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Breaking down what went wrong in the second period of Saturday's Flyers-Penguins game

The Flyers' game on Saturday against their hated cross-state rival was largely lost in the game's middle 20 minutes. What happened that led to the total breakdown?

Can't say for certain, but by default this was probably following a defensive zone turnover.
Can't say for certain, but by default this was probably following a defensive zone turnover.
Len Redkoles - Getty Images

Morning Observations is a feature in which we break down the previous day's game with an analytical eye. Today, we'll be going in a slightly different direction, focusing in on what particularly went wrong in one particular part of the game. Also, it's not really morning any more, is it? Oh well.

***

There was no point in Saturday's 4-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in which the Flyers looked like a particularly good team. A departure from the team's routinely outstanding play of the past five or six weeks, the Flyers spent almost the entire game chasing the play at even strength, failing to generate much of anything offensively while the visiting Penguins were hemming the Flyers into the defensive zone on what felt like every other shift.

The end result was a massive advantage for the Penguins by almost every possible measure -- goals, chances, overall attempts, you name it.

Measure Penguins Flyers
Goals 3 1
Shots on goal 29 14
Unblocked attempts 43 24
Total attempts 60 38
Scoring chances 38 14

(Statistics above and elsewhere in the article are all at 5-on-5 and all via war-on-ice.com or tracked by Kurt R. unless otherwise noted.)

In fact, the Flyers' 32.5% score-adjusted Fenwick in the game was the team's worst single-game mark of the entire season. There's no way around it: this was an ugly performance by the Flyers.

Still, it felt as though the team's undoing really only came in the middle 20 minutes of the hockey game. The first period, despite being controlled on the shot clock by the visitors, was a pretty sloppy and poorly-played period of hockey from both sides. And in the third, though the Flyers managed to muster up some pressure, it more or less felt like that frame was shaping up as a formality after the way the second one went.

Yes, it was the second period that was the big problem for the Flyers on Saturday afternoon. Shift after shift saw the Flyers fail to generate any sort of pressure, flailing around trying to gain control of the puck while the Penguins skated circles around them in the neutral and offensive zones (they didn't have to do that in the defensive zone because they were pretty much never in it).

What exactly went wrong in that frame?

The basics

If you were lucky enough to not see yesterday's game, let's briefly recap what happened in that fateful second period. A goal from Radko Gudas about two minutes in opened up the scoring after it bounced off of Kris Letang right in front of Marc-Andre Fleury. A minute later, Trevor Daley scored on a delayed penalty with a beautiful top-corner snipe over Steve Mason's shoulder from close in.

After an unsuccessful power play by the Flyers, the Pens would spend almost all of the final 12 minutes pounding on the door, generating a number of chances and consistently spending time in the Flyers' offensive zone. Steve Mason did his darndest to keep it a tie game despite the pressure, but the dam finally broke with under four minutes left. A defensive zone turnover by Ryan White and an unlucky bounce off the back boards that caromed off of Steve Mason's skate led to two Pittsburgh goals in quick succession. The visitors would head to the locker room up 3-1, and there was almost no point in the rest of the game in which it felt like the Flyers were a threat to come back and tie it up.

So before we get to the "why" of this period, let's get to the "what". First, let's take the numbers above and look at them just in the second period, seeing how each team fared in the period's 17:57 of 5-on-5 time.

Measure Penguins Flyers
Goals 3 1
Shots on goal 16 4
Unblocked attempts 20 9
Total attempts 31 15
Scoring chances 20 5

Not so good! The Pens had about as many (if not even more) chances, shots, and attempts in the game's middle 20 minutes as they did in the first and last 20 minutes combined, and of course all three of their goals -- not including Letang's late-game empty-netter -- came in that period. From a Flyers standpoint, there's not much to like here. And while the Penguins' goals were clustered at either the beginning or end of the period, it was a pretty rough go for the home team the entire time.

So what the hell happened out there?

Because I'm not afraid to torture myself in the name of sports (would I be here writing for a Flyers website if I was?), I went back and re-watched that second period closely, tracking zone entries for both sides as well as zone exits and defensive zone touches for the Flyers, much like our own Charlie O'Connor has been doing this season.

For the most part, what I found lined up with what I think most of us saw happen. Still, it really boils down to two things, which are at least somewhat related to one another.

No. 1: The Flyers were a disaster in the neutral zone

Much of what we've looked at this season from an analytical standpoint has had to do with how the Flyers perform in the neutral zone, both on the attack and on defense. Outplaying the other team in that area in the middle of the ice can go a very long way towards controlling and ultimately winning hockey games, and we've seen the Flyers' performance in this area improve as the year has gone on.

You won't be surprised to hear that yesterday's performance was not exactly up to par with the team's strong neutral zone play of late. Exactly how bad was it, though?

