Morning Observations is a feature where we break down the previous night's game with an analytical eye.
#1: Neuvirth, Neuvirth, Neuvirth
No matter how the rest of the series goes, Flyers fans will always remember April 22, 2016 as the Michal Neuvirth game. It would be disingenuous to claim that Philadelphia's skaters put together anything remotely resembling a strong performance -- their power play was a mess, the entire second half of the contest was played in their own end, and the team's two goals came off a Capitals' skate and then via an empty net opportunity. No, the Flyers won this game almost entirely due to the heroics of Michal Neuvirth.
The numbers are mind-blowing. Neuvirth faced 44 Capitals shots and stopped each and every one of them. He made twelve stops of the high-danger variety. He was forced to get set for 82 Capitals shot attempts, and dealt with 36 faceoffs in the Flyers' end. Especially in the final 30 minutes, Washington brought constant pressure as the Flyers seemingly forgot how to cleanly move the puck out of their own zone. Every time, Neuvirth was there to bail them out.
The Capitals have to know that they did everything right with the exception of finding a way to put a puck past Neuvirth, but in the end, all that matters is that now they have to go back to Philadelphia for Game 6. If the Flyers play like they did last night on Sunday afternoon, then this was just a 48-hour stay of execution. But last night's win is now in the books, and Philadelphia can focus on coming out stronger as a team on Sunday and not relying upon an historic performance from their netminder to push this series to seven games.
#2: Understanding the level of domination
Let's have some fun with numbers, shall we? By every statistical metric we have (except goal differential), the Flyers were absolutely butchered in this game. Philadelphia's score-adjusted Corsi was 26.47 percent, their worst performance since an October 25, 2014 game against the Detroit Red Wings (bizarrely enough, that also was a win). They lost the high-danger scoring chance battle 17-7 in all situations. Captain Claude Giroux was on the ice for two Flyers shot attempts and 25 Capitals attempts (6.9% Corsi For). Six Flyers finished with a Corsi For percentage below 10% (Giroux, Brayden Schenn, Wayne Simmonds, Colin McDonald, Chris VandeVelde and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare). It was a thrashing.
Yet all that matters is the victory at this point. Philadelphia showed in Games 1, 2 and 3 that they are capable of skating with the Capitals at even strength. While this performance hints that the Capitals' true talent ceiling is significantly higher than that of the Flyers, this game truly was an anomaly. Washington basically replicated their play in the third period of Game 4 over the timespan of an entire game, and the results were staggering. But the Flyers have tape they can review from less than a week ago that shows them disrupting the Capitals at 5v5 and generating chances of their own. This series will be decided by Philadelphia's ability to recognize that this was a poor performance and thank their lucky stars for their goaltender, before working to dramatically improve on Sunday.
#3: Terrible defensive zone passing was Flyers' Achilles heel
Michal Neuvirth erased the issues with his incredible goaltending, but the Flyers will still need to identify what went wrong in the other aspects of their game to have a real shot to win in Game 6 on Sunday afternoon. They should look no further than their passing in the defensive zone. From a coverage standpoint, Philadelphia actually wasn't terrible -- to give up just 13 high-danger chances at 5v5 despite allowing the Capitals seemingly endless offensive zone time is pretty impressive. But when the Flyers could get control of the puck, their attempts to exit the zone were pure Keystone Cops. There were two possible outcomes whenever a Philadelphia player had the puck on his stick in his own end -- a blind chip up the boards that either was held in at the line or caused an icing, or a ghastly turnover.
The Flyers had issues with this in Game 1, but their performance in Game 5 took it to an entirely new level. Even when Philadelphia would actually complete a defensive zone pass, it was invariably in the recipient's skates or just barely within reach, making a crisp transition up ice impossible. If you want a case study of how defensive zone turnovers and uncontrolled chip outs to the neutral zone can result in a shots on goal bloodbath, this game should be exhibit A. Needless to say, the Flyers are incredibly fortunate they survived.
#4: Washington's tactics changing from shot quality to pure volume
For the first eleven periods of this series, the Washington Capitals' shot creation tactics were centered around one goal -- generating high-quality chances. Often, the Capitals would pass up clean looks while on the attack, instead patiently attempting to engineer incisive passes into the slot area to test the Flyers' netminders. But facing a 2-0 deficit entering the third period of Game 4, Washington began to expand the scope of their attack, and showed a new willingness to fire away from the outside in hopes of creating rebound chances.
That strategy continued last night. Washington took 82 shot attempts, but just 17 of them qualified as high-danger chances. That's a ton of shots from the outside that Michal Neuvirth saw in Game 5. It doesn't take away from the performance of the Flyers' netminder at all, but the shift to a more Corsi-friendly style is definitely intriguing. Neuvirth does have a reputation in league circles as a goalie with inconsistent rebound control, so maybe this was an intentional shift due to Philadelphia's goalie change. Maybe the Flyers are simply improving in their defensive zone coverage. Regardless, Neuvirth is clearly locked in right now, so maybe the quality of Washington's chances doesn't matter too much anyway.
#5: Top power play unit back to ineffective ways
It's not accurate to say that Philadelphia's top power play unit of Claude Giroux, Wayne Simmonds, Jakub Voracek, Brayden Schenn and Shayne Gostisbehere has been invisible all series. After all, they did score in Game 4 and would have done the same in Game 2 absent a superhuman performance by Braden Holtby. But they've certainly had their share of bad games, and their showing last night qualified. In a little over eight minutes of power play time, the top unit managed just five shot attempts and one high-danger scoring chance. Most alarming, they allowed the Capitals to generate five shorthanded shot attempts of their own during the eight minutes, so the top unit somehow was only able to break even territorially despite having a man advantage.
