Morning Observations is a feature where we break down the previous night's game with an analytical eye.
#1: A tale of two games
Last night's Game 4 bout between the Flyers and Capitals really could be broken up into two segments: an opening two periods that saw the direction of play largely controlled by Philadelphia, and then a final twenty minutes that consisted of Washington's best 5-on-5 shot generation of the series. The Flyers did everything right through two periods -- they won the shot attempts battle (52.58% score-adjusted Corsi through forty), scored a power play goal, and even managed a successful penalty kill. The Capitals may have been moving through the neutral zone with a bit more speed than Dave Hakstol would prefer, but Philadelphia was still clearly the better team and rightfully held a 2-0 lead.
But starting with T.J. Oshie's early goal and continuing through the final buzzer, the third period was all Washington. The Capitals gained the offensive zone 29 times during 5-on-5 play, and turned those entries into a whopping 31 shot attempts. It wasn't even a case of Philadelphia sitting back. The only real tactical change was that Flyers' defensemen were less likely to pinch deep into the offensive zone to keep pucks alive, which is an understandable tweak while protecting a lead. Philadelphia was still hitting, forechecking down low, and trying to keep good gaps in the neutral zone. The Capitals were just a runaway freight train, and absent a stellar performance from Michal Neuvirth in the third period, this game probably sees overtime.
#2: Capitals' shot selection changed in the third
Through the first three games of the series, the Flyers and Capitals' respective shot selection strategies at 5-on-5 couldn't have been more different. Philadelphia was either working to get pucks high to their defensemen for point shots that could create rebounds, or cycling to try and penetrate the low slot. The Capitals, on the other hand, were being far more selective with their shots, generating a high number of chances in the high slot or on the rush. Through two periods last night, that strategy held for Washington, but facing a two-goal deficit entering the third, there was a big shift.
The Capitals may have generated 31 five-on-five shot attempts in the final stanza, but a whopping 15 of them were blocked by Philadelphia. In addition, just four of the attempts qualified as a high-danger chance, a rate way below Washington's season average. Essentially, the Capitals had resorted to the Flyers' usual strategy, taking lots of shots from the points and hoping to create rebounds and general havoc around Neuvirth as a result. They saw some success (Oshie's goal came on one such chance), but it was definitely a break from their usual tactics. The shots from outside also served to inflate Washington's attempt metrics, as they finished with a 57.33% score-adjusted Corsi but just a 53.27% score-adjusted Fenwick (which removes blocked shots from the totals). I'd expect the Capitals to go back to their old quality chance-centric tactics in Game 5, but it was interesting to see them transition into "fire from everywhere" mode for once.
#3: Flyers finally made much needed PK adjustments
Entering Game 4, the Capitals had scored on eight of their 17 power play opportunities in the series for an incredible 47.05% efficiency rate. As I noted yesterday, a major reason for the Flyers' penalty killing woes was a complete lack of pressure from the highest forward in their PK formation on Nicklas Backstrom and John Carlson. Backstrom was being given all the time in the world to coordinate the power play, while Carlson's slapshot from the point had been the catalyst for a number of Washington goals. Instead, the Flyers' formation was collapsing the slot, protecting against passes to T.J. Oshie and Alexander Ovechkin but allowing the Capitals free reign elsewhere. The results were disastrous.
Last night, Philadelphia finally adjusted. The three-man PK wedge in front of the goalie was unchanged, but the high man (F1) harrassed both Backstrom and Carlson whenever they touched the puck. Claude Giroux began the effort, and was later helped by Chris VandeVelde and Matt Read. Basically, it's now the F1's job to try and push Backstrom below the goal line with pressure, at which point the forward at the top of the wedge (F2) moves up in the zone to replace him in the formation. I asked Hakstol after the game about the change and he was predictably coy, only willing to admit that "we made a little adjustment," and noting that the biggest improvement was in team discipline. Don't be fooled -- this was a substantial shift in penalty killing philosophy.
