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Flyers 3, Lightning 1: 10 things we learned from a textbook road win

The Flyers' run of strong play continued, as they completed the home-and-home sweep of the Tampa Bay Lightning on Friday night.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

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

  • The Tampa Bay Lightning are feared most for their high-end speed, and their skill up and down the lineup. Led by the Triplets line and Steven Stamkos up front, they have the ability to simply overwhelm opponents with offense. Last night, the Flyers made Tampa look as slow and plodding as the New Jersey Devils. Philadelphia held Tampa to 18 shots on Tuesday, but that was mostly due to the fact that the Flyers constantly had possession of the puck, not because they were doing a fantastic job of disrupting the Lightning attack. This game, on the other hand, was a defensive clinic. The offensive zone forecheck was strong yet again, but the Flyers won this game in the neutral zone with their positioning and instincts. Tampa is a fantastic team in transition, but Philadelphia neutralized their rush game entirely, which also went a long way towards limiting high-danger scoring chances. Instead, the Lightning were forced to create all of their offense via the cycle, and they didn't look particularly comfortable doing so.
  • Although the Flyers played well throughout, this game was won in the second period. Philadelphia held a one goal lead after twenty minutes, but Tampa had the better of play during the even strength in the first, as the Flyers could only muster one 5-on-5 shot on goal. That changed in the second. The Flyers became more efficient at gaining entry into the offensive zone, and winning puck battles once they were there. That allowed for Philadelphia to employ their forecheck, which slowed Tampa's pace dramatically. In almost 19 minutes of even strength play in the middle stanza, the Lightning created only one high-danger scoring chance, while the Flyers generated five. The goals came as well, with Matt Read blasting a slapper past Ben Bishop on the power play, and Brayden Schenn adding a wraparound goal at even strength. Philadelphia's score-adjusted Corsi in the period was 61.56 percent, and if anything, that undersells the Flyers' quality of play. Tampa's shots were rarely dangerous, while Philadelphia repeatedly tested Bishop with authority.
  • When I go back to track the entries for this game, I expect that I'll find that both teams struggled to create shots once they entered the offensive zone. There were only 41 total shots on goal in this one, and that wasn't because both teams were missing the net more than usual. In fact, when looking at total unblocked shot attempts from both teams, this was the third-lowest event game of the Flyers season, behind only two games against the notoriously-stingy New Jersey Devils. Interestingly enough, fourth on that list is the season-opener against this very same Tampa Bay Lightning team, but that can probably be chalked up to start-of-the-year rust. This game truly was a defensive battle, filled with tight checking and very little back-and-forth action. The pace suited the Flyers perfectly fine, as they finished with a solid 54.8% score-adjusted Fenwick, and basically broke even in score-adjusted Corsi.
  • With the top power play unit still struggling in the absence of Jakub Voracek, the second unit did its best to pick up the slack. Usually incapable of even generating extended pressure, the five-man combination of Sean Couturier, Sam Gagner, Ryan White, Matt Read and Andrew MacDonald found a way to score twice last night. What was most impressive was how each member of the unit was able to provide value. On Gagner's goal, Couturier wristed a high shot difficult to smother, made even more difficult by a solid screen set by White. Read and MacDonald then teamed up for the second tally, a slapshot from the right faceoff circle. For years, the only thing keeping the Flyers from icing the best power play in hockey has been the ineffectiveness of the second unit, and one strong game certainly doesn't erase that. But maybe brighter days are on the horizon, with Couturier's offensive instincts improving and dynamic forward Travis Konecny on the way.
  • Two months ago, it would have been impossible to imagine a game where Claude Giroux and Sean Couturier both finished solidly in the red from a puck possession standpoint, and the Flyers still held their own at even strength overall. Yet that's exactly what happened last night, as Giroux posted a 41.67% Corsi For and Couturier checked in at an uncharacteristically-poor 30.77%. But now the Flyers have a legitimate third line, and it was that trio of Nick Cousins, Matt Read and Scott Laughton that picked up the slack. Cousins led the way with a 61.11% Corsi For percentage, and his linemates weren't far behind. The emergence of this third line has allowed Dave Hakstol to rely less heavily upon the Pierre-Edouard Bellemare-centered unit, and has been the biggest reason for the Flyers' recent improvement in secondary scoring. Heading into this game, the trio had posted a stellar 62.3% Corsi together, so last night really was just a continuation of the trend.
