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Flyers 4, Lightning 2: 10 things we learned from the most impressive win of the year

Facing a true Cup contender, the Flyers went out and merely put on their best performance of the season, absolutely dominating the Tampa Bay Lightning in every aspect of the game.

Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

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

  • Last Thursday night, the Flyers played one strong period (the second) against a lightning-quick transition team in the Edmonton Oilers. They did it by dominating on the forecheck, pinning their opponent deep in their own end for the vast majority of even strength play. But when the forecheck faltered, so did the Flyers, as they were exploited by Edmonton's speed up front on the rush when they could not generate an offensive zone cycle. Last night, they faced a Tampa Bay team just as fast as the Oilers, but far deeper up and down the lineup. It was fair to think that the matchup could be a recipe for disaster. Instead, Philadelphia simply took their blueprint from the second period against Edmonton and replicated it for an entire sixty minute hockey game. The Flyers' forwards were relentless, and it came from every line. All season long, Philadelphia's aggressive 2-1-2 forecheck has been the main way that head coach Dave Hakstol has tried to make up the talent gap against more skilled teams, keeping them pinned in their own zone and unable to cleanly move up ice with speed. Last night was an absolute clinic in execution.
  • The Flyers took apart the Columbus Blue Jackets on Saturday, carrying play and winning a well-deserved 6-0 blowout. But that's the Blue Jackets -- the second-worst team in the Eastern Conference and one of the most disappointing teams in the NHL this season. The Tampa Bay Lightning are an entirely different animal. They have one of the best snipers in hockey in Steven Stamkos, one of the most dynamic lines in hockey with the Triplets, and maybe the best top pairing in hockey with Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman. They lead the Atlantic Division, have a conference-high 52.6% score-adjusted Corsi at 5-on-5, and are rightfully one of the betting favorites to win the Stanley Cup this season. The Flyers destroyed them anyway. Philadelphia's numbers were staggering -- 40 shots on goal, 90 total shot attempts, 45 scoring chances, a 65.2% 5-on-5 score-adjusted Corsi. Even if you take away all 32 shots that Tampa Bay blocked last night, the Flyers still would have directed more pucks at the net than the Lightning did. And this isn't just one great game, either. Since February 16th, Philadelphia has the best score-adjusted possession metrics in the entire NHL, and star Jakub Voracek has missed five of the ten games in that span. I'm starting to wonder if this Flyers team may have arrived about a year ahead of schedule.
  • The top line of Claude Giroux, Brayden Schenn and Wayne Simmonds was basically unstoppable all game long. Each forward finished with a Corsi For percentage over 75%, and they led the charge in establishing the unabating forecheck that devastated the Lightning. Puck battle after puck battle, foot race after foot race -- the Giroux line won them all. They eventually added a goal courtesy of Brayden Schenn to extend the Flyers' lead to 3-1 in the third period, but the trio deserves a major portion of the credit for the tie-breaking tally as well. It was their extended pressure in the offensive zone that pinned the Lightning deep for a full shift, eventually resulting in a Nikita Nesterov delay of game penalty. A little over a minute later, Shayne Gostisbehere blasted a one-timer past Andrei Vasilevskiy, and Philadelphia never looked back.
  • The second stanza was Philadelphia's best even strength period of the season, especially after accounting for the quality of their competition. But in many ways, I was even more impressed with the team's effort in the third. Humiliated over the preceding twenty minutes, the Lightning predictably came out flying and had their first good shifts since early in the first period. But it only took the Flyers about three minutes to stabilize themselves. It started with a few shifts that bottled things up in the neutral zone, which then gave way to a long cycle from the top line. That created a penalty, which then turned into a Gostisbehere goal and the lead. But Philadelphia didn't stop there. Rather than sit back, they continued to execute the same tactics that gave them their advantage, including the aggressive forechecking. And even after Vladislav Namestnikov cut Philadelphia's lead back down to one, they didn't panic. They proceeded to shut down the Lightning's attack, and only allowed five shot attempts in the game's final five minutes of play. There would be no late letdown last night.