Is the new strategy perfect? Of course not. Oshie will likely get more chances, and Ovechkin got a golden opportunity via a beautiful pass from Kuznetsov late on the Caps' main PP. But it should also generate more clears, and at the very least, the plan forces Washington out of its comfort zone. We saw how good they can be when given time and space, and it's fair to say that adding pressure almost certainly won't make things worse.
#4: Capitals moved through the neutral zone with speed
At the start of the series, I wrote that the Flyers would need to slow down the Capitals in the neutral zone if they wanted to hang with them at even strength. In three of the four regular season matchups between the two clubs, over half of Washington's entries into the offensive zone came with possession of the puck. That's a dangerously high rate, and one that Philadelphia prevented Washington from reaching in Games 1, 2 and 3. For all the Flyers' issues on special teams and in goal, they did a great job in forcing the Caps to dump the puck into the offensive zone repeatedly, due to tight Philadelphia neutral zone checking and their usual aggressive forecheck.
That changed last night, as the Capitals dominated the middle of the ice. They finished with a Controlled Entry percentage of exactly 50%, but the real eye-opener was the total number of entries that came with possession. Washington hit the offensive zone with control and speed on 40 separate occasions. It's a credit to both the Flyers' defensive zone coverage and the play of Michal Neuvirth that they could give up that many controlled entries and allow just one goal. Still, Philadelphia doesn't want this to be the start of a trend.
#5: Neuvirth great in his first start of the series
It was tough to know what to expect from Michal Neuvirth in Game 4. After all, he hadn't started a meaningful game in over a month, his last start coming in the season finale after the Flyers had clinched a playoff berth and his last important start way back on March 16th. Neuvirth didn't face many shots early as the Flyers carried the play, and was first called to answer the bell in the late first period, after Philadelphia's play sagged in the wake of the frightening Scott Laughton injury. The Flyers' goalie was up to the task, making three saves on Washington scoring chances over the final five minutes of the period.
But that was just a warm-up for his play in the third period, when he bailed out a Flyers team that was getting thoroughly dominated while clinging to a one-goal lead. He would face 13 shots in the game's final 20 minutes and stop all but one, standing tall in the face of Washington's late flurries. It's obvious that Neuvirth has earned another start in Game 5, as he showed no signs of rust or the injury that made him sit out the last three weeks of the regular season. Players in the locker room were quick to note that they had placed Steve Mason in an impossible situation through the series' first three games with their lack of discipline, but that doesn't change the fact that Neuvirth last night delivered a performance far superior to Mason's overall play in Games 2 and 3.
#6: Andrew MacDonald has been surprisingly effective in this series
Defenseman Andrew MacDonald has turned into a whipping boy among the Flyers' fanbase, really ever since signing his six-year, $30 million extension at the end of the 2014 regular season. To be sure, MacDonald's play driving ability at five-on-five has long been poor, and the Flyers essentially admitted that his contract was a massive overpay when they sent him down to the AHL to start the 2015-16 season. But MacDonald is certainly capable of stretches of solid play -- I just didn't expect one of them to occur against a very strong Washington Capitals club.
MacDonald's game winning goal last night will get the attention, but his on-ice shot attempt differentials have been perfectly solid as well in the series. After four games, the Flyers defenseman sits with a perfectly-solid 53.21% Corsi For percentage and +2.81% relative to his teammates. MacDonald has still been passive in the neutral zone -- at this point, that can't be expected to change. But he's been very calm with the puck on his stick, far moreso than he was at the tail end of the regular season. Gone are the poorly-placed defensive zone passes to Gostisbehere, and the inability to send play in the other direction after gathering a loose puck in the neutral zone. The Flyers had a lot of major issues pop up over the series' first four games, but Andrew MacDonald's play was not one of them.
