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Flyers 5, Flames 3: 10 things we learned from a dominant performance nearly turned disaster

Brayden Schenn was the hero of the night, but a few third period lapses from the Flyers turned a sure victory into a tight finish.

Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

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

  • In his post-trade deadline press conference, Flyers general manager Ron Hextall announced that star forward Jakub Voracek would be out for the next two weeks with a foot injury. That would put him out for six games - matchups against Calgary, Edmonton, Columbus, Tampa twice and Florida. Even without Voracek, the Flyers on paper would seem to match up well against the first three teams, while the Lightning and Panthers will be far more difficult to top. That made last night's game pivotal, as Philadelphia needed to rack up as many points possible against the underwhelming Flames, Oilers and Blue Jackets. And while the Flyers nearly gave away the game due to a number of poorly-timed gaffes in the third period, they ended up earning that much-needed victory. The next two games are just as important.
  • The Flyers still have a legitimate chance at the playoffs, as they find themselves three points behind the Pittsburgh Penguins and five points back of the Boston Bruins for the Eastern Conference's final two wild card slots. But even if they earn their way into the postseason due to a stellar closing kick, it's unlikely that they have the firepower to match up with the true heavyweights of the conference, such as Washington and Tampa Bay. This season almost certainly won't be remembered for an improbable playoff run. Instead, it will be remembered as the year when three of the team's key pieces in their early 20s - Brayden Schenn, Sean Couturier and Shayne Gostisbehere - took gigantic leaps forward in their respective developments. Despite battling injuries, Couturier has become the dominant even strength center that scouts always claimed was his ceiling. Gostisbehere is taking a run at the Calder Trophy due to his dynamic offensive ability, proving that his "lost" 2014-2015 season did not set back his progression. And then there's Schenn, who is showing signs of becoming an impact NHL scorer. He's now on pace for 28 goals and 28 assists, which would place him solidly in low-end first line/high-end second line territory. Don't forget - Schenn was scratched due to underwhelming play back in November, and even spent time off the Flyers' top four lines in training camp. Those days seem long behind him now.
  • Although they were unable to exit the first period with a lead, the Flyers jumped on the Flames early and dominated play. Their weapon of choice was a devastating forecheck, which kept Calgary pinned in their own zone for entire shifts at a time. Calgary really only has three NHL-caliber defensemen at this point (Mark Giordano, T.J. Brodie and Dougie Hamilton), which makes them susceptible to relentless pressure on the breakout. Each of Philadelphia's top three lines was getting in on the action in the first, causing turnovers and winning puck battles with relative ease. Even the line of Scott Laughton, Nick Cousins and Matt Read (a fairly small trio) was using brute strength to separate Flames skaters from the puck. I'm not sure whether that speaks more to the execution of Philadelphia, the effort level of Calgary, or a combination of the two, but the results were undeniable.
  • Calgary adjusted in the second period, and began executing their defensive zone breakouts more effectively, allowing for them to creating pressure of their own. The Flyers responded by exploiting the Flames' limited defense for scoring chance after scoring chance. They ended up with nine high-danger chances in the period (per War-On-Ice) across four different situations - two at 5-on-5, four on the power play, one at 4-on-4, and two while shorthanded. With and without the puck, Philadelphia was making their way into the slot area with ease, uncontested by Flames defenders. It's unsurprising that the result was three Flyers goals.
  • The bizarre part about the Flyers' third period letdown was that it really came out of nowhere. During the first eight minutes of the period, Philadelphia was actually carrying the better part of play despite being up by a whopping three goals - their forecheck was still active, and Calgary was having difficulty moving the puck through the neutral zone. Things turned starting with a particularly awful shift by the Pierre-Edouard Bellemare line with eleven minutes remaining, as the unit simply could not exit their own zone and allowed the Flames' top line to fire six shot attempts at Michal Neuvirth. They got back to the bench without allowing a goal, but the Couturier line that replaced them would not be so lucky. Then, only 50 seconds later, Neuvirth let a harmless-looking shot through his pads that made the score 4-3. Two bad shifts and one weak goal, and Calgary was right back in it. Sometimes, that's all it takes to turn a game.
