be worthy of top-four minutes, as the Medvedev-Gudas duo received significantly less even strength ice time than the other two pairs. Del Zotto has been given heavy minutes from his coach since the start of the season, but this is new territory for Gostisbehere. He'd been sheltered in the past, but it's hard to shelter a blueliner getting fifteen minutes of 5v5 ice per game.
  • Singling out Gostisbehere, this was one of his best all-around games of the season. Not only did he contribute on the scoresheet with a power play goal and a primary assist at even strength, he was making smart plays with and without the puck all game long. He still retains the ability to engineer controlled zone exits and entries, but he's now supplementing that natural talent with quick passes that may not immediately create a defensive zone exit, but open up the ice for his teammates to complete the play. Also, he's beginning to read dump-ins better, reacting to where the puck will eventually settle in the corner rather than chasing its path down the ice. Ghost went through a stretch in late December and early January when his even strength play sagged, but he's adjusted and is now a more sound player today than he was back in November, even though the results are similarly strong.
  • And then, there's Nick Schultz. Schultz received over sixteen minutes of ice time at five-on-five, and managed only a 25% Corsi For percentage - worst on the Flyers by far. Interestingly enough, I actually thought Schultz got off to a good start in yesterday's game, making some nice reads in the neutral zone and even getting involved on the attack at times. But as the game progressed, the passive Nick Schultz returned. At times, the veteran defenseman has made glaring mistakes this year, but his biggest issue isn't the plays he makes, but the plays he doesn't make. Schultz's inability to consistently execute the offensive zone pinching schemes of Hakstol lead to less dangerous cycles, and result in opponents blasting back up the ice early in shifts rather than late in them. Also, he still gives up way too much space on rushes through the neutral zone. It's really night and day between the aggressive tactics of players like Gostisbehere, Del Zotto, Medvedev and even Gudas through the middle of ice versus Schultz and his "keep them to the outside" style.
  • Jakub Voracek did end up with an assist yesterday, but he could have easily tripled his point production considering his dominant play with the puck on his stick. Voracek really is becoming the under-30 version of Jaromir Jagr. When he is on his game from a possession standpoint, no defenseman on the ice is capable of knocking him off the puck in the offensive zone. On multiple occasions yesterday, he was a one-man cycle, circling Henrik Lundqvist with a Rangers defenseman draped on his back, simply along for the ride. The only thing missing from Jake's game was finishing ability, as he generated five individual high-danger scoring opportunities but failed to convert on any of them.
  • It's tough to evaluate line combinations considering the Simmonds ejection sent the Flyers in scramble mode for the majority of the contest, but two trends did stick out. First, Giroux and Voracek are going to be leaned on heavily in the absence of Sean Couturier. Voracek had a career-high 27:59 minutes of total ice time against New York, and Giroux finished with 22:18 minutes. Second, it appears that Scott Laughton is going to be elevated to the de facto second-line center with Couturier missing. He received about thirteen minutes of 5v5 ice time, second only to Giroux among Flyers centers. Truthfully, this makes the most sense, unless Hakstol chooses to use Michael Raffl as a center. But Laughton is by far a higher-upside choice over Pierre-Edouard Bellemare or Nick Cousins to take over the role. His performance yesterday was middling (no points, 42.86% Corsi For), but he made enough plays to warrant an extended look as 2C.
  • With Simmonds out for the remainder of the contest, Dave Hakstol chose to move Ryan White into Simmonds' usual spot on the first power play unit. At first glance, this seemed like a questionable decision, as White's play has barely been fourth line worthy by a number of advanced metrics this year. But it paid off, as it was White's screen that allowed Gostisbehere to beat Lundqvist with his second period power play goal. In a one-game scenario, it made a lot of sense to use a player like White as the net-front presence in place of Simmonds. White may lack the natural skill and physical ability of the Wayne Train, but he has a good idea of positioning and would be more than willing to play a simple game in front of the net. For a unit just hoping for an adequate temporary replacement, that was more than enough. However, I would think that in the event of an extended Simmonds injury (which hopefully will never happen), Hakstol might experiment with different combinations that do not have a fourth liner spending time on the PP1.
  • Nick Cousins received only limited ice time (9:25 - lowest on the team) but he made the most of his minutes. Cousins drew two penalties and looked particularly adept in the offensive zone, generating slick passes and making the most of his unimposing frame to win puck battles. If this game is any indication, Cousins will function as the 4C for now, but his play yesterday was definitely promising.