#7: Fourth line looked out of sorts without Bellemare
With Pierre-Edouard Bellemare suspended for one game due to his hit on Dmitry Orlov, the Flyers were forced to make an adjustment to their "Untouchables" line. Head coach Dave Hakstol chose to start Colin McDonald, playing him at wing on the fourth line as Ryan White shifted over to center. McDonald himself had a solid game, but the line as a whole seemed a bit off all game long. They spent a number of shifts pinned in the defensive zone and unable to regain puck possession, and there was even one occasion when two players crashed into each other during a designed breakout despite little forechecking pressure from the Capitals.
It shouldn't be a surprise that the makeshift fourth line looked uncomfortable. After all, no line has spent more time together than the VandeVelde-Bellemare-White trio. The discomfort showed on the possession charts as both White (31.25% Corsi For) and VandeVelde (30.43%) were butchered at even strength. McDonald fared better (39.13%), mostly because he took multiple shifts with the Cousins line after Laughton went down. Still, the fourth line's disjointed effort will make it an easy call for Hakstol to reunite the Untouchables in Game 5.
#8: Heavy line matching by the Flyers
Philadelphia will go on the road for Game 5, so it will not be nearly as easy for them to force their preferred matchups on the Washington Capitals. But last night, we were able to get an idea as to the line combinations that Hakstol likes against the Caps' top units. The Flyers' coach chose to fight fire with fire when it came to Alex Ovechkin at 5-on-5, as Claude Giroux spent 73.6% of his ice time matched up against the sniper. Evgeny Kuznetsov got a steady dose of Michael Raffl and his linemates (Jakub Voracek and Sam Gagner), as Raffl faced down Kuznetsov for 72% of his minutes. Hakstol had little interest in trying to get his top two lines easier minutes against Washington's bottom-six. Instead, he clearly felt it was more important to slow down the Capitals' big guns rather than play a riskier hand.
#9: Laughton injury was terrifying, puts Flyers in tough lineup spot
The time that Scott Laughton spent lying on the ice totally immobile was the most unsettling sight I have ever seen in person at a hockey rink. Usually, after crumbling to the ice after violent contact with the boards, a player is rolling around in obvious pain. In this case, Laughton wasn't moving a muscle. The hit itself wasn't dirty -- John Carlson finishes his check just after Laughton gives up possession of the puck -- but it was the speed and angle at which Laughton hit the boards that caused the bulk of the damage. Luckily, the report from the Flyers following the game was that all head/neck tests administered at the hospital were negative, and Laughton was just staying overnight for observation.
Still, it's fair to assume that Laughton will at least miss some time in this series, if not longer. That dramatically weakens a third line that was a matchup nightmare for Washington from Game 1 through Game 3. With Bellemare returning to the lineup on Friday night, my guess is that Colin McDonald will stay in the lineup and jump up to the wing spot with Nick Cousins and Matt Read, replacing Laughton if he cannot play. McDonald had a very active game, throwing his body around and even generating a high-danger chance. He's not an ideal choice (and Jordan Weal certainly brings more scoring talent to the table), but I wouldn't fault Hakstol for feeling like McDonald's performance last night warranted another game in the lineup.
#10: Sam Gagner is putting together a nice tape to show NHL teams this offseason
After a tumultuous year that saw him spend extended periods of time both in the AHL and stapled to a seat in the NHL press box, Sam Gagner has been the biggest pleasant surprise of the postseason for the Flyers. He may not be racking up the points, but no forward has done a better job at creating offensive zone time and chances for Philadelphia. His score-adjusted Corsi For percentage in the series is a sky-high 57.65%, and he holds a team-high +10.72% Corsi Relative to his teammates. Gagner also leads all Flyers in 5v5 high-danger chances created with five of them.
I'm not sure this performance changes anything with regards to Gagner's future in Philadelphia following the season, as there is only one spot in the top-nine available and the front office may prefer to fill that position with a higher-profile free agent or even prospect Travis Konecny. There just may not be room for Gagner next season with the Flyers. However, his play in this series makes it far more likely that another NHL team will take notice and offer him a lucrative contract and a permanent place in their lineup.