Morning Observations is a feature where we break down the previous night's game with an analytical eye.
#1: Flyers' play at five-on-five not the issue
The scoreboard at the end of the night may have read 4-1 in favor of the Capitals, but this wasn't a case of Washington flexing its Presidents' Trophy winning muscles over an outgunned Flyers team all game long. In fact, there's a strong case to be made that Philadelphia was the superior team during five-on-five play. The Flyers outshot the Capitals 31-16 at 5v5, won the overall attempts battle (58.93% score-adjusted Corsi), and had 37 scoring chances as opposed to Washington's 21. The fact that Philadelphia could not score even one goal at five-on-five (Voracek's tally came during 4v4 play) was mostly due to the stellar play of Braden Holtby, was who Washington's best player in this game by a significant margin.
In terms of process, this game followed the exact script that the Flyers want to impose on the Capitals at 5v5 play. Through a combination of tight checking in the neutral zone and constant pressure via the forecheck as the Capitals tried to exit their own end, Philadelphia won the overall offensive zone entries battle 68-62. And for the second straight game, they held the skilled Capitals below a 50 percent Controlled Entry rate (46.70%), after only doing so in one of the four regular season contests between the two clubs.
The optimistic way to look at these numbers is that the Flyers are doing lots of good things at 5v5, and eventually the pucks are going to start going in the net. But a pessimist may respond that Philadelphia still found a way to lose despite the Capitals not playing their best hockey, and now the Flyers need to win four out of the next five games to storm back. Washington will be making adjustments and could easily address their issues at even strength between now and Monday, while Philadelphia wasted a golden opportunity to even the series while the Caps are still figuring things out.
#2: The biggest issue right now is their penalty kill
If the Flyers got the better of play at even strength by such a large statistical margin, then how was the final score so lopsided in the direction of the Capitals? Braden Holtby was a big reason, but Philadelphia's totally ineffective penalty kill certainly didn't help. After allowing Washington an insane 27 shot attempts in just under eleven power play minutes on Thursday, last night they watched the Capitals go two-for-two with the man advantage. The only thing that kept Washington from scoring three or four goals on the PP in Game 1 was the stellar play of Flyers goalie Steve Mason, and with Mason far less sharp last night, there was nothing to stem the tide.
Washington's power play is high-powered to say the least, but the Flyers are making life easy for their opponents due to the complete absence of aggressive pressure up high. The Capitals utilize a 1-3-1 formation, very similar to what the Flyers use on their PPs. They station three players in the center of the ice -- a forward around the goalie, another in the slot, and a defenseman up high near the blue line -- and two forwards parallel with the slot man on each side. It's the players on the edges of the formation (John Carlson, Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Ovechkin) that really make the Capitals' power play go, moving the puck around and searching for open lanes. So far in this series, the Flyers have been content to let the three main puck distributors work absent any real pressure, preferring to sit back and play a passive, shot-blocking style.
The results have been predictably disastrous. Given all the time in the world, high-skilled players like Backstrom are going to find open spots when the Caps have the manpower advantage. Rather than continuing to sit back and wait to be taken apart, it's time for Philadelphia to give their penalty killers more freedom to attack the outer edges of the 1-3-1. Sure, actively pressuring Backstrom on the half-boards could give him the opportunity to find Carlson for a slapshot, or Oshie in the slot. But would that be any worse than what the Flyers have allowed them to do so far? I find it intriguing that Philadelphia's strategy at even strength is all about taking away time and space, whether it be on the forecheck or in the neutral zone, while their penalty kill remains so passive. The Flyers can't just sit back and wait for the Capitals' power play to mess up. It's simply too effective to fail without Philadelphia's help.
#3: Flyers' forecheck showed signs of life
In my pre-series analysis of the four regular season games between Philadelphia and Washington, I noticed that the Flyers' forecheck had been surprisingly ineffective versus Capitals. For a team like Philadelphia that places such a heavy emphasis upon extending offensive zone time via aggressive puck retrieval tactics, it was a real concern that they would be unable to execute that strategy against a defense filled with puck-movers like Washington. But after a Game 1 that saw the Flyers lose too many puck battles while on the attack, the punishing forecheck finally broke through last night.
