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Flyers vs. Capitals: A look at the series in all three zones

How did the Flyers perform in all three zones against the Capitals during the regular season? Not that well, but there are some promising trends.

Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Despite entering the postseason via a wild card position, the Philadelphia Flyers will face a familiar foe starting on Thursday night. The fellow Metropolitan Division-dwelling Washington Capitals ran away with the Presidents' Trophy for best record in the NHL, and the division title along with it.

In the Flyers' four matchups against the Capitals this season, Philadelphia managed to split the series from a pure win-loss standpoint. But the Flyers' two victories came in overtime and their losses in regulation, meaning that Washington still had the overall edge, finishing with a 2-0-2 record against the Orange and Black.

But win-loss record can only tell us so much. It's far more important to understand which team carried play in the individual games themselves, which can help us to get a better read on the tactics of the two squads, not to mention their strengths and weaknesses.

To that end, I've spent this season manually tracking every 5-on-5 offensive zone entry created and allowed by the Philadelphia Flyers, inspired by Eric Tulsky's work in 2013. The project has been especially illuminating in two areas. For starters, it details the team's preferred tactics in the neutral zone, when the goal with the puck is to get on the attack quickly, and the goal without it is to prevent the opponent from doing the same. By distinguishing between controlled entries (carry-ins) and uncontrolled entries (dump-ins) it becomes possible to evaluate overall neutral zone efficiency on a team and player level.

But the second, more intriguing usage of entry data is the ability to isolate play in each individual zone. Neutral zone play can be evaluated by the amount of entries a team creates and allows, by weighting the respective values of controlled entries (which on average create 0.66 unblocked shot attempts per entry) versus uncontrolled ones (0.29 unblocked attempts).

Using the same concepts, we can isolate offensive zone shot generation and defensive zone shot suppression as well. If a team creates more unblocked shots than their entry totals would predict, then their "Offensive Zone Score" would be positive, showing that they are extracting above-average value out of their attack time.

By the same token, if a team allows less unblocked attempts than would be assumed considering the entries they allow, they would grade well in "Defensive Zone Score" and could be accurately called a strong defensive zone shot suppression club. Through the work of Garik16 of Hockey-Graphs, we know that team-level performance in each zone is repeatable, implying that it is a legitimate skill and worthy of analysis.

We have four games worth of Flyers-Capitals entry data from this season. Let's delve into the numbers and see what stories they can tell us.

Flyers Season Statistics vs. Washington Capitals (all statistics at 5v5)

Category Totals
Philadelphia Total Entries For 239
Washington Total Entries For 247
Philadelphia Entry For Percentage 49.18%
Philadelphia Controlled Entries For 103
Washington Controlled Entries For 124
Philadelphia Controlled Entry Percentage 43.10%
Washington Controlled Entry Percentage 50.20%
Philadelphia Neutral Zone Score 47.76%
Philadelphia Offensive Zone Score -2.49%
Philadelphia Defensive Zone Score -2.65%

The entry data across all four matchups does not look too favorable for the Flyers. The Capitals generated more overall entries (247-239) and higher quality ones as well, leaving the Flyers with a sub-50% Neutral Zone Score. Washington won the offensive and defensive zones as well, as Philadelphia grades out negative in both areas.

The Flyers finished their 82-game season with a Neutral Zone Score over 50% (meaning that on the whole, they 'won' the middle of the ice) and a positive Offensive Zone Score as well, so these below-average metrics against Washington are concerning. They imply that the Capitals were able to prevent Philadelphia from playing its preferred game, which is centered around an aggressive forecheck meant to generate extra shots while on the attack and a tight-checking neutral zone style focused on taking away time and space.

In addition, three out of the four matchups occurred after the mid-November call-up of Shayne Gostisbehere, which is generally accepted as the point when the Flyers turned into a truly competitive team. The Caps didn't rack up these strong statistics when the Flyers were a struggling club in late October and early November.

The most eye-opening stat here comes in the form of Washington's Controlled Entry Percentage. Over half of the Capitals' zone entries occurred with possession of the puck, far above what the Flyers usually allow to opponents (around 46 percent). This hints that Washington was able to exploit Philadelphia on the rush through the middle of the ice, playing a much faster offensive style than the Flyers would prefer. That's the biggest reason for the Capitals' edge in overall Neutral Zone Score, and a key area that Philadelphia will need to improve in order to hang with their division rivals.

