Morning Observations is a feature where we break down the previous night's game with an analytical eye.
#1: The Flyers' penalty kill is a disaster
In all of my years of watching playoff hockey, I've never seen one unit so thoroughly torpedo a team's chances at winning so much as the Flyers' penalty kill has done thus far in this series. Forget about advanced statistics for a second. In three games, the Flyers have been outscored 4-2 at even strength, which is not an ideal result but also not hinting at total domination on the part of the Capitals. The domination is all coming on the power play, where Washington now has an incredible eight tallies in a little over 25 minutes of ice time.
The goals against totals aren't a fluke, or caused by Steve Mason turning into the worst goaltender in NHL history overnight. Washington is just overwhelming the Flyers with shots and scoring chances. The Capitals' PP has 12 high-danger chances, 28 shots on goal and 65 total shot attempts so far in the series, and it's a direct result of Philadelphia's inability to put any pressure on the high men in Washington's formation or to successfully clear the zone after blocked and missed shots.
After being gashed in Games 1 and 2, the hope was that assistant coach Ian Laperriere would make adjustments to the team's PK tactics. If he did so at practice, changes weren't obvious on gameday. The highest man in Philadelphia's formation was maybe a tad more aggressive, but the overall game plan was the same -- take away passes to the slot, cheat over to cut off Alex Ovechkin's shooting lane, and give Nicklas Backstrom and John Carlson all the time in the world to shoot or pass. Washington scored twice via a Carlson power play point shot last night --once on a Marcus Johansson deflection and once with a goal of his own. Maybe some bounces aren't going their way, but this penalty kill is a systemic failure on the part of the players and the coaches, and it needs to be addressed both now and for next season.
#2: Despite a promising Game 2, the Flyers' PP was again toothless
After an underwhelming performance in Game 1, the Philadelphia power play looked dangerous yet again on Saturday night, even if they failed to tally a goal. It took a few miraculous saves on the part of Braden Holtby to keep the PP off the scoreboard, and the unit appeared to be trending upward for the team's return trip to Philadelphia. Instead, the Flyers delivered their worst power play performance of the series.
Despite five opportunities and over nine minutes of power play time, Philadelphia generated just five shots on goal and only one high-danger scoring chance. The main culprit was poor offensive zone entries, as the Flyers would often gain the Washington blue line before immediately turning the puck over due to heavy pressure up high. Unlike Philadelphia, the Capitals' entire penalty kill philosophy appears based on taking away time and space up high in the offensive zone, and Washington executed it to perfection last night.
The Flyers quickly jettisoned the adjusted PP formation from Game 2 and went back to their 1-3-1 bread-and-butter, yet it only served to create a few good slapshots from Shayne Gostisbehere and some extra time for Jakub Voracek, who created very little with it. You do get the feeling that the power play is closer to righting itself than the penalty kill, because it has showed sporadic signs of life and the PP's shot/chance creation metrics in the series are close to the team's regular season averages. But last night was not a good look for them.
#3: For the second straight game, 5-on-5 play was not the problem
If you told me before the series that after three games the Flyers would have a 53.5% score-adjusted Corsi during five-on-five play and generated 51.9% of the high-danger chances, I would have been ecstatic considering Washington's dynamic top-two lines and big edge in terms of talent on the blueline. Philadelphia has wasted their all-around solid play at even strength due to disastrous special teams efforts, but that doesn't mean that we should ignore their relative 5-on-5 strength entirely. It may not be helping them to win this series, but it likely bodes well for the future of the team under Dave Hakstol that they can drive play at evens against a more talented foe.
For the second straight game, the Flyers won both the neutral zone and the score-adjusted shot volume metrics. Per my manual tracking, Philadelphia generated 47 offensive zone entries to the Capitals' 37, and led in controlled entries 21-16. Washington has yet to post in a game in this series with a Controlled Entry percentage north of 50 percent, a legitimate achievement for the Flyers' defense. Philadelphia also posted a solid 56.8% score-adjusted Corsi, and doubled up the Capitals in high-danger chances, 10-5. But despite all their strong underlying metrics at 5v5, the Flyers are in a 3-0 series deficit. That's not an indictment of advanced stats, but it is a reminder that the other aspects of hockey can be marginalized by those who use them. If this series has shown us one thing, it's that poor special teams and goaltending can easily erase strong results in the key even strength predictive measures.
