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Flyers 4, Red Wings 3: 10 things we learned from a season-altering win

Handed a golden opportunity to close the gap on their biggest rival for the final playoff spot in the East, the Flyers came through with a much-needed regulation victory.

Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

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

  • The end-of-game statistics would have you believe that this was an evenly matched game that could have went either way. And in some ways, it was -- it took about four fantastic Steve Mason saves in the third period to keep this one from going to overtime. But due to an incredible opening period, the Flyers ensured that Detroit would be chasing the game all night long. They won the 5-on-5 shots on goal battle 17-3 in the first, and added another six shots on the power play. Then, they hung tough in the second period, matching the Red Wings body blow for body blow, goal for goal. It wasn't until the third period when Detroit closed the gap in terms of quality of play, and it wasn't because the Flyers "sat back." They were still executing their forecheck whenever they could. The Red Wings just finally started executing on simple defensive zone passes and in turn, were setting up cycles in the Philadelphia end. The result was shot attempt differentials that look pretty even -- Philadelphia finished with a 51.98% score-adjusted Fenwick and a 49.38% score-adjusted Corsi. Still, it's absolutely fair to say that Philadelphia was the better team on the whole, in that they dictated the tempo of the game and forced Detroit to play catch up throughout.
  • How did the Flyers put so much pressure on the Red Wings in the first period? We've explored at length the effect of their forecheck, and its ability to retrieve possession of the puck in the offensive zone and extend cycles. But what shouldn't be discounted is this team's ability to take opponents apart via that cycle game with the puck. Sure, Philadelphia's retrieval game was on point. However, the biggest reason for the first period territorial dominance was that Detroit simply could not handle the Flyers' shifting offensive zone pressure. Dave Hakstol gives the green light for his defensemen to pinch deep into the zone and even move below the red line, but they need to be immediately replaced by forwards at the point for the system to work. When everything is clicking, opponents become confused, losing their assignments and giving everyone on the attack team more space to create. Detroit was fooled on a number of occasions by these assignment switches, and it's a big reason why Philadelphia was able to extract more value than expected out of their entries.
  • At the same time, let's not minimize the impact of the Flyers' vaunted forecheck. In the January matchup between these two teams, Philadelphia didn't have many opportunities to directly attack Detroit's defensemen in their own zone, because the Flyers' passing through the middle of the ice was so off that they struggled to get there in the first place. Tonight was a different story. The Red Wings do not have a particularly strong puck-handling back end, and Philadelphia exploited that all night long. The turnovers just kept coming and the Flyers certainly contributed, sending two forecheckers to challenge a puck-carrying defenseman at every possible opportunity. At the same time, the Red Wings got better as the game progressed in attacking Flyers defensemen as well. In his post-game press conference, Detroit coach Jeff Blashill interestingly called the game "kind of a battle of forechecks." Considering the strength of their forwards, the Flyers will take those terms of engagement any day, even while nursing a weak blue line.
  • It's been frustrating to listen to critics of Michael Raffl's play this season -- those who have become dissatisfied with the Austrian forward's lack of scoring touch and believe he is given too large a role on the team. But Raffl has always been a support player, one who wins puck battles, creates space on the rush and backchecks furiously to give his talented linemates more opportunities to score. Every successful team needs a few Michael Raffls to be a true contender. That's why it was so nice to see Raffl come through with a monster game last night. First, he exploited the Red Wings' aggressive neutral zone tactics by using his speed and strength to push past defenseman Kyle Quincey before sliding the puck around Petr Mrazek. Later, given a shift with Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Chris VandeVelde, he fought his way to the slot and took two cracks at the net, scoring on the second. Raffl will likely never be a premier point producer in the NHL, but he does enough things right to have nights like this on occasion, when he can silence the critics who don't notice the under-the-radar value that he provides nightly.