November 11, 2015 - Capitals 5, Flyers 2

Flyers Totals Category Capitals Totals
65 Total Entries Generated 69
69 Total Entries Allowed 65
48.51% Entry For Percentage 51.49%
28 Controlled Entries Generated 37
37 Controlled Entries Allowed 28
43.08% Controlled Entry Percentage 53.62%
46.43% Neutral Zone Score 53.57%
-9.20% Offensive Zone Score -12.57%
+12.57% Defensive Zone Score +9.20%

This was the only Flyers-Capitals matchup that occurred in the pre-Shayne Gostisbehere era, and it was predictably a disaster for Philadelphia on the scoreboard. The Flyers actually did a decent job of defensive zone shot suppression, but lost pretty much every other battle possible. Their 46.43% Neutral Zone Score was the worst mark they posted in a matchup against Washington this year, and their offensive zone forecheck never was more toothless by the numbers.

From an entry standpoint, the Capitals' formula from the overall statistics held true -- generate more entries than the Flyers (69-65) and more valuable ones as well. Washington's 53.62% Controlled Entry Percentage sticks out again, and it will become a running theme throughout these matchups. Overall, this is a game that Philadelphia totally deserved to lose, and was by far their worst performance against the Capitals this season.

January 27, 2016 - Flyers 4, Capitals 3 (OT)

Flyers Totals Category Capitals Totals
59 Total Entries Generated 60
60 Total Entries Allowed 59
49.58% Entry For Percentage 50.42%
24 Controlled Entries Generated 30
30 Controlled Entries Allowed 24
40.68% Controlled Entry Percentage 50.00%
47.70% Neutral Zone Score 52.30%
-1.59% Offensive Zone Score +2.26%
-2.26% Defensive Zone Score +1.59%

The Flyers came away with a big win in their final game prior to the all-star break, but the Capitals had the edge in all three zones during 5-on-5 play. To Philadelphia's credit, they did improve in almost every statistical category, with the exception of defensive zone shot suppression. They basically broke even in overall entries (60-59), made it a bit more difficult for Washington to get in on the attack with control, and were significantly better in the offensive zone (though still slightly below entry-based expectations).

Still, for the second straight game, it was Washington's ability to generate controlled zone entries that allowed them to win the neutral zone. I did not track all 82 Capitals games, but considering the high-end talent on their roster (Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom), it seems probable that Washington's full-season Controlled Entry Percentage hovered around 50% as well. Allowing the Capitals to consistently get in on the attack with control of the puck lets them play to their strengths, as their skill players can immediately create shots and chances without having to burden themselves with dump-and-chase puck retrieval.

Of course, forcing the Capitals to voluntarily give up the puck on their entries is easier said than done, especially when it's a 6' 3", 239 pound Ovechkin charging right at a Flyers defenseman with puck at full speed. In the first two matchups, Philadelphia simply could not slow the Capitals in this area.

February 7, 2016 - Capitals 3, Flyers 2

Flyers Totals Category Capitals Totals
60 Total Entries Generated 57
57 Total Entries Allowed 60
51.28% Entry For Percentage 48.72%
29 Controlled Entries Generated 37
37 Controlled Entries Allowed 29
48.33% Controlled Entry Percentage 64.91%
48.21% Neutral Zone Score 51.79%
-0.59% Offensive Zone Score +0.76%
-0.76% Defensive Zone Score +0.59%

I'm afraid that I'm beginning to sound like a broken record. Again, the Flyers made marginal improvements in a number of key areas -- they generated more total entries than the Caps, and basically delivered a league-average performance in both the offensive and defensive zones -- but were again hamstrung by an inability to prevent Washington from getting in on the attack with speed and control of the puck.

In fact, the Capitals were generating carry-ins at will in this game, finishing with a ridiculously-high 64.91% Controlled Entry Percentage. They dumped the puck into the offensive zone just 20 times, mostly because they rarely had to do so. The game-winning goal by Matt Niskanen just served to highlight Philadelphia's complete inability to prevent Washington from carrying the puck through the middle of the ice. Remember this play?

For the Flyers, that fatal flaw overshadowed tangible improvement elsewhere. Philadelphia posted its best offensive zone performance to that point in the season series, and their 48.35% Controlled Entry Percentage was a season-high versus the Caps. And despite Washington's sky-high Controlled Entry Percentage, the Flyers actually had its best day yet in terms of Neutral Zone Score, primarily due to their own ability to create via the rush.