  • Matt Read has had an odd season. His on-ice shot attempt differentials have never been better, and he's been the best Flyer in terms of neutral zone play. But Read's scoring totals have not bounced back to pre-2014 levels, when he was a regular 20-goal scorer. The decline in his point production has turned him into something of a scapegoat within certain sections of the Flyers fanbase, and many were calling for general manager Ron Hextall to explore trading the forward at the deadline, fearful that Read's value would only continue to drop in the coming seasons. Last night, Read did his best to remind his critics that his scoring ability hasn't completely left him, showcasing great instincts in pushing down into better scoring position before unleashing a cannon of a slapshot that fooled Bishop. Read has never been a high-volume shooter, but he was able to sustain a 15% shooting percentage in his first three NHL seasons, allowing him to play a 20-goal pace. It seemed like he was one of the rare players who had a true talent above-average scorer's touch, but the past two seasons have called that theory into question. Maybe Read simply was a bit fortunate with his shots in the early portion of his career, the hockey equivalent of a coin coming up heads three straight times. This year, he's shooting at a 10% rate, which is far closer to league average for a forward. It doesn't mean Read isn't useful -- a 15-goal scorer who drives play is probably worth a $3.625 million yearly cap hit. Still, more games like last night would go a long way in winning back his former fans.
  • Earlier this week, I wrote that while Steve Mason is likely the best goaltender that the Flyers have, choosing between Mason and backup Michal Neuvirth wasn't really necessary because both netminders should be good enough for Philadelphia's playoff push. However, it does seem like Mason is taking a stranglehold on the No. 1 job. Only a late Lightning goal after Ben Bishop was lifted for an extra attacker prevented Mason from earning his second shutout in three games. Tampa Bay didn't take many shots, but most of the ones that they did get on net were of extremely high quality. In fact, Mason was the biggest reason that the Flyers exited the first period in the lead, as the Lightning got the better of play by a fair amount. If Hakstol has decided to ride one of his goalies, Mason was always the logical choice, as he has a longer track record of above-average play than Neuvirth and also commands the respect of every player in the locker room. They remember his fantastic play in the playoffs against the Rangers two years ago, and they are fully aware that Mason was their best player last season. At least over the past week, he's looked like 2014-15 Mason yet again.
  • Protecting a three-goal lead, it would have been very easy for the Flyers to allow Tampa Bay to take full control of the pace of the contest in the third period. But the Lightning were only able to generate consistent offense after head coach Jon Cooper pulled goalie Ben Bishop for an extra attacker. During the preceding 16 minutes of play, they were unable to create much of anything, totally stymied by the Flyers' defensive prowess. Tampa took only three shots during the final stanza at 5-on-5, and created just two high-danger chances. Philadelphia's neutral zone defense was stifling, and they even cleaned up their defensive zone issues, which had allowed the Lightning to gain easy access to the high slot in the first period.
  • I still believe that Sam Gagner is the most likely candidate to be scratched once Jakub Voracek is ready to return to the lineup next week. But Gagner certainly isn't making the decision easy for Hakstol. The forward now has five goals in his last eight games, providing much-needing secondary scoring for a team that lacked it during the season's first half. Gagner even is impressive without the puck, as on more than one occasion last night he was able to disrupt Lightning rushes with heads-up backchecking. Basically, Gagner is turning into as complete a player as he is physically capable of being, and he's putting together a very impressive highlight reel to send to teams in the offseason once he hits unrestricted free agency. Benching Gagner for Voracek would be the path of least resistance for the Flyers' coach, but sitting one of the team's hottest players does seem counter-intuitive at this point.
  • As the home team, the Lightning were able to dictate far more of the line matching last night than they were able to do in Philadelphia. Cooper tried to exploit the Bellemare line in particular, as Bellemare skated against the Triplets line during over half of his even strength minutes. Luckily for the Flyers, the fourth line essentially broke even against Tyler Johnson and his linemates (four shot attempts for, five shot attempts against). The Stamkos line primarily faced off against Sean Couturier, while Valtteri Filppula drew the Claude Giroux assignment. At the Wells Fargo Center, Giroux's line took Stamkos to the cleaners, and Cooper clearly noticed. Unfortunately for the Lightning, all the line matching in the world couldn't change the fact that Philadelphia was simply the better team last night.