  • Entering the season, one of the under-the-radar whispers from the advanced statistical community regarding the Flyers was that Claude Giroux was being "carried" from a play-driving standpoint by regular linemate Jakub Voracek. TSN's Travis Yost hinted at this theory back in November, even if he didn't quite endorse it entirely. I've never bought the theory, believing that most of the dropoff in Giroux's puck possession metrics away from Voracek could be explained as due to extreme defensive usage in those scenarios. This season, we've gotten to see Giroux away from Voracek quite a bit, and the captain is proving that he can still drive play and create offense without his wingman. Last night, Giroux was all over the ice, setting up a ridiculous amount of chances for linemates Brayden Schenn and Wayne Simmonds. Giroux has always been a great forechecker for his size, and it was on full display last night. He used his tenacity to win puck battles in the corner, and then his world-class playmaking ability to create scoring chances for himself and his teammates. The result was a whopping four assists, and a 5-on-5 Corsi For percentage of 57.69%. I'd say Giroux looked just fine without Voracek in this one.
  • Brayden Schenn's performance last night was absolutely astounding. Not only did he score three goals for his first hat trick of his NHL career, he probably was robbed of a fourth as well. Most likely, Schenn's short-angle snipe in the first period did cross the line before Flames goalie Jonas Hiller could stop the puck, but it was impossible to prove with certainty via video replay. Still, that doesn't take away from Schenn's execution, or his willingness to get to high-danger areas and pepper Hiller with shots. He finished the game with nine shots on goal, thirteen total shot attempts, and an insane eight high-danger scoring chances. Those are shot creation totals more like what you see from someone like Alexander Ovechkin, not Brayden Schenn. Over the past few weeks, Schenn's confidence has been apparent in his enthusiasm in blasting through the neutral zone with speed and creating controlled offensive zone entries. Last night, it morphed into a willingness to battle for space in the dirty areas and to let shots rip from all angles.
  • The Flyers' penalty kill improved dramatically as the game progressed. In their first appearance, the unit played far too passive, sitting in their box and hoping that Calgary would make a mistake. The result was a tic-tac-toe goal that gave the Flames an early lead. Facing another shorthanded situation early in the second period, Philadelphia upped its aggressiveness dramatically this time. The heavy pressure was leaving Calgary forwards open, but given less time to make decisions, they began to play sloppy. The culmination of the Flyers' PK improvement came on the Flames' third power play, when Philadelphia seemingly held the puck for longer than Calgary did. The passiveness was gone entirely, and the reckless aggressiveness had become sound calculated risk-taking, resulting in forced turnovers and extended puck possession.
  • In his first game back in the lineup after a three-game scratching, Evgeny Medvedev put on a performance that was a microcosm of his season. As usual, Medvedev finished in the black in terms of on-ice shot attempt differential, posting a stellar 60.61% Corsi For percentage. However, his critics could point to a bad penalty in the second period caused by a poorly-executed pinch in the offensive zone as an example of why Medvedev often finds himself in the press box. Medvedev's style of play does lend itself to mistakes on occasion, and those mistakes do seem to be particularly glaring. But while it's easy to remember the one bad pinch that resulted in a rush going the other way and a penalty, you can forget the numerous cycles that were sustained last night by similar "aggressive" pinches by Medvedev. His critics (both fans and apparently his coaches) don't seem to give him credit for those plays, even though they add up to drive play and create offense. Instead, Medvedev shuttles back and forth between the ice and the press box. It certainly would be nice if Dave Hakstol and the Flyers gave Medvedev the same leash they've given rookie Shayne Gostisbehere. Medvedev may not be the same scorer, but like Gostisbehere, his mistakes are necessary by-products of a sound process that creates more goals for the Flyers than it allows. He deserves similar treatment.
  • On the other hand, there's Andrew MacDonald, who since returning from Lehigh Valley to replace the injured Michael Del Zotto has received heavy minutes and has yet to see the inside of a press box. His primary weakness was particularly noticeable last night - he's an absolute mess in the neutral zone. Early in the game, MacDonald was turnstiled just inside his own blue line, leading to a semi-breakaway. A few shifts later, he recovered a disrupted puck just inside the Flyers zone but failed to chip it past incoming Flames forwards, resulting in an extended Calgary cycle. Late in the first period, he misfired on another pass in the same spot just inside the blue line, which forced Philadelphia to regroup back deep in their own territory. Finally, with five minutes left in the second period, he turned the puck over while retreating into his own end, again nearly creating a breakaway. That's when I stopped counting. Truthfully, I could make a similar list after almost every game, except the mistakes aren't usually this glaring. But they're still there, slowing down the Flyers' transition game or allowing an opponent easy entry back into the Philadelphia end. Through nine NHL games this season, MacDonald has a horrendous -5.80% Corsi Relative to his teammates, worst among current Flyers defensemen. I've seen nothing in his game to lead me to believe that statistic will be improving any time soon.