Still, this was yet another example of the Flyers playing the Capitals' game. In a track meet filled with fast-paced rushes and back-and-forth action, a team consisting of Ovechkin, Backstrom, Kuznetsov, Oshie, Burakovsky and Johansson up front is probably going to top Giroux, Voracek, Couturier, Schenn and Simmonds when it comes to speed and offensive creativity. To that point in the series, the Flyers had yet to force Washington to play on their terms, and the result was a 1-2-0 record.

March 30, 2016 - Flyers 2, Capitals 1 (SO)

Flyers Totals Category Capitals Totals
55 Total Entries Generated 61
61 Total Entries Allowed 55
47.41% Entry For Percentage 52.59%
22 Controlled Entries Generated 20
20 Controlled Entries Allowed 22
40.00% Controlled Entry Percentage 32.79%
48.98% Neutral Zone Score 51.02%
+2.35% Offensive Zone Score +23.50%
-23.50% Defensive Zone Score -2.35%

Through three games, a formula for Philadelphia-Washington games had seemingly been established. The Flyers would keep the total entries battle tight, but the Capitals' ability to gain the offensive zone with possession of the puck gave them the edge on the whole. Washington was also able to slow Philadelphia's usually-effective forecheck, keeping the Flyers from producing a positive Offensive Zone Score to make up for their deficit in quality of entries.

The March 30th matchup doesn't fit that narrative at all.

Philadelphia's metrics aren't particularly surprising. For the fourth straight game, the Flyers played a dump-and-chase heavy style, and they've been a "good offensive zone, bad defensive zone" team all season long. Washington, on the other hand, looks like an entirely different team compared to the first three meetings. For the first time in four games, the Flyers actually were more efficient in generating controlled zone entries than the Capitals, who went heavy with a dump-and-chase style to get in on the attack.

The crazy thing? It worked for the Caps. Washington both won the neutral zone (51.02% Neutral Zone Score) and dominated while on the attack (+23.50% Offensive Zone Score). Finally forced to play a dump-and-chase game by the Flyers, the Capitals didn't miss a beat from a play driving standpoint.

But there are still good signs here for Philadelphia. The Flyers' 48.98% Neutral Zone Score was their best of the season against the Capitals, and for the first time, they generated more shots in the offensive zone than would be expected considering their entries. This is the closest that Philadelphia came to imposing their preferred pace on the Capitals, rather than simply trying to match what the Caps already wanted to do.

Now, there's a possibility that Philadelphia's improvement in neutral zone defense and decline in defensive zone shot suppression could be linked. Maybe the Flyers' aggressiveness in forcing Washington to dump in the puck also took them out of position and hurt their puck retrieval efficiency. Further tape study would be necessary to confirm that theory.

But even if that's the case, there's surely a middle ground between allowing Washington free entry into the offensive zone (as they often did in the first three matchups) and selling out to force dump-ins but getting killed in puck retrieval. Philadelphia doesn't need to hold the Capitals to a 32.79% Controlled Entry Percentage to win -- even keeping them to around 40% would be more than enough to disrupt their preferred method of attack.

The final matchup was a massive step in the right direction for the Flyers from a tactical standpoint, but the job isn't complete. Philadelphia has yet to deliver a single-game performance against the Capitals this season that saw them post above-average play in at least two of the three zones at 5-on-5. It will be very difficult for the Flyers to win a seven-game playoff series if that trend holds.

Conclusion

Over the course of their four matchups against the Washington Capitals this season, the Philadelphia Flyers have struggled in all three zones of play at five-on-five. Their biggest issue has been an inability to prevent the Capitals from entering the offensive zone with possession of the puck, allowing them to immediately generate shots and chances.

In the final game this season between the two clubs, however, Philadelphia finally flipped the script. They held Washington to a 32.79% Controlled Entry Percentage, nearly 18 percentage points below the Caps' season average against the Flyers. For the first time, Washington played the preferred style of Philadelphia rather than imposing their rush-based tactics on the Flyers.

But poor defensive zone shot suppression on the part of Philadelphia canceled out any gains from forcing the Capitals to resort to uncontrolled entries. Basically, the Flyers will need to combine their disruptive play in the neutral zone that they showed in the March 30 matchup with a greater attention to detail in the defensive zone to have their best shot of springing the upset.