Morning Observations is a feature where we break down the previous night's game with an analytical eye.
- On a day that saw two playoff contenders (Detroit and Boston) fail to come through with wins against opponents either out of the chase or resting key players, the Flyers simply went out and took care of business. They may not have dominated on the scoreboard (though a 3-1 victory was more than enough to clinch a playoff berth), but make no mistake -- the Flyers totally deserved to win this one. They outshot the Penguins 36-19 and won the 5-on-5 possession battle handily, posting a 61.04% score-adjusted Corsi. To be sure, this wasn't the best Penguins lineup, as coach Mike Sullivan chose to sit Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang since Pittsburgh had already secured their playoff placement. But Philadelphia could only beat the opponent placed in front of them, a task that proved too difficult for the Bruins and Red Wings on Saturday. The Flyers, on the other hand, did exactly what they needed to do, and were rewarded with a spot in the playoffs.
- Entering yesterday's game, the Flyers had played the Sullivan-coached Penguins thrice and lost each time, getting thoroughly outplayed in the process. The 6-2 pasting that Philadelphia suffered at the hands of Pittsburgh last Sunday seemed to confirm that this simply was not a favorable matchup for the Flyers. But with a playoff berth on the line yesterday, Philadelphia was finally able to take apart the Penguins. Again, the absence of Crosby and Letang made the job easier, and Pittsburgh's active skaters had little to play for except pride. Still, they executed the same system that has given Philadelphia fits -- the Flyers simply countered with better execution. Dave Hakstol mentioned after the game that his team was just "a little bit quicker" than they had been during last Sunday's loss, and I would say that applies primarily to their passing and neutral zone reaction time. Even under heavy forechecking pressure, Flyers defensemen were successful in exiting their own zone and getting the puck up ice. As for the offensive zone play, Philadelphia didn't create a ton of high-quality scoring chances, but they were careful to avoid turnovers, especially up high in the zone. That prevented Pittsburgh from generating many transition rushes going the other way. It wasn't a dynamic game from Philadelphia, but it was a safe one, and is a good blueprint for how the Flyers will have to play this Penguins team in the future if they want to skate with them.
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- Dave Hakstol echoed the sentiments of his players when he noted that the Flyers really started to take control at around the game's midway point. The statistics certainly back up this notion -- from the 9:07 mark of the second period through the conclusion of the game, Philadelphia generated 24 shot attempts at even strength, while Pittsburgh could muster just 11. A big reason that the tide turned was that the top line of Claude Giroux, Wayne Simmonds and Jakub Voracek asserted themselves in a big way. Aside from the nifty set of passes that ended in Simmonds' first period redirection goal, the top line spent a large portion of the game's first half pinned in their own end. But midway through the second period, they began to find their legs. Giroux was especially dominant as he finished with a whopping 82.35% Corsi For percentage in the second period, a mark almost entirely generated in the session's final ten minutes. Especially when Hakstol chooses to place the Flyers' two best players (Giroux and Voracek) on the same line, the top unit simply needs to excel for the team to win games. It's not surprising that Philadelphia finally started to dominate once that line played to its potential.
- It seems like just yesterday when I wondered in my Observations if Wayne Simmonds would finally surpass the 30-goal threshold for the first time in his career. Simmonds didn't just hit 30 goals -- he bulldozed the mark, scoring twice yesterday to likely finish with 32 tallies on the season. The Wayne Train now has seven goals in his last seven games and a strong 53.7% Corsi For percentage over that same period. Simmonds is clearly executing at a high level at the moment, and the Washington Capitals surely are hoping that the layoff between now and the start of the playoffs serves to blunt any positive effect that his scoring run may be having on his confidence. I asked Voracek after the game if in his experience, strong end-of-season scoring runs tend to carry over to the playoffs. He admitted that it's tough to say if the layoff could negatively affect Simmonds, but noted that his teammate's netfront game is tailor-made for postseason play and he's sure that #17 will make an impact. He's certainly not a player that the Capitals are looking forward to facing.
- I mentioned after Thursday's loss to the Maple Leafs that while Steve Mason was not the main reason for the defeat, he missed on a few opportunities to provide a big save at a pivotal moment of the game. That certainly wasn't the case yesterday, as Mason's glove save on Kael Mouillierat at the tail end of the first period was probably his most important stop of the year. Not only was the degree of difficulty through the roof, the save kept the Flyers within one goal of the Penguins, ensuring that Philadelphia would not spend the entire game chasing an opponent that thrives on exploiting overaggressiveness. Just seconds after the save, Wayne Simmonds scored to tie things up, further highlighting the goalie's importance. Even with Michal Neuvirth now healthy, the net is obviously (and justifiably) Mason's for the playoffs, and Philadelphia can only hope that he repeats his stellar performance from the 2014 postseason when he nearly stole his team a series against the eventual Eastern Conference champion New York Rangers.