Philadelphia's third and fourth lines had the most success in the offensive zone, with the Cousins line starting strong and the Bellemare line picking up the slack in the game's second half. Unsurprisingly, it was the pairing containing Brooks Orpik that seemed to have the most trouble breaking out of their own zone under heavy pressure. While Orpik has actually posted surprisingly decent on-ice shot attempt differentials this season, his skating ability and puck skills are certainly lacking, making him susceptible to bad passes under pressure. His 31.71% Corsi For percentage last night implies that the Flyers are having success against the physical blueliner. Orpik took two penalties in Game 1 and has a -7.56% Corsi relative to his teammates thus far in the series. The Flyers need to continue to exploit him if they want to score two wins in Philadelphia and even the series.
#4: Steve Mason had a rare terrible game
In the wake of the Sean Couturier injury, I theorized that the Flyers would have a very hard time carrying play at even strength, and would need their goalie Steve Mason to make up the likely gap in shots on goal by outplaying Braden Holtby. Of course, the Flyers go out in their first game without Couturier and dominate in shots but receive a below-average performance from their usually-reliable netminder. Out of the four goals he allowed, only the Ovechkin goal could be fairly called "unstoppable," and his 0.826 save percentage on the night certainly won't win him any awards.
Of course, the Jason Chimera goal is the one that will end up on all the highlight reels, and for good reason. There's no excuse for Mason to allow a dump-in from center to slip through his five-hole, particularly in a playoff game when the Flyers were carrying play yet not being rewarded on the scoreboard. To the goalie's credit, Mason did not deflect after the game and acknowledged that it was an inexcusable mistake. As we've broken down on a number of occasions this season, Mason has been an extremely valuable goaltender for the Flyers over the past three years and one of the best even strength goalies in the NHL over that same time period. This was a bad game, but shouldn't be treated as an indictment of Mason at large. There's no reason to worry that he won't be back to his usual solid self by Monday.
#5: PP adjustments worked even though Flyers didn't score
After going 0-for-4 on the power play in Game 1 on Thursday night, Flyers assistant coach Joe Mullen made a big tweak to his team's formation for Game 2. Philadelphia usually employs a similar 1-3-1 to that of the Capitals, with Wayne Simmonds in front of the net, Brayden Schenn in the slot, Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek parallel with Schenn on each side, and Shayne Gostisbehere manning the point in the center of the ice near the blue line. But that wasn't the look they showed yesterday. Giroux, Gostisbehere and Simmonds were still in their usual spots, but Schenn moved out of the slot and into Voracek's position at the top of the right faceoff circle. Voracek was instead down low, on Schenn's side near the goal line.
Washington seemed flustered by the dramatic shift. With two players down low instead of just one, more space was afforded to Simmonds in front, and he nearly beat Holtby just seconds into the Flyers' first power play as a result. The change may not have resulted in a goal, but it's a positive that Mullen recognized his unit's struggles in Game 1 and made a conscious effort to fix the problem. The statistics may be inflated a bit due to time spent with a two-man advantage, but it's important to note that the Flyers generated eight shots and six high-danger scoring chances in less than five minutes of time with the man advantage. Those are fantastic shot creation metrics, and it was only a number of incredible saves from Holtby that kept Philadelphia from cashing in on the PP. The process was strong, and the fact that Mullen is willing to be flexible with his structure in a short series bodes well for the future.
#6: Shayne Gostisbehere bounced back in a big way
In his first playoff action of his NHL career, rookie Shayne Gostisbehere had a disappointing Game 1 on Thursday. Not only was he held off the scoreboard (like the rest of his teammates), he appeared jittery with the puck on his stick and had a mental error on Jay Beagle's third period goal when he chose to skate right from the penalty box to the bench instead of helping his teammates to cover a Washington rush. But Gostisbehere was back to his dynamic self in this one. The defensive zone passing was crisp, he was active in joining the rush, and there was no better Flyers defenseman in the neutral zone, as he used his anticipation to cut off multiple Washington passes, killing rushes before they even began.
