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Flyers 4, Islanders 1: 10 things we learned from a playoff push restarted

Following a poor performance on Saturday against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Flyers regrouped and comfortably took down the New York Islanders 4-1.

Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

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

  • Saturday afternoon's game against the Pittsburgh Penguins was a disaster by every objective measure. The Flyers were dominated by their biggest rival on home ice, putting a damper on what had been a fantastic run of hockey against very good teams. Last night's matchup against the New York Islanders was the final game of a seven-game stretch against teams currently in the playoff picture, and the Flyers closed it out with style. This wasn't a true blowout, 4-1 final score aside, as the Islanders generated a number of high quality chances throughout. But Philadelphia deserved the win. They finished just ahead in both 5-on-5 score-adjusted Fenwick (53.36%) and Corsi (50.82%), so even if the margin may have been a bit fluky, the outcome surely wasn't. The Penguins and Islanders games told us two things. First, the Flyers simply aren't on Pittsburgh's level right now. Second, Philadelphia is still good enough to make the playoffs. They're now one point behind the Red Wings (with a game in hand), three points behind the Islanders, and four points behind Boston (with two games in hand). Their record against these three teams this season? With last night's victory, it's a strong 6-2-1.
  • For the first five minutes, however, this game looked to be a repeat of the disappointing performance against the Penguins. New York generated the first 13 shot attempts of the contest, as they pinned a Flyers team struggling with the puck deep in their own territory for entire shifts. Poor starts were a problem for Philadelphia early in the year, though they've become less and less frequent over the past few months. Generally, the poor starts had one thing in common -- a complete inability to make quick, accurate passes in the defensive zone. I suspect that this is a by-product of Dave Hakstol's emphasis upon controlled exits. On the whole, Hakstol has the right idea here, as controlled defensive zone exits make it far easier to move through the neutral zone and transition from defense to offense. The problem is that it's not easy to make 2-to-3 crisp passes in a row while under heavy forechecking pressure, especially at the start of games when both sides are finding their footing. Increased familiarity with Hakstol's preferred breakout strategies has caused the slow starts to mostly disappear, but they re-emerged last night. Luckily for the Flyers, Steve Mason was able to hold down the fort until the skaters' play got sharper.
  • With Michal Neuvirth officially out for the remainder of the regular season, the Flyers have little choice but to ride Steve Mason in their push towards the playoffs. For many (particularly those who lean towards stat-based analysis), this was always the best path for Philadelphia to take, even though an injury to Neuvirth was not the ideal way for it to come about. But Mason has his vocal detractors, those who feel that he barely qualifies as a true No. 1 goaltender on an NHL team, let alone one that can lead this particular team to the postseason. Last night, Mason did his best to silence those doubters. The Flyers may have won the territorial battle against the Islanders, but New York created more truly dangerous shots, leading in high-danger chances 12-9. Mason was the difference, coming through with big saves at key moments. None were bigger than his stop on Brock Nelson in the second period while the game was still tied. He robbed Nelson in front with a sliding stop, and just seconds later, Brandon Manning would gather a pass as he exited the penalty box and beat Thomas Greiss to give the Flyers a lead they would never relinquish. For those that believe Mason lacks some sort of "clutch" ability, maybe that save on Nelson will help to change their minds.
  • With Chris VandeVelde suspended, there was legitimate concern that the Philadelphia penalty kill would suffer in his absence. After all, VandeVelde had established himself as one of the team's best shorthanded forwards, particularly over the past two months. But the penalty kill has not missed a beat. Last night was a textbook performance, as the Flyers allowed just one high-danger chance (the Nelson shot) and zero goals on three New York power plays. Scott Laughton has filled in nicely for VandeVelde, and the other forwards are doing a great job of pressuring entries in the neutral zone and cutting off lanes to the slot area. If the Flyers do find a way to slip into the playoffs, their penalty kill will surely no longer be a weakness.