Measure Flyers Penguins
Total Entries 26 31
Entries With Control 8 (30.8%) 16 (51.6%)
Entries Off Forechecking Turnovers 0 (0.0%) 2 (6.5%)
Other Entries Without Control 18 (69.2%) 13 (41.9%)

On the season, up through March 7, the Flyers had both generated and allowed controlled entries on roughly 45 percent of total offensive zone entries. They managed to miss both of those marks in the second period on Saturday. Offensively, the team was completely incapable of generating speed through the neutral zone with the puck, forced to dump the puck in whenever they even got a hold of it. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh was able to either enter directly with control or get the puck off the Flyers' sticks before they could even get the breakout started almost 58 percent of the time.

The Flyers' neutral zone struggles in this period could best be captured by looking simply by looking at the time between the 9:43 mark and the 18:00 mark of the frame. In that time, the team failed to generate a single controlled entry into the Pittsburgh zone -- and in fact, after the 9:47 mark, they didn't even generate a single shot attempt again until the 18:05 mark. (Both of those attempts, by the way, came directly following controlled offensive zone entries. Coincidence? You be the judge.)

With that all said, though, this still doesn't explain the full dominance of the Penguins' period. The Flyers' neutral zone score (a topic we've discussed here before -- essentially, the possession numbers you'd expect to see based on how and how frequently each side entered the other team's zone) in the period was 41.3 percent. Make no mistake, that's quite bad -- but even then, they ended up getting only 31.0 percent of the overall unblocked shot attempts in the period.

Let's take a look at exactly how many unblocked shot attempts you would expect each team to have based on their neutral zone performance in the period, and compare that to what they actually did in the period.

Measure Flyers Penguins
Expected Unblocked Attempts 10.50 14.91
Actual Unblocked Attempts 9 20
Difference -14.29% +34.14%

The Flyers underperforming their offensive zone numbers, while bad, doesn't seem like a particularly huge problem here. We already know that the Flyers' offensive zone performance tends to be linked to their neutral zone performance, so the fact that they were below their expected mark shouldn't come as much of a surprise. Plus, we're talking about not even two shot attempts here. Not the end of the world.

The defensive zone performance is another story entirely. The difference between what the Penguins actually did and what they would normally be expected to do based on their neutral zone performance was about five shot attempts -- 34 percent more than you would have expected them to get. That's the kind of difference that can tip the flow of a game from "this is bad but potentially manageable" to "if I never make out of the defensive zone, please tell my family that I love them".

Which brings us to our second point.

No. 2: The Flyers' defensive zone play was a nightmare

Up through the All-Star Break, Charlie had tracked the Flyers' defensive zone play by looking at what happened each time a Flyers player had obvious possession of the puck in the defensive zone. He'd make note of whether any of the following three things had happened: an exit from the defensive zone, an exit from the defensive zone with possession of the puck, and a turnover (any clear or pass or mishandling that ends with the opposition getting control of the puck).

Let's look at what the Flyers' team-level averages were up through the All-Star break, and then let's compare those to what the team did in the second period on Saturday against the Penguins.

Measure First Half of Season 2nd Period vs. PIT
Exit % 42.17% 36.84%
Controlled Exit % 25.91% 14.47%
Turnover % 12.23% 22.37%

The team's overall ability to get the puck out of the defensive zone wasn't that much worse than it usually is, but their ability to do so with any semblance of control left much to be desired. The team turned the puck over in the defensive zone nearly twice as frequently as it usually does, and when they were actually able to get it out of the zone it was only done so with control a little more than half as frequently as usual.

Essentially, any time your team is more likely to turn the puck over than it is to get out of the zone cleanly with control, you're gonna have a pretty bad time of things. That was the Flyers yesterday, and that's how the team so grossly underperformed its expected defensive zone performance.

You can see a full table with exit (and entry) numbers for each Flyers skater at the bottom of the post, but a couple of quick notes:

  • The Shayne Gostisbehere - Andrew MacDonald pairing touched the puck a total of 10 times in the period. Across those 10 touches, one of them led to a defensive zone exit, none of them led to a controlled defensive zone exit, and four of them were turnovers to the pucks of Pittsburgh sticks. If you're wondering how those two got so thoroughly smashed in possession -- the two were both a staggering minus-13 in shot attempts in the period -- that's a good place to start.
  • In fact, all six Flyers defensemen did not have a single controlled exit in the entire period. Defensemen typically don't generate a ton of controlled exits by themselves, but it's just about impossible to get the puck moving up ice when your blueliners are literally doing almost nothing to help in the process.
  • The Chris VandeVelde-less fourth line only got four shifts in the frame, but they managed to end up on the ice for two of the Pens' three goals in that period, and both of those shifts saw a turnover by one of those fourth-liners that ultimately led to the goal. Ryan White got a lot of grief for getting taken off the puck by Phil Kessel on the second one, but Pierre-Edouard Bellemare had a pretty unimpressive attempt at a clear that went for a turnover about 20 seconds before Trevor Daley's game-tying goal early in the frame. It continued a pattern of struggles in the defensive zone that we've seen from that group this year, and it was unsurprising to see Dave Hakstol staple that group to the bench for most of the period (though they did proceed to get more time in the third).