The result was a stellar 69.7% Corsi For percentage at five-on-five, and Gostisbehere even picked up a secondary assist on Jakub Voracek's goal. Even while paired with possession anchor Andrew MacDonald (who did play well at even strength last night), Gostisbehere has a +11.87% Corsi Relative through two playoff games. I'd expect big things from the Ghost Bear once this series moves to Philadelphia, as his game is definitely trending in the right direction.
#7: Gudas and Manning are getting a ton of ice time
As the Flyers embarked on their late-season push for the playoffs, head coach Dave Hakstol leaned on his puck-moving defensemen -- Mark Streit and Shayne Gostisbehere -- to take the most ice time at even strength. As a result, it's been intriguing to see the pairing of Radko Gudas and Brandon Manning receiving so many shifts during five-on-five play thus far in the series. Gudas has averaged 17:32 minutes through two games, and Manning actually leads the team at 17:58 per game. MacDonald-Gostisbehere is being used as the second pair, while the duo of Nick Schultz and Mark Streit has been relegated to third-pair minutes.
In some ways, the distribution of ice time makes sense. After all, Gudas and Manning were the two best Flyer defensemen by Corsi in the wake of the Michael Del Zotto injury (aside from Evgeny Medvedev, who of course remains in his usual press box seat). But using Brandon Manning in such a heavy minutes role during the playoffs after giving him minutes worthy of a sixth defenseman throughout the season is a dramatic shift, to say the least. I can't help but think that Philadelphia would be better served with the more-skilled Gostisbehere getting those extra minutes instead.
#8: The second line definitely suffered without Couturier
With center Sean Couturier out for the remainder of the series, Hakstol chose to elevate Sam Gagner to line two and use Brayden Schenn at the pivot position. The line absolutely showed signs of decline. While Gagner still looked strong (he created two high-danger scoring chances), the trio was Philadelphia's least effective forechecking unit, missing the down-low presence of Couturier greatly. Even with the possession-driving Michael Raffl at wing, this probably isn't a trio that can stand up to heavy minutes against the Backstrom and Kuznetsov lines. Luckily, the Flyers are heading home, giving Hakstol more control over matchups. I'd expect to the Schenn line get more ice time against the Capitals' possession-weak third line centered by Mike Richards when the games are in Philadelphia.
#9: Flyers cleaned up their defensive zone passing
A major issue for the Flyers at five-on-five in Game 1 was their passing under pressure in the defensive zone. Too often, Philadelphia would resort to blind chips up the boards in an attempt to clear the zone rather than executing a structured breakout. I noted after the game that the Flyers under Hakstol do place an emphasis upon zone exits with possession, so I expected the issue would be addressed before Game 2. If the game tape is any indication, Philadelphia got an earful regarding the issue from the coaches on Friday.
From the start last night, Philadelphia's passes were crisper and more accurate. The Flyers used the center of the defensive zone far more often, allowing for the forwards to move up ice with speed and space. The improvement was a big reason why the Flyers won the neutral zone, finishing with a 52.36% Neutral Zone Score. No longer were they gifting extra entries to the Caps by mindlessly flipping the puck to center ice, allowing Washington to regroup and drive right back into the Flyers' end.
#10: Cousins line continues to be very effective
The Flyers' best trio in Game 1 was the third line of Nick Cousins, Matt Read and Sam Gagner, and the line was only slowed by Couturier's injury which forced Hakstol to shuffle everyone in the second half of the contest. For Game 2, Gagner jumped to the second line and Scott Laughton replaced him on the wing. The change did not slow the line one bit.
They combined for five high-danger chances at even strength, and absolutely took apart the Capitals' third line to the tune of an 8-to-1 shot attempts advantage in four minutes matched up against them. Also, the one shot attempt was Chimera's fluke dump-in goal, which didn't even originate in the offensive zone. Hakstol has an interesting decision to make in Philadelphia -- shelter the Schenn line and give them lots of shifts against Washington's bottom-six, or continue to let the Cousins unit exploit the lower half of the Caps' lineup.