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Blue Jackets 3, Flyers 2: 10 things we learned from an extra point lost

Given an opportunity to take sole possession of the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference, the Flyers somehow blew a two goal lead with a little over a minute left in regulation, and then of course lost in a shootout.

Russell LaBounty-USA TODAY Sports

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

  • It takes an incredibly unlikely series of events for an NHL team to lose a game in which they held a two-goal lead with 1:04 left in the third period. In this one, there were five key plays, and change any one of their outcomes and Philadelphia exits Columbus with a two points instead of just one. First, Wayne Simmonds' ill-advised slapshot at an empty net with the Flyers up 2-0 caused an unnecessary icing when precious seconds could have ticked away. Then, Boone Jenner's stick on a redirection goal was deemed by the officials to have been below the crossbar, cutting Philadelphia's lead to one. The complete defensive breakdown in the crease on Cam Atkinson's game-tying goal was obviously pivotal, but so was Matt Read's miss on a golden opportunity in overtime that could have bailed out the Flyers. Finally, captain Claude Giroux had Sergei Bobrovsky beat with a chance to end the shootout, but he shot high and wide. Any of those plays goes the other way, and we're talking about two points for the Flyers. That's not meant to absolve the team (someone needed to step up and execute), but it shows why these sort of last-minute collapses occur so infrequently. Play after play went wrong, and the Flyers simply could not halt the train.
  • The truly devastating part about this loss is the fact that the Columbus Blue Jackets really are a bad hockey team. For the first two periods of the game, 75% of the Flyers' lines struggled to make simple passes, win puck battles or create quality chances. Somehow, Philadelphia still managed to deliver break-even possession metrics at 5-on-5, finishing with a 49.79% score-adjusted Corsi. Aside from the Pittsburgh debacle, this was their worst game via the eye test in weeks, and Columbus still couldn't handily win the shot attempts battle. In addition, the Blue Jackets did everything they could to hand the game to the Flyers in the third period, taking three needless minor penalties despite being within striking distance on the scoreboard. That's the mark of a bad team -- an inability to get out of its own way. But it didn't matter, because Philadelphia couldn't hold a two-goal lead in the final 1:04 of the game despite being on the power play for half of that time period.
  • There was a stretch back in January when the Flyers seemed to be losing a number of late leads due to passive defensive zone play at the end of regulation, causing back-breaking game-tying goals. Philadelphia essentially was playing 6-on-5 situations (with the opponent's goalie pulled) as if they were penalty kills, collapsing in front of their net to block shots rather than pressuring the puck carriers on the outside. Around late January, head coach Dave Hakstol did begin to give his forwards the green light to provide some pressure up high in those situations, but the general philosophy remained. Last night, it bit the Flyers badly on Cam Atkinson's goal with eight seconds left. The current formation is highly dependent upon shots not getting through to the net at all, and can lead to disaster if one actually makes it there. That's what happened, as Mason made the first save but then found himself surrounded by three Columbus forwards with only Radko Gudas there to clear the crease. Once Mason was unable to corral the rebound, it was over because he had no help at all. I'd rather the Flyers be more aggressive up high in the zone during 6v5 play, but if the plan is to collapse in front, then the defensemen absolutely need to avoid getting trapped in the high slot and faceoff circles like they did last night.
  • The Columbus comeback was kicked off by Boone Jenner's goal with 1:04 left, caused by a deflection in front of Steve Mason with a suspiciously high stick. The call on the ice was that of a goal, and the officials ended up affirming the call after review, claiming that Jenner's stick was below the crossbar when it made contact with the puck. From every available angle shown to viewers, it's very difficult to see how that ruling could have been made confidently. It would be understandable if this was a case of "inconclusive evidence so the call on the ice must stand." But per the official's announcement, they were able to definitively observe Jenner's stick at an acceptable height. I have to wonder if the Toronto war room had access to a different camera angle than the viewing public did, because after accounting for the position of Steve Mason's blocker and the sharp angle at which the puck dropped after contact, it sure seemed like a case could be made for a high stick.
  • For sixty-four minutes and a shootout, Steve Mason was all but impenetrable. He faced 53 shots and stopped 51 of them, and that doesn't even include the four shooters who could not beat him during the skills competition. Mason was the primary reason that the Flyers had a 2-0 lead with 1:04 left, as the Blue Jackets had peppered him with enough shots to make a lesser goalie wilt under the onslaught. But Mason's detractors won't remember the 51 saves. They'll argue that elite goaltenders hold leads late, and Mason was unable to do so, rendering the rest of his performance meaningless. That seems unfair, especially because Columbus goal #1 was caused by a barely-or-maybe-not-even-legal deflection. Mason deserves some blame on the game-tying goal, as he had a chance at covering the rebound and missed it. But more at fault was the defense that allowed three Blue Jackets to converge on the goaltender with no concerns about being checked off the loose puck. In the wake of a loss, it's natural for fans to want to point fingers. But targeting the team's best player over the entirety of the game's 65+ minutes seems questionable at best.
