In the first half of the month of February, the Philadelphia Flyers were essentially treading water -- playing well enough to remain theoretically in the hunt for a playoff spot, but not winning enough games to be viewed as a true threat. Their 3-3-2 record through February 14th was the perfect encapsulation of their mediocre results.
But since that 3-1 loss to the New York Rangers on the 14th, the Flyers have been nothing less than one of the hottest teams in hockey. In their past 12 contests, Philadelphia has a 8-2-2 record, highlighted by their home-and-home sweep of the Tampa Bay Lightning last week. In the process, they've put serious pressure on the two current wild card teams in the Eastern Conference -- the Detroit Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins -- and have become the only real threat left to swipe a playoff spot from them.
Still, stretches of strong play can sometimes be deceiving. The Florida Panthers, for example, went on a 12-game winning streak earlier this year, but that run was primarily fueled by amazing goaltending (Florida netminders stopped 95.6% of shots during the streak) and unsustainable shooting percentages (they scored on 12.2 percent of their shots). They were playing well, but the streak was not caused by the Panthers carrying play to a massive extent. It was because their goal-based efficiency metrics went through the roof, and those runs rarely last.
So are the Flyers simply riding elevated percentages to an unexpected spot in the playoff race? What is causing the team's run of great results?
The Flyers' leap in even strength play has been extraordinary
Through the first half of the season, the Philadelphia Flyers established a fairly set formula for winning games. The team rarely was blown out in terms of shots on goal, but usually came up a bit short of their opponents. As a result, they depended upon above-average goaltending to make up the difference, which they often received from Michal Neuvirth and Steve Mason. In games when the Flyers' special teams came through, they usually won, and when special teams faltered, Philadelphia generally found themselves on the losing end of the decision.
Over the past month, that formula has changed. Now, the Flyers are absolutely blowing teams away in even strength shot differential, carrying the play to a ridiculous degree.
For the vast majority of the season, the Flyers were generating somewhere between 48% and 51% of the even strength shot attempts in each game (after adjusting for score situation). That's not terrible, but it's also nowhere near the elite teams in the NHL, who usually hover in the 52 percent-and-above range. But over the past month, their performance has reached an entirely new level, and it shows no signs of abating. The chart mountain's elevation just keeps climbing.
In fact, Philadelphia is right there with the best puck possession teams in the NHL over the past month. They're third in the league when looking at all even strength shot attempts, and are at the top of the unblocked shot attempt charts.
|Team||Score-Adjusted 5-on-5 Corsi (Since 2/14)||Score-Adjusted 5-on-5 Fenwick (Since 2/14)|
|Los Angeles Kings||55.6%||56.7%|
|St. Louis Blues||55.4%||54.6%|
Since shot attempt differential metrics like Fenwick and Corsi are far more repeatable than goal-based statistics like shooting percentage, this jump is particularly eye-opening. If the Flyers' recent play was being driven by the team scoring at a crazy-high efficiency rate or the goalies simply stopping every puck they saw, this run would still be enjoyable, but likely wouldn't mean much for the future performance of the team.
Instead, Philadelphia is showing signs of legitimate, measurable improvement in their even strength play. Considering the limitations of their current roster, the Flyers almost certainly are not this good, but they're absolutely trending in the right direction overall. This is not the same team from back in October and November.
Offensive and neutral zone play has been improving all year, and the two are linked
Now we know that the Flyers have dramatically improved at even strength over the past month. By using the zone entry data that I've manually tracked this season, it's possible to pinpoint exactly what is causing the leap in quality of play.
First, let's take a look at Philadelphia's play in the neutral zone. In the middle of the ice, a team has two goals -- push the puck into the offensive zone (with possession of the puck whenever possible) and prevent the other team from doing the same. To that end, Neutral Zone Score measures the number of entries generated versus entries allowed, and weights controlled entries as more valuable to account for the fact that it is easier to generate shots via those entries.
On that front, the Flyers have gotten progressively better throughout the season. A ten-game rolling Neutral Zone Score chart helps to illustrate the upward trajectory.
After peaking in early January, the Flyers experienced a dip in their neutral zone performance for about a ten-game span. But since mid-February, the team has slowly moved back into the above-50% section -- exactly where they want to be.