  • For all of Shayne Gostisbehere's scoring talent, the Flyers have actually done slightly worse than expected this season from a shot creation standpoint (-2.13% Offensive Zone Score) when the dynamic rookie has been on the ice at even strength. At first, I thought this was simply a quirk in the data, but the more I watched Gostisbehere, it became obvious that he did still have much to learn about extending cycles and taking care of the puck at the blue line. But last night, Gostisbehere owned the offensive zone. He used his skating ability to press deep on the attack, and seemed to terrify the Detroit blue line whenever he hit the ice. His goal may have been a fluky attempted pass, but it only occurred because he pinched down into the zone with the puck and created chaos in front of Mrazek. In addition, his defensive game was top notch, as he utilized his anticipation to snuff out rushes and disrupt cycles before they got too dangerous. The result was a defense-high 54.07% score-adjusted Corsi, and one of his best all-around games in weeks.
  • For all of the positives from the Flyers last night, it would have been for naught had Steve Mason not come through big time in the game's final ten minutes. He did give up one goal, but also made a number of highlight-reel saves, including one on Henrik Zetterberg with the Swedish forward coming in all alone. War-On-Ice tracked Mason as making five high-danger saves in the period and 20 stops overall. Considering the fact that Mason has now started the last five games, it's clear that Hakstol has chosen to go with him as the primary starter for the stretch run. But Hakstol's choice for starting goalie tonight in Chicago will be even more telling. Going with Neuvirth is the safe bet -- it's the second game of a home/road back-to-back, and Neuvirth even shut out the Blackhawks earlier this year. Picking Neuvirth would tell us very little. But if Hakstol decides to go with Mason, then there is no more goalie controversy. Steve Mason would be his netminder the rest of the way, for better or worse.
  • Going back to Blashill's comment regarding last night's game being a "battle of forechecks," the style of play could not have fit the Pierre-Edouard Bellemare's line's skillset any more perfectly. They were devastating on the attack in the offensive zone, using their knack for high-energy puck pursuit to frustrate Detroit defensemen as they attempted to break out of their own zone. They even found a way to turn all of that zone time into tangible production, as Michael Raffl added a second period goal while on the line. Raffl only saw time with Bellemare and Chris VandeVelde because Ryan White had just skated with the second power play unit, and Hakstol was giving him a shift off. But the goal hinted at the potential of a 76-78-12 fourth line. Raffl isn't an elite scorer by any means, but his offensive instincts are superior to those of White, who plays a more straightforward aggressive game. With Jakub Voracek soon to return, I can't help but think that Michael Raffl's occasional shifts on the Bellemare line could be something of an extended audition.
  • Both Hakstol and Craig Berube have noted in the past that Brayden Schenn tends to have his best games from a scoring standpoint when he is active physically in the early stages. And while Schenn was only able to add a primary assist in this one, five hits in the first period certainly qualifies as "active." Now hits can be something of a misleading stat, just like shot blocks, as they imply that the opponent has possession of the puck at the time of the hit. But I've always believed that offensive and defensive zone hits are two separate animals -- the latter is correlated with possession weakness, while the former is more indicative of aggressive forechecking. Schenn's hits (seven total) last night often occurred on the attack, whether as the "first man in" on a dump-and-chase play, or trying to separate a defenseman from the puck as he attempted to initiate a breakout. Schenn's hits last night were productive ones, and should be rightfully celebrated.
  • With the stellar performance of the Bellemare line last night, it's legitimately possible that Dave Hakstol could be swayed to keep them together even after Jakub Voracek returns. After all, he clearly has a great deal of faith in them, right or wrong, shown by his willingness to regularly use them in late-game situations. That would leave three real candidates for a scratch -- Sam Gagner, Scott Laughton, or Matt Read. Out of the three, Laughton had the best game last night, leading the team with a 56.25% Corsi For percentage and creating two high-danger scoring chances in limited minutes. Gagner had an off game, and was particularly passive in executing defensive zone exits, as he was letting the puck come to him rather than warding off oncoming forecheckers. Read, on the other hand, was invisible for most of the night. I suspect upon tape review, his smart plays will show, as they usually do. But those sharp neutral zone decisions didn't prevent him from being scratched earlier in the season, so don't keep him off the list just yet.
  • Hakstol chose to fight fire with fire in terms of matchups last night, sending the Giroux line out against Pavel Datsyuk and his linemates for almost nine of their fourteen even strength minutes. And while they did have a number of good shifts (particularly in the first period), Datsyuk turned the tide in the second. It seemed like every productive shift for Detroit in the middle stanza involved Datsyuk and rookie Anthony Mantha, who was very impressive in his NHL debut. In fact, Giroux posted a poor 32% Corsi For percentage against Datsyuk, a testament to the Russian's still-fearsome skill. Luckily for the Flyers, Detroit's other lines were far less successful, including the Zetterberg-Larkin tandem, which drew Sean Couturier.