  • The suspension of Chris VandeVelde also resulted in a new look for the fourth line. Replacing VandeVelde was Scott Laughton, who has played alongside Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Ryan White for two straight games. On Saturday, the new-look line was taken to the cleaners at even strength, but they were far better last night. A key characteristic of the Islanders' neutral zone play is an emphasis upon forcing their opponent to enter the offensive zone lacking possession of the puck, slowing their attack. New York was successful in disrupting Philadelphia's top line, but Bellemare and his linemates surprisingly found ways to move through the middle of the ice with speed and control despite heavy pressure. Laughton is a big help in this area, as he has posted a controlled entry percentage above 50% this season and has showcased an ability to create space using his plus speed. In addition, the line's forechecking ability was just as potent despite swapping VandeVelde for Laughton. The suspension ends for VandeVelde tomorrow, but last night, Laughton showed what skills he brings to the fourth line that the regular 4LW lacks. Let's see if it was enough to keep VandeVelde out of the lineup against Columbus.
  • Somewhat quietly, Sean Couturier now has seven points in his last eight games. The lack of hype for this recent stretch of point production is likely because all seven have been assists, but Couturier's effectiveness is still unquestionable. It's taken some time, but Couturier is finally showcasing the high-end offensive skills nightly that got him drafted eighth overall. This time, it was his primary assist on Sam Gagner's third period goal that really should make all the highlight reels, simply due to degree of difficulty. With very little space in front of the net, Couturier settled a pass from Michael Raffl, pivoted, and then slid the puck right under Greiss and to Gagner, who promptly deposited it in the back of the net. That's not a play that a third-liner checking center is going to even think to make at the NHL level. It is one that a true offensive weapon makes, though.
  • Shayne Gostisbehere finished this game with a defense-high 54.55% Corsi For percentage, but in this case, the eyes didn't match the stats. Ghost had his moments with a few slick defensive zone passes, but he had an uncharacteristically poor night in terms of gap control on the rush. Usually the Flyers' most effective defenseman in forcing opponents to play dump-and-chase hockey, Gostisbehere allowed Islander forwards easy entry into the offensive zone on a number of instances. So why was his Corsi so high anyway? It seemed like he wasn't the main driver of possession while he was on the ice, and was primarily the beneficiary of strong forechecking up front. Ghost has certainly had games this year when his above-average play was not reflected in the possession statistics -- last night, the opposite was true.
  • One player who posted poor possession statistics but was far more impressive via the eye test was Jakub Voracek. In his second game back from a foot injury, Voracek looked far more like his playmaking self, especially on Nick Cousins' first period goal. Philadelphia's star winger engineered a controlled zone entry under heavy pressure before attempting a shot (it missed), recovering the rebound off the glass, and then slipping a pass right to Cousins, who was crashing the net. That play showed that Voracek is getting closer to 100 percent, but his possession statistics imply that he still has some work to do. He finished with a team-low 33.33% Corsi For, and received the second-lowest amount of 5v5 ice time on the team (ahead of only Matt Read). Too many shifts saw Voracek and his linemates settle for fruitless dump-ins rather than pushing the tempo. Jake is clearly playing himself back into game shape, and as his assist on the Cousins goal shows, he's still capable of providing positive value in his diminished form. But it may take a few more games before Voracek is truly back to his old self.
  • It was a game of heavy line matching, as the Islanders worked to get Frans Nielsen out against the Giroux line while Philadelphia pushed for the Couturier versus Tavares battle. Both matchups ended up favoring New York, as Nielsen posted a 61.11% Corsi in 8:34 minutes against Giroux, and Tavares beat Couturier at a 66.67% rate. Still, the Flyers were able to avoid being dominated in the shot attempts battle, mostly because the Bellemare line significantly outplayed New York's fourth line of Cal Clutterbuck, Casey Cizikas and Matt Martin, and because Couturier beat up on every other trio he faced. Back in December, Philadelphia never could have survived their best lines losing head-to-head matchups with elite players on the other side. But this is a deeper team today, and also a far more dangerous one.
  • Despite the Flyers holding a two-goal lead for the majority of the period, the Islanders were unable to generate consistent, sustained pressure in the final twenty minutes of the game until Greiss was removed for the extra attacker. Instead, Philadelphia scored the only two goals of the period, and kept the even strength shot attempts battle relatively close (9-7 NYI). The Flyers' forecheck wasn't quite as aggressive late as it was through the rest of the game, but Philadelphia was strong positionally and were efficient in their defensive zone exits. And when a rare breakdown occurred, Mason was there to slam the door. Unlike other nail-biting third periods, the outcome was never in doubt last night, at least once Sam Gagner scored to extend Philadelphia's lead to 3-1.