#4: Washington covers controlled entries really well
To credit the Capitals at five-on-five, however, they truly do a fantastic job at keeping opposing forwards to the outside even when forwards hit the Washington zone with speed and possession of the puck. I'd have to go back and track each individual scoring chance for Philadelphia, but my guess is that the majority of the Flyers' high-danger chances have come as a result of a cycle that causes either a pass into the low slot or a rebound chance from a point shot.
When the Flyers have hit the zone with control, Washington has been able to either force them to the outside all the way down to the red line, or slowed them up high in the zone, resulting in a pass down low to a Philadelphia teammate. Basically, Washington has turned the Flyers' controlled entries into modified dump-ins, at least in terms of how dangerous they are. Sam Gagner has been the only Flyer to regularly create space for himself on the rush, and it's no surprise that he's one of the few players to have universally passed the eye test for fans in this series. Some of this is poor execution on the part of the Flyers, but it's also because the Capitals are a very defensively-sound team. The Flyers are getting no easy chances in the series.
#5: Mason underwhelming for second straight game
After Flyers goalie Steve Mason struggled in Game 2, it was only fair to give him the benefit of the doubt. He had been a rock for the team during their two-month sprint towards the postseason, and was the only reason that Philadelphia didn't lose Game 1 by a four-or-five-to-nothing score rather than the 2-0 end result. But for the second straight game, Mason fell short of expectations.
It was the Ovechkin goal in the second period that was the real back-breaker, a low sizzler of a wrister from the top of the right faceoff circle. Ovechkin obviously possesses a great shot, but considering the Russian sniper's position on the ice, it's a goal that Mason simply cannot allow, especially with the score 1-1 in a playoff game. It's easier to forgive the Capitals' third goal, since it was the result of a bizarre bounce of the back boards that would have surprised Dominik Hasek. But as Dave Hakstol noted after the game, that Evgeny Kuznetsov tally "took the wind out of [their] sails," and essentially turned the rest of the game into garbage time. The Flyers really needed Mason to come up with a big stop against Ovechkin or Kuznetsov, and he simply wasn't up to the task last night.
#6: Regardless of the rest of the game, the first few minutes were incredible
In my analysis, I tend to focus on tangible data to support my claims rather than nebulous concepts like momentum, team chemistry, and effort level. It's not that I believe those aspects of hockey are non-existent -- it's that they're extremely difficult to quantify. But watching the Ed Snider tribute during the pre-game and hearing the crowd roar prior to puck drop, I can't really argue against the theory that the Flyers fed off the emotions of the moment and used that to fuel a fantastic start.
The shift that concluded with Michael Raffl's rebound goal just 57 seconds into the game was a powder keg, as every hit the Flyers created via their forecheck brought the decibel levels of the arena a notch louder. It certainly felt like the crowd was giving the players that little extra jump in their step right out of the gate. Of course, the energy quickly subsided after the Capitals earned themselves a power play and erased Philadelphia's lead, showing that the "home ice advantage" doesn't win out over superior execution over the long-term. But for the first few minutes of this game, it sure seemed to be having an impact.
#7: Schenn line was sheltered more, but was effective versus everyone
After an underwhelming performance in Game 2, I theorized that the newly-constituted second line of Michael Raffl, Brayden Schenn and Sam Gagner might see a greater percentage of matchups against the Washington third and fourth lines, to protect them from the Capitals' potent, possession-driving top-six. That proved to be the case, as Schenn spent a little over 60% of his five-on-five minutes facing off against Mike Richards and Jay Beagle, rather than Nicklas Backstrom or Evgeny Kuznetsov. Schenn posted a 69.23% Corsi For percentage versus Richards and Beagle, taking full advantage of the easier minutes.
But even in limited time against Washington's top two lines, Schenn, Raffl and Gagner excelled. In three minutes and twenty seconds battling Backstrom and Kuznetsov, Schenn posted a 100% Corsi For, as the Flyers generated seven shot attempts and allowed zero. Maybe the sheltering was less necessary than originally thought.
#8: Evaluating the game's questionable hits
There were a number of confrontations in this game that had fans on both sides fuming. Some Capitals fans are livid at Radko Gudas for manhandling Andre Burakovsky during a third period scrum, while Flyers fans railed against Daniel Winnik after he blindsided Shayne Gostisbehere in the neutral zone. But the two most controversial hits of the night were dished out by Philadelphia fourth-liners Ryan White and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare.
