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Flyers 3, Blackhawks 2: 10 things we learned from moving into a playoff spot

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The Flyers have gone 4-0-1 to start an seven-game stretch against teams in playoff position, and have moved into the final Eastern Conference wild card spot as a result.

David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

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

  • Following their 6-0 blowout of the Columbus Blue Jackets on March 5th, the Philadelphia Flyers faced a seven-game stretch against six teams that were pacing to make the postseason. Still chasing down that elusive playoff spot, the schedule did the Flyers no favors. Somehow, Philadelphia has yet to lose a game in regulation to any of those teams, going 4-0-1 so far. Last night's improbable victory against the Chicago Blackhawks simply continued the trend. This wasn't even a case of Michal Neuvirth bailing out a tired team struggling in the second game of a home/road back-to-back, though he did play very well. No, the Flyers straight up outplayed the Blackhawks once they weathered the home team's opening surge. Philadelphia finished with a 53.46% score-adjusted Fenwick (unblocked 5-on-5 shot attempts), and would have won the Corsi battle (total 5-on-5 shot attempts) as well, if not for a frantic final five minutes when Chicago threw everything but the kitchen sink at the Philadelphia net.
  • This game wasn't just dead-even on the scoreboard after two periods -- all of the even strength advanced stats said the same. The two teams had truly played each other to a draw through forty minutes of action. Conventional wisdom states that the team in the second game of a back-to-back runs out of gas late, but if the Flyers were tired, they showed few signs of it. Chicago could only get three shots on goal through to Neuvirth at even strength in the third period, while the Flyers took the lead on the strength of a Radko Gudas point shot that deflected off a Blackhawk and into the net. Following the tally, the Flyers combined sporadic, tactical usage of their forecheck with sound yet aggressive neutral zone play to smother Chicago for a good five minutes. Then, they held on for dear life as the Blackhawks pulled their goaltender and began firing away from every angle possible. But they could only get one shot through with Scott Darling pulled, a testament to Philadelphia's defensive zone positioning, willingness to block shots, and stellar play from goalie Michal Neuvirth.
  • The Flyers did deserve to win this game, but they wouldn't have been able to pull it off without the help of Michal Neuvirth. Philadelphia mostly got the better of play from a raw attempts standpoint, but Chicago's shots on goal were of a higher quality. Out of the 24 saves that Neuvirth made, seven of them rated as "high-danger" chances, while eight others qualified as "medium-danger." Due to the Flyers' ability to block shots (23 in total), Neuvirth didn't have to make many easy saves from the perimeter -- his skaters did that job for him. Instead, he was forced to come through only in key moments, like when Marian Hossa stormed in on a late breakaway in the third period. Neuvirth made up for Hossa's early shorthanded breakaway tally by stoning the future Hall of Fame forward, and preventing his team from being forced to play catch up on the road against a formidable foe.
  • There's a strong case to be made that Philadelphia was the better team for fifty minutes in this one, while Chicago dominated the opening and closing five. The late push was predictable, as the Blackhawks' desperation level couldn't have been higher and they had pulled their goaltender for half of the timeframe. But Chicago's territorial dominance to start the game was a bit more surprising, especially after the Flyers delivered a roundhouse kick of a first period to the Detroit Red Wings on Tuesday night. Philadelphia's early neutral zone play actually wasn't terrible -- they were just uncharacteristically inept once they got in on the attack. There were numerous zone entries wasted due to a weak forecheck and poor passing. But over time, the Flyers forwards essentially played themselves into the game, and by the second period, they were back to their normal crash-and-bang selves.
  • The Flyers' biggest issue through the first half of the contest was the Claude Giroux line's complete inability to match up with the star-powered trio of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Tomas Fleischmann. Through thirty minutes, Giroux had a anti-perfect 0.00% Corsi For against Toews, as Chicago's top line had generated eight shot attempts while the Flyers' captain and his linemates couldn't create even one. It even was their defensive breakdown early in the second period that allowed Toews to give Chicago back the lead. But then, one play turned the tide of the matchup. On a fast break, Giroux expertly protected the puck from all-world defenseman Duncan Keith and found Brayden Schenn for a highlight reel one-timer goal to tie the game. From that moment on, the Giroux line matched Toews and company stride for stride.