  • The Flyers may not have been torched at even strength by the numbers, but that was primarily due to the effort of one line -- the first line of Claude Giroux, Brayden Schenn and Wayne Simmonds. Not only did they score the game's only 5v5 goal, they carried play to a ridiculous extent. Giroux finished with a 72.41% Corsi For percentage, as the Flyers took 21 shot attempts with him on the ice and allowed only eight. With Giroux off the ice, however, Philadelphia was demolished to the tune of a 32.39% Corsi For. That's why the game felt so lopsided despite the final shot attempt differential looking fairly even. For over two-thirds of the game, the Flyers could barely get out of their own zone. It was only when the Giroux line hit the ice that they could create anything, and the top unit did their best to make up for their teammates' struggles. And up until the final minute of regulation, it really looked like their effort would be enough.
  • Ever since Seth Jones was traded to the Blue Jackets for Ryan Johansen, he's formed an effective top pairing with fellow youngster Ryan Murray. Despite Columbus posting well-below average team possession statistics, the Murray-Jones pairing has been able to break-even (50.0% Corsi For) in their 418 five-on-five minutes together. Unsurprisingly, Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella chose to use his top pair to try and slow down the Giroux line. Instead, Giroux and his linemates gashed Murray and Jones, posting a 76.15% Corsi For in just nine minutes against the duo. Instead, it was the lesser-known Columbus defensemen who carried the load, especially David Savard. He shook off a poor -2.21% Corsi Relative to finish with a 73.17% Corsi For on the night.
  • The narrative following last night's game will likely be that the penalty kill continued its strong recent play, while the top power play unit continues to struggle. But while Giroux and company showed signs of life even if they were unable to score, the shorthanded units did not do a particularly great job of shot suppression and were mostly bailed out by Steve Mason. The top unit (with Voracek) averaged about 94 unblocked shot attempts per 60 last night, right in line with their season average. After a poor effort in the second period, Giroux's group created a number of chances in the third, but simply couldn't capitalize. Luckily for Philadelphia, they were again rescued by the second unit, who extended the lead to 2-0 with 8:06 left. On the other side, the penalty kill did not allow a goal, but Columbus created a number of quality scoring chances. Four high-danger shots, in fact, but Steve Mason stopped them all. For the top power unit, it was process over results, while it proved to be the opposite for the penalty killers.
  • Prior to his aggressive, failed attempt at blocking a Columbus shot with seconds remaining that gave the Blue Jackets the numbers advantage in the crease area, Andrew MacDonald was having a very solid game. But just as Steve Mason's stellar performance can't be tossed aside just because of a painful ending, the same can be said for MacDonald. While the numbers may not show it (41.18% Corsi For), this was one of the embattled defenseman's better games to my eyes. His gap control was solid, but MacDonald really stood out with the puck on his stick. He played a far more active role in transitioning from defense to offense than he has over the past few weeks, and even generated a few zone entries of his own. Aside from that end-of-regulation mistake, MacDonald looked like the perfectly-adequate defenseman that many have praised him for being over the past few days. Except this time, I suspect my manually-tracked statistics will support that praise.
  • Jared Boll was tossed out of the game in the early second period due to a hit on Flyers' center Pierre-Edouard Bellemare. Luckily for Philadelphia, Bellemare was apparently not seriously injured, and he quickly returned to the game after taking a few shifts off. Still, the outcome does not absolve Boll, who could easily face league discipline. Upon further review, Boll did not make direct contact with Bellemare's head, nor did he leave his feet prior to the hit. However, the contact was extremely late, as Bellemare had already taken two strides up ice after directing the puck forward in the defensive zone when he was pulverized by Boll. Big hits are part of hockey, and most Flyers fans (considering the glorification of the Broad Street Bullies era) love to see them in games. But there's a big difference between catching a forward staring at the puck between his skates in the neutral zone with a bone-crushing hit, and hitting an unsuspecting player who is no longer a threat with the puck. Boll's hit was dirty because it was totally unnecessary and did nothing to help Columbus gain an on-ice advantage, unless you'd argue it was meant for pure intimidation. Even then, going after a fourth liner like Bellemare isn't a very effective way to scare an impact player on the Flyers. Boll deserves a fine for that hit, at the very least, and very well could receive an even-stiffer punishment.