To credit Washington, their penalty kill was firing on all cylinders last night. It's an aggressive unit, constantly pressuring the puck carrier on entries and while in their own zone. But the Flyers made their job easy by failing to execute on simple passes. The top unit could barely even get set up in the offensive zone, which was because they seemed unable to generate entries via tape-to-tape passes. As a result, they resorted to dump-and-chase in a game where Washington was winning all the puck battles down low, a strategy that proved disastrous.
#6: Flyers' second line was only 5v5 bright spot
To be outshot 44-11 in a game takes a team-wide commitment to struggling from a puck possession standpoint. Still, the Flyers' second line of Michael Raffl, Jakub Voracek and Sam Gagner actually held their own despite the rest of their teammates spending all of their shifts in the defensive zone. Gagner and Voracek finished with passable Corsi For percentages of 46.43% and 45.83%, respectively, while Raffl actually had his head above water, posting a solid 57.89%.
Both via the eye test and the stats, Gagner has been the Flyers' most effective even strength forward in this series, so his strong statistics aren't that surprising. Voracek, on the other hand, has been rightfully criticized for less-than-dominant play, but he was strong on the puck in this one, particularly down low in the offensive zone. And then there's Raffl, long a standout by the puck possession metrics, who is proving capable in a center role against a stellar team like Washington. Philadelphia will need this line to continue driving play if they want to push this series to seven games.
#7: PK pressure tactics continued
Perhaps the only aspect of the Flyers' play in Game 5 that can be praised (aside from the goaltending of Michal Neuvirth) was their penalty kill, which again held the Capitals off the scoresheet after getting taken apart in Games 1 through 3. Washington had their shots (10 attempts in about five minutes of PP time), but it's obvious that Philadelphia's modified tactics are making it more difficult for the Caps to execute. We're seeing less time for Washington to operate, more clears for the Flyers, and obviously no power play goals against.
Even if Philadelphia had stuck with their early-series tactics, it was highly unlikely that Washington was going to continue to shoot at a 28% rate on the power play. But Philadelphia's PK success over the past two games is not simply an example of the Capitals making more mistakes on their own. Laperriere and Hakstol's adjustments cannot be ignored as a major contributing factor.
#8: Washington fourth line has been stellar
Through the first four games of the series, Philadelphia's third line was a real thorn in the side of the Capitals, consistently driving possession and creating scoring chances. But the same can be said of Washington's fourth line consisting of Daniel Winnik, Jay Beagle and Tom Wilson. In Game 5, the line did not allow the Flyers to generate even one shot attempt while they were on the ice, with each forward finishing with a perfect Corsi For percentage of 100 percent.
They've been the Capitals' most effective line on the cycle, using their size and strength to extend zone time by winning puck battles down low. Winnik's strong 55.27% score-adjusted Corsi for the series is actually the worst mark by a member of the line, showing just how effective they've been. While Philadelphia probably wins the battle of the third lines, Washington's fourth line has been far superior to the "Untouchables" at even strength in the series thus far.
#9: Chimera hit speaks to larger issue
Seven minutes into the third period, Jakub Voracek was maneuvering the puck near the boards in the neutral zone when he was blasted head-first into the woodwork by Capitals forward Jason Chimera. The fact that it was a penalty was undeniable -- Voracek turned slightly right before the hit, but even in his previous position, he would have still went into the boards in a similar, dangerous manner. Luckily for the Flyers, their star winger got up and didn't miss a shift, but Chimera was lucky too. Had Voracek been injured, I suspect Chimera gets a major penalty for boarding rather than the two-minute minor that he received.
Chimera is looking at Voracek's back during his entire route to the puck, and still chooses to level him. Considering the reckless nature of the hit, it would have been easily justifiable to give Chimera a five-minute major on the play. But the optics of the scene after the hit gave the officials an out -- Voracek skated away soon after, and certainly wasn't prone on the ice like Dmitry Orlov after Pierre-Edouard Bellemare boarded him in Game 3. Was Chimera's hit "less bad" than Bellemare's? Probably, considering the speed at which Bellemare was skating when he contacted Orlov. But Chimera's hit still warranted a five-minute major because of how unnecessary it was. I believe that on-ice officials too often base the severity of penalties upon whether there is an ugly post-hit scene, and this was a perfect example.
#10: Fatigue, or is Washington just improving?
During the final week of the regular season, there was a chorus from both social media and the media that the Flyers might be running out of steam, considering the team's demanding end-of-season schedule and two-month long push towards the playoffs. I argued against this theory, noting that the Flyers were still doing lots right despite their late "swoon." But in these past two games, Philadelphia has looked the part of a tired team. It's most obvious in their defensive zone play, where they are losing the vast majority of puck battles in the corners and are too often resorting to blind chip-outs rather than the set breakout plays that got them to the playoffs in the first place.
It's certainly disconcerting that the Flyers would be so thoroughly outplayed in an elimination game, especially because trailing teams in a series tend to get a puck possession boost, not fall off a cliff. Despite winning their last two games, Philadelphia's quality of play at 5-on-5 is trending downwards, and fatigue could be a possible explanation. Of course, the Capitals could just have been underachieving from a play driving standpoint early in the series, and now they are finding their legs. Often when supporting one specific team, it becomes tempting to attribute all losses to what that team did wrong rather than acknowledging what the opponent did right. Barry Trotz noted in his Game 3 press conference that he wasn't particularly satisfied with his team's even strength play despite the 3-0 series lead, so it's certainly possible that they've just cleaned up elements of their game and that's what is driving Philadelphia's dip in 5-on-5 play, not any fatigue factor.