And of course, all of the struggles in their own end tie back to the first point we mentioned: the team's poor neutral zone performance. If you've got three guys in enemy jerseys successfully applying pressure down low, the way the Pens did for much of this period, the two guys chilling back at the blue line are going to be ready as soon as the puck is sent back out to them. It's hard to be good in the neutral zone when you can never even get the puck there.

Consider this sequence, with just under seven minutes left in the period.

(Please excuse the poor quality here. NHLTV and I are not friends.)

After about 20 seconds (immediately preceding this video) of the guys in orange chasing the puck around the defensive zone, Couturier makes a nice play on the pass down low from Crosby, tipping it back out into the neutral zone just past Olli Maatta. But in the time it takes the Flyers to catch up and try and actually get the puck, Maatta's easily controlled the puck and already found Chris Kunitz, who's ready to walk his way right back into the zone within about a second of the Penguins getting back onside.

With the quick turnaround, the Flyers don't have the time to either (a) get back into the neutral zone and pressure Maatta, (b) get any bodies on the guys waiting at the blue line to make Maatta's decision tougher, or (c) change out what must be tired players on the ice. Instead, they're stuck retreating into the defensive zone yet again, and the end result is Kunitz finding Maatta and Maatta moving into a wide-open space in the high slot for a shot.

Mason makes the save here, but this is the kind of thing we saw a few times in the period. The point here isn't that Couturier made a bad play to tip the puck out. The point is that it was exceedingly rare that the Flyers found themselves in a position to actually corral the puck and control it on their way out of the defensive zone. And when you aren't able to control it, the other team inevitably is. The lack of ability to even lug the puck out to center ice and get a dump-and-change leads to things like this.

It wasn't even as though the Flyers were making bad decision after bad decision -- rather, it was simply a matter of the Penguins moving so quickly and pressuring them so well that the openings to make clean exits were incredibly slim, and the Flyers failing to make it through on those openings.

You can hear Jim Jackson in that clip call the Penguins "right now, a half-step quicker than the Flyers". A half-step may have been too kind.

***

So that's what we saw yesterday. In a performance truly reminiscent of that of the Flyers of last season, or the one before that, or the one before that, or even at parts of this season, the issues primarily had to deal with were poor movement of the puck in their own end and up the ice. As such, the Penguins piled up shot after shot until they were finally able to get two more past Steve Mason at the end of the period.

Is it something to worry about long-term? Probably not. The Flyers' blue line has by and large exceeded expectations this season, and their improved play of late has played a big role in the team's emergence as a legitimate threat at a playoff spot. But on Saturday they were no match for a Penguins group that's got tons of skill and speed and appears to be very well-coached.

It'll be interesting to see how they fare on Monday against a similarly quick (but maybe not quite as skilled or well-coached) Islanders team. If the Flyers have similar issues moving the puck against them, then maybe Dave Hakstol has to look to start making some changes. Evgeny Medvedev may not help with the turnover side of things, but he's one of this team's best defenders in the neutral zone and at clearing the defensive zone with possession of the puck. Hakstol could certainly look his way if this issue persists.

In any case, this team's playoff hopes rely on that period being more of a one-off aberration than a harbinger of things to come.

***

Stat dump: 5-on-5 possession, zone entries, and zone exits for each player on the Flyers during the second period of Saturday's 4-1 loss to the Penguins.

Player EV TOI CF CA C+/- Entries Controlled Entries DZ Touches Exits Controlled Exits DZ Turnovers
Giroux 6:05 7 13 -6 2 0 4 2 0 0
Schenn 5:46 7 11 -4 3 2 5 3 2 1
Simmonds 4:56 6 10 -4 2 0 2 1 1 1
Raffl 6:21 6 11 -5 0 0 2 2 2 0
Couturier 6:15 6 9 -3 6 3 6 4 2 2
Gagner 6:02 6 11 -5 3 0 4 3 2 1
Read 5:28 3 5 -2 2 2 4 1 0 2
Cousins 4:17 2 4 -2 1 0 3 2 1 0
Voracek 3:56 2 4 -2 1 0 4 3 1 0
Laughton 1:47 0 4 -4 2 0 0 0 0 0
White 1:44 0 6 -6 0 0 2 1 0 1
Bellemare 1:20 0 5 -5 0 0 2 0 0 1
MacDonald 6:27 3 16 -13 0 0 5 1 0 2
Gostisbehere 6:25 2 15 -13 0 0 5 0 0 2
Manning 6:17 6 6 0 2 0 10 1 0 1
Gudas 6:12 7 6 1 1 1 8 3 0 0
Schultz 5:20 6 10 -4 0 0 4 1 0 0
Streit 5:13 6 9 -3 1 0 5 0 0 2
Total 17:57 15 31 -16 26 8 75 28 11 16

Note that this table does not include Steve Mason, who was also credited with one defensive zone turnover on an attempted clear up the boards.