Still, a 51 percent Neutral Zone Score (their current position) doesn't fully explain why Philadelphia is approaching a 57% score-adjusted Fenwick over the past month. To understand that, it helps to look at their offensive zone play as well. By determining the league average outcomes for each controlled entry, uncontrolled entry, and offensive zone faceoff, we can determine if the Flyers are exceeding expectations from a shot generation standpoint, or falling short.
This is Offensive Zone Score, where a positive percentage means that a team is outperforming league-average performance while on the attack and negative percentage means the opposite. Let's again look at a ten-game rolling chart to observe season-long trends.
A couple things to note here. First, the Flyers' recent performance in the offensive zone has been nothing short of fantastic. Since mid-February, Philadelphia has generated over 15 percent more unblocked shot attempts than would be expected considering how they've entered the offensive zone. That's a testament to the effectiveness of the team's forecheck, which has extracted extra value out of entries by creating turnovers and extending cycles.
But there is another, more intriguing observation to be gained through these charts. The peaks and valleys of the Neutral Zone Score chart and the Offensive Zone Score chart look pretty close to identical. Essentially, when the Flyers are struggling to create shots in the offensive zone, they're also posting poor neutral zone results, and vice versa.
This all goes back to Philadelphia's emphasis upon an aggressive forecheck. Think about how a forecheck looks when it's employed successfully. The puck is dumped in and retrieved, a cycle is started, shots are taken, and then the defending team takes control. They then attempt to exit the zone, but are still under pressure from the oncoming forecheckers. When that pressure is working, the defending team often will be unable to exit their zone with possession of the puck, choosing instead to lift the puck out of danger to the neutral zone. Once there, the puck becomes easy for the team just on the forecheck to retrieve, who can then work on generating yet another entry into the offensive zone.
This is why, at least for the Flyers, neutral zone and offensive zone play are inextricably linked. If the forecheck is sustaining long enough cycles to force the opposing team to harmlessly dump the puck out of the zone due to fatigue and poor execution, then Philadelphia is able to win the entries battle. But if the forecheck is failing, opponents are blasting through the middle of the ice at speed against an undermanned defense.
Right now, the Philadelphia forecheck has never been better, and it's paying dividends in the middle of the ice.
Defensive zone play is finally matching play in the other two zones
The Flyers' play in the offensive and neutral zones does appear to be linked, as they are co-dependent considering the nature of the team's tactics. Philadelphia's shot suppression capabilities in the defensive zone, however, appear to be their own animal entirely.
Unlike offensive zone and neutral zone play, defensive zone performance does not appear to move in conjunction with its counterparts. If anything, it's been the reverse -- when the Flyers' forecheck has been at its weakest, the team has been its best at defensive zone shot suppression.
Could there be a link here? I imagine that strong neutral zone positional play could potentially affect the "quality" of entries, resulting in slower controlled zone entries and better puck retrieval by the defensemen on dump-ins. But the most important takeaway from this chart is that in recent weeks, the Flyers finally reversed the trend. For the first time this season, both trend lines are solidly in the plus column, meaning that Philadelphia's defensive zone shot suppression and offensive zone forecheck have been above-average simultaneously.
This gives us the clearest picture possible of why Philadelphia's shot attempt differentials have improved so much. The forecheck is helping the Flyers to win the neutral zone, and they're also no longer bleeding extra shots against once the opponent sets up on the attack.
The result? Puck possession rivaling that of the best teams in the NHL.
Right now, Philadelphia is not a team that should be taken lightly. No longer dependent on their above-average goaltending to make up for mediocre even strength play, the Flyers are now driving possession and shots at an elite level comparable to true Stanley Cup contenders.
The cause? A simultaneous improvement in the team's already-formidable forecheck and their defensive zone play. The strength of Philadelphia's offensive zone pressure is helping to slow opponents down in transition, putting less pressure on a limited blue line corps and resulting in better overall neutral zone play. Also, the Flyers have seemingly addressed their biggest weakness, and are starting to suppress shots in the defensive zone at an above-expected level.
On paper, the Philadelphia Flyers have nowhere near the depth of teams like the Los Angeles Kings, St. Louis Blues and Anaheim Ducks. But over the past month, their even strength play has been right there with them. They've done it by posting above-average results in all three zones of the ice, squeezing the most out of a limited roster. And if they can keep this up through mid-April, it's difficult to see them missing out on the postseason.
All statistics from War-On-Ice.com or manually tracked by Charlie O'Connor.