  • The top pairing of Mark Streit and Nick Schultz has taken a big step forward over the past month, but they didn't have their best game in this one. Their scrambling attempt at defense on the Toews goal was the most obvious, but the Flyers found themselves pinned in their own end quite often when that pair hit the ice. Streit finished with a poor 36.67% Corsi For percentage, while Schultz was even worse, posting a putrid 28.12%. Again, their play over the past month has been nothing short of fantastic, so it's easy to forgive them one bad game. But if they were simply overwhelmed by Chicago's talent up front, it won't get any easier against Sidney Crosby and the Penguins on Saturday.
  • In retrospect, the pivotal point in this game came way back in the first period. After Marian Hossa had scored a shorthanded goal to put Chicago up 1-0, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Chris VandeVelde took two penalties in succession to hand the Blackhawks a 113-second two-man advantage. Had Chicago scored even one goal on the ensuing power play, this game may have gotten out of hand quickly. Instead, the Philadelphia penalty kill stood tall, allowing just two shots and no high-danger chances on the 5-on-3. The shorthanded units have been a big part of Philadelphia's run of strong results against contending teams, as they've allowed only one power play goal in their past seven games. The return of Sean Couturier from injury on February 23rd has really provided a lift, and the team's PK shot suppression statistics began trending in the right direction for the Flyers ever since he rejoined the lineup. Philadelphia is now the sixth-best PK shot suppression team in the NHL, and the fourth-best at preventing high-danger chances. The shorthanded units are clearly improving at the perfect time, just as the Flyers gear up for a possible playoff run.
  • The team's first period struggles in the offensive zone were fueled by the Couturier line, usually so devastating on the cycle. They were unable to muster even one shot attempt in the period, and it looked to be a long night for the Flyers' shutdown line. But Couturier, Sam Gagner and Michael Raffl had other ideas. Through the final forty minutes, they were Philadelphia's most effective line, driving possession to the tune of a 58.82% Corsi For percentage. Their hard work finally paid off with the game-winning goal, as a textbook entry and efficient puck movement along the boards eventually created a lane for Gudas to fire the puck at the point. Granted, the goal was fluky, as it bounced off a Chicago defenseman before fooling Darling. But the line's constant pressure made the tally feel well-earned anyway. After his two-assist night, Couturier now has 31 points in 51 games, for a solid 50-point pace over a full season. With a strong finishing kick, the two-way center may even threaten his career single-season high of 39 points, but in far less games.
  • While the Schultz-Streit pairing struggled, the duo of Brandon Manning and Radko Gudas stepped up big time. Chicago is a team that thrives on creating speed through the neutral zone, and the Manning-Gudas pairing chose to fight aggressiveness with aggressiveness, directly challenging Blackhawk forwards in the middle of the ice to slow them down before they hit the Flyers' end. It's a risky strategy, as shown by Michael Raffl's dismantling of Kyle Quincey on Tuesday night. But the benefit is that it takes a rush-centric opponent out of its comfort zone. For Philadelphia's "third-pair" last night, the results were undeniable. They led the team in on-ice shot attempt differential, with Manning's 76.12% Corsi For percentage actually tops among all defensemen in the contest. As I noted earlier this week, the Gudas pairing has led the way from a puck possession standpoint over the past month, and last night was no different. Maybe more ice time should be sent their way in the coming games to see if they can keep up this level of performance with increased responsibilities.
  • And now we come to Andrew MacDonald, who was a hot topic on social media following the game. It was a mixed-bag game for the defenseman, who undeniably provided value through his primary assist on Ryan White's first period power play goal. It was a perfectly-placed, accurate shot that gave White the opportunity to deflect the puck past Darling and tie the game. At the same time, MacDonald's passing was erratic all night long and he really struggled in defending the blue line at even strength. Some of this can be attributed to the strength of the Chicago forwards -- players like Kane, Toews, Panarin and Hossa can make any defenseman look foolish on the rush. But MacDonald was giving up space to everyone, most egregiously to Andrew Desjardins while the rest of his linemates went off for a line change in the first period. MacDonald backed so deep into the defensive zone that Desjardins simply couldn't pass up the opportunity for an easy entry. Now, nothing came of the ensuing cycle, so no harm, no foul, right? In a sense, that is correct, but it remains frustrating to watch Philadelphia's third-best puck mover on the current defense (after Gostisbehere and Streit) struggle with such an obvious, fatal flaw. Earlier this month, I argued that MacDonald would be best utilized in a timeshare role, playing mostly against dump-and-chase heavy teams so that his solid puck skills could be used in puck retrieval and zone exits. Against rush teams, his passive neutral zone play is especially noticeable and exploitable, and that's what happened last night.