First, let's start with the White hit on Brooks Orpik. The outcome was obviously horrible, as Orpik (who has a concussion history) collapsed to the ice following the collision and was basically dragged to the locker room by teammates. But after repeatedly rewatching the play, I'm not really sure what qualifies it as a "dirty hit" aside from the fact that it caused an injury. White does make a beeline for Orpik, but takes only two strides and then glides into the hit. He also didn't leave his feet, and the initial point of contact looks shoulder-to-shoulder. There was no penalty called on the play, and the fact that Orpik appeared severely injured seems like more of a terrible break than anything else.
The hit that Pierre-Edouard Bellemare laid on Dmitry Orlov, on the other hand, was surely an illegal play. Watching the replay, Bellemare was aggressively pursuing a loose puck in the corner and has Orlov directly in his path during the entire play. Rather than slow up due to the inherent risk of blasting full speed into the corner with an opposing player a stride ahead, Bellemare keeps motoring towards the puck and just before the boards makes contact with the back of Orlov's jersey, sending him headfirst into the woodwork.
I highly doubt that Bellemare intended to board Orlov on this play, considering his lack of a track record of dirty play and his usual calm and reserved attitude. But just because a hit wasn't intentional does not mean it wasn't reckless. This was an extremely dangerous play by Bellemare that could have resulted in a terrible outcome for Orlov. In my opinion, the five-minute major and game misconduct were warranted, and I wouldn't blame the NHL for adding supplementary discipline as well. That level of reckless abandon on the forecheck could really hurt someone.
#9: The fans need to be better
I'd prefer to use this space to analyze actual hockey, but unfortunately the events of last night's game warrant some sort of note. Following the announcement of the penalties due to the Bellemare hit and ensuing scrum, some Flyers fans (more than three, less than a hundred, I would guess) began to throw the light-up bracelets that they received for a pre-game promotion onto the ice, in apparent protest of the officials. After being warned by Flyers PA announcer Lou Nolan to stop throwing the objects, a few fans continued after Ovechkin scored on the power play to make the game 5-1, resulting in a delay-of-game penalty issued to the fanbase.
Some in Philadelphia have argued that the combination of supposedly poor calls from the officials and the underachieving performance of the Flyers made the actions understandable. Honestly, I think that's holding the fanbase to an embarrassingly-low standard. Even if you believe that the officials did a poor job in Game 3 (and the series at large), this certainly wouldn't be the first time referees made mistakes in a playoff series. Nor would it be the first time that a home team delivered a dud of a performance in a key game. But you don't see fans pelting the field of play on a weekly basis because of it.
Some also criticized the Flyers' promotional staff for handing out the bracelets, claiming that they should have predicted that drunk and angry fans might decide to use them as projectiles. While there's some truth to that (and I'm sure this will be the last time the Flyers' organization tries something like this), it actually was a very neat visual experience at the arena. The bracelets lit up during the pre-game, at intermissions, and even to announce Philadelphia power plays. It's disappointing that a unique idea was ruined by a few idiots, and that we'll probably never see another creative promotion like this at a Flyers game ever again.
#10: Is "shot quality" a sustainable formula for the Capitals?
One thing that has become clear in this series is that the Washington Capitals completely avoid taking shots from the points and outside the offensive zone faceoff dots at even strength. All of their offensive zone pressure is focused on getting to the center of the ice and generating higher quality chances. So far, it's working, as the Capitals have outscored the Flyers 4-2 at even strength and have a commanding 3-0 lead in the series.
But so much of that lead has been built on the back of a stellar power play taking apart a reeling penalty kill. You hear Capitals fans talk about the high percentage of their shot attempts that get categorized as scoring chances, but it's fair to note that even though that is the case, the "shoot from everywhere" Flyers still have more regular and high-danger chances at 5-on-5 than the Capitals in the series. Philadelphia may be taking more bad five-on-five shots, but they're also generating more good ones as well, and Game 3 was no exception.
Barring a miracle Flyers comeback, this particular series is already over. But I'm very intrigued to see if the Capitals' shooting patience is enough to beat deeper clubs like the Penguins, Lightning, or even Panthers in the later rounds. If a Flyers team with a weak defense and absent Sean Couturier can still generate more scoring chances than the Caps, what can better teams do to them? I don't say this as sour grapes -- I'm legitimately intrigued to see if they can keep this up.