  • Although it was their weakest period, the Flyers still got the better of play in the game's first twenty minutes. So why did they enter the locker room down 1-0? An anemic power play was to blame for Philadelphia's inability to light the lamp. The Flyers earned two full and two partial man advantage opportunities in the opening stanza, but could muster only two shots on goal with them. The absence of Jakub Voracek loomed large in understanding the team's power play struggles. Without Voracek, the top unit lacks one of its best entry generators, as no player on the Flyers protects the puck better. Once the Flyers were able to get set up in the offensive zone, the top unit of Giroux, Schenn, Simmonds, Gostisbehere and Streit doesn't have a problem creating dangerous chances. But a team needs to enter the zone before they can settle into their preferred formation, and the Flyers' early attempts were largely pathetic. Their final power play of the night proved far more successful, and it was due to a simple yet obvious shift in tactics. Rather than attempt to break through Tampa's checking at the blue line, the Flyers chose to use the dump-and-chase to enter the zone on their third period power play. Usually, uncontrolled entries are less effective than those with possession. But considering the effectiveness of Philadelphia's puck retrieval game at even strength last night, it was a solid bet to just get the puck deep and hope that the numbers advantage would overwhelm the Lightning. The strategy proved successful, the Flyers got set up in the zone, and Shayne Gostisbehere got his second goal of the game.
  • Yet again, Shayne Gostisbehere was given the opportunity to play the role of the hero. The rookie defenseman scored the Flyers' first two goals of the evening -- the first on a well-timed pinch deep into the offensive zone to retrieve a loose puck, and the second a lightning-quick one-timer on the power play. We've reached the point where his above-average even strength performance is becoming commonplace, as you expect to see a few eye-popping zone exits and aggressive plays at his own blue line intended to disrupt rushes before the begin. Playing alongside Andrew MacDonald will most likely keep his relative possession metrics closer to mediocre than truly outstanding, but the pairing is basically staying above water, which is an definitely an achievement. The Ghost Bear's offensive instincts set him apart from the crowd, but his two-way game seems to be improving by the day.
  • The line centered by Sean Couturier may have created the game-tying second period goal, but I'm still going to give them the title of "unsung heroes," especially because the flashy Gostisbehere overshadowed the yeoman's work of Couturier and Michael Raffl on the goal. Really, the work of the Couturier line was a big reason why the Flyers were able to run roughshod over the Lightning at even strength. The second line was given the difficult task of facing the dangerous Triplets line of Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov for half of their even strength ice time. They didn't dominate, basically breaking even in the matchup. But that allowed for the Giroux line to feast on Steven Stamkos and his linemates, and for the Flyers' bottom six to avoid very many tough shifts. Without Couturier, Raffl and Sam Gagner, Claude Giroux probably has to do double-duty, tasked with shutting down both Stamkos and Johnson. Instead, the Flyers rolled, helped by the second line's ability to keep Johnson and company mostly in check.
  • I've criticized his play throughout most of the season, so it's only fair to note when he delivers a performance that impresses me. In my opinion, Nick Schultz was one of the best defensemen on the ice for the Flyers last night. While Schultz is generally quick to recognize developing plays in the defensive zone, his neutral zone play has been passive throughout the year. Last night, however, his reads were strong everywhere, especially in bailing out defensive partner Mark Streit on multiple occasions after Streit went a little too far in terms of offensive freelancing. Schultz also was active on the attack, taking four shot attempts at the Tampa net. He may not have finished with positive relative possession metrics (though a raw 65.71% Corsi For percentage certainly is fine), but Schultz definitely passed the eye test for me.
  • On the flipside of Schultz's solid game, there was Mark Streit, who to my eyes was one of the only Flyers players to actually struggle in this one. Unlike his fellow defensemen, who mostly played a read-and-react game in the neutral zone, Streit tried to force the issue with and without the puck. Unfortunately, his instincts weren't at their best at even strength, and he was lucky that a number of his missteps were erased by strong plays from Schultz. In addition, Streit was a major contributing factor to the power play's first period struggles. Moved up to the top unit with Voracek on the shelf, Streit tried to play an active role in gaining the offensive zone with possession, but his attempts were awkward and out-of-sync with his linemates. Streit's game has dramatically improved over the past month as he has slowly gotten back into game shape following his painful injury. This game, however, was not his finest three hours.
  • The only reason why this game was even close in the third period was the play of Tampa goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy. The Russian was a wall, especially in the second period as the Flyers threw everything but the kitchen sink at him in an attempt to tie the contest. Vasilevskiy made 11 saves that qualified as "high-danger" per War-On-Ice, and finished with a strong 0.923 overall save percentage despite allowing three goals. The Lightning may have Ben Bishop as their presumptive top choice netminder, but the 21-year Vasilevskiy is certainly talented enough to start on a regular basis if they decided to make a salary cap-driven switch.