- I had a chance to catch up with Pierre-Edouard Bellemare after the game, and brought up the nickname "The Untouchables" that Sons of Penn's Bill Matz coined for the Flyers' fourth line. Bellemare chuckled after hearing the moniker. It's a reference to the fact that no Philadelphia line combination has spent more time together as a unit than the VandeVelde-Bellemare-White trio, and the nickname has turned from a bit derisive to downright complimentary as the line's play has noticeably picked up down the stretch. In fact, there's a good case to be made that the fourth line has been the Flyers' most consistent unit in April. Bellemare's perfectly solid 55.4% Corsi For percentage this month actually is the line's worst, as Ryan White has posted a 57.7% and Chris VandeVelde an insane 59.1%. I asked Bellemare if playing together for so long has helped the line progressively improve this year, allowing the forwards to learn each other's tendencies and positioning habits. The French center agreed that the theory may have teeth. "I think so," Bellemare said. "I think it's been a big help. As soon as you know you're going to play with those guys and know exactly the way they are playing, it makes your whole game successful. Sometimes, we wish we would have been able to help the team a little bit [more], but at the end of the day, we are trying to be consistent every single night. The fact that you know exactly what you can expect work-wise from the guy next to you, then you don't have to have any doubt. Any player that doesn't play with any doubts is a better player, so the fact that you know your guys beside you makes you a better player. That's what I think."
- The first period was clearly the weakest period of the day for the Flyers, but the issues were really limited to a rough stretch in the final ten minutes of the session. Prior to Nick Bonino's tally, Philadelphia had spent the vast majority of the period in the offensive zone, taking 23 shot attempts at the Penguins net and allowing only six. But following the neutral zone breakdown that led to Bonino's tally, Pittsburgh began to take control of the contest. Just like last Sunday, it was Flyers mistakes that got the Penguins rolling, as Philadelphia seemed incapable of making even a simple tape-to-tape pass in the neutral and defensive zones. It took a slick zone entry by Claude Giroux and a perfectly-placed pass from Jakub Voracek to Wayne Simmonds (leading to the Flyers' first goal) to finally get the team back firing on all cylinders.
- It ended up being inconsequential to the outcome, but Nick Schultz's failed neutral zone pinch in the first period that led to Bonino's goal helps to explain why the Flyers struggled so much this year against the Penguins. With the puck tied up along the boards in the neutral zone, Schultz chose to step up and provide support to help win the battle. As we've seen this season from the Flyers under Dave Hakstol, that's a play that Philadelphia defensemen have the freedom to make. If successful, it helps the Flyers move up ice quickly and get back in on the attack. But there's risk as well. If the puck battle is lost, the other team has a split second opportunity to engineer a transition rush. But to do so, it takes aggressiveness on the part of the opposing forwards, as they already need to be heading up ice in anticipation of the puck battle being won. That's Pittsburgh's game in a nutshell, as they are constantly looking to take advantage of their speed to be opportunistic on the rush. Unless the Flyers' execution of their preferred system is close to perfect, their usual aggressiveness in the neutral and offensive zones plays right into Pittsburgh's hands. It will be interesting to see if Philadelphia utilizes a more conservative gameplan next season when matched up against the Penguins.
- There seems to be a small but vocal contingent of Flyers fans who turned Jakub Voracek into a bit of a whipping boy this week as the team threatened to fall out of playoff contention. To be sure, the Czech forward didn't have his best games against Detroit and Toronto, and he'd likely be the first one to admit that. But this is still Jakub Voracek that we're talking about -- he of the 81 point season last year and +4.89% Corsi Relative since becoming a Philadelphia Flyer. You trust that, even if he isn't at 100% health, he's going to figure things out. He certainly looked like a star in making his lead pass to Wayne Simmonds on the winger's first period goal. I'd expect him to be a difference maker against the Capitals this week.
- In a pivotal game which playoff-clinching implications, Dave Hakstol chose to give the most even strength ice time to Andrew MacDonald and Shayne Gostisbehere. Regardless of what you think about MacDonald's play, it's pretty incredible that he went from spending the first four months of the season in the AHL to playing a top-pair role in Game 81 for a team with playoff aspirations. Gostisbehere's rise has been just as unlikely, considering he also began the year in the AHL and was long viewed as a player with serious defensive liabilities. Hakstol's usage of the pair yesterday shows just how confident he is in their abilities, and highlights just how much can change over the course of a hockey season.