Morning Observations is a feature where we break down the previous night's game with an analytical eye.
#1: Why did the Flyers lose the series?
After a hard-fought, six-game battle, the Flyers' season finally came to a close. Philadelphia lost the first three games of the series, and even though they put together a complete performance in Game 4 and then had their goalie steal Game 5, the Flyers just didn't play well enough yesterday to force a seventh game. It wasn't a repeat of Friday night's anemic even strength showing, but the Capitals did have the better of play yesterday, particularly during the game's first 40 minutes. Washington finished with a 55.34% score-adjusted Corsi for the contest, which isn't dominant but hints at a clear edge. You can't look at this game and say that the Flyers "deserved" to win, or that Braden Holtby stole it like Michal Neuvirth did in Game 5. The Capitals ended the series because they were just a bit better than the Flyers in basically every aspect of the game.
Honestly, this series was truly lost in Games 1, 2 and 3, even if the finishing blow came yesterday afternoon. Not only did Philadelphia end up in a three-games-to-none hole, they squandered their two best even strength performances of the series due to horrific special teams results. Washington did not begin the series particularly sharp at 5-on-5, often resorting to chip-and-chase tactics rather than moving through the neutral zone with speed and control of the puck.
The Flyers really needed to take either Game 2 or 3 before the Capitals cleaned up their game, but they were unable to do so because of terrible penalty killing, inconsistent goaltending and an inability to get pucks past Braden Holtby. Philadelphia grabbed Game 4 on the back of strong play through two periods, but Washington finally found their footing in the third period and really never slowed down. Neuvirth was the only reason they won Game 5, and it took the threat of elimination in the third period of Game 6 for Philadelphia to start carrying play again. The tide of the series had shifted, and the Flyers are left to rue what might have been.
#2: Capitals' ceiling is just higher than Philadelphia's
I said this throughout my analysis of the series -- despite the fact that the Flyers' play over the final two months of the season matched that of the Capitals statistically, all you needed to do was look at the team's respective rosters to know which squad "should" win the series. Washington had a more talented top two lines, a better defense corps, and no major disadvantage in net or with their depth forwards. Top to bottom, the Capitals simply look like a Cup contender, whereas the Flyers are pretty obviously a year or two away from that status.
But Philadelphia still hung tough with them at even strength for the first 11 periods of the series. Washington was consistently held to 5v5 Controlled Entry rates below 45 percent, forcing them to play a puck retrieval game rather than lean on their clear advantage in high-end skill. It may not have shown in the win/loss column, but the Flyers were imposing their preferred tempo upon the series, essentially bringing the powerful Caps to their level at 5-on-5. Then, the third period of Game 4 happened, and we all saw Washington at its absolute best. Speed through the neutral zone, shot after shot, constant puck pressure -- the Flyers simply do not have the talent up and down the lineup to match the Capitals when they are executing at their highest level. Few NHL teams do. From that moment through the remainder of the series, Washington mostly stayed at a higher ceiling than the Flyers could match, making the eventual outcome inevitable.
#3: Power play simply ineffective too often in series
The Flyers were gifted an opportunity to seize control of Game 6 early in the second period, when the officials mistakenly whistled Nicklas Backstrom for a double-minor high sticking penalty even though the damage done to Ryan White was actually friendly fire. It quickly became a five-on-three after the Capitals took a second minor, opening up the ice for the Philadelphia forwards on the man advantage. But they could do little with the opportunity. They took some shots, but all from the outside, as the puck movement on the perimeter was not crisp enough to really bother the penalty killers or Holtby.
It's hard to pinpoint one particular issue for the Flyers' power play in this series, because the problems were constantly shifting. On a few occasions (Game 5 for example), Philadelphia's main issue was entries into the offensive zone. Yesterday, they lacked creativity once they were set up. And on the rare occasions when everything was clicking (Game 2), Holtby stood on his head. In the end, all of the Flyers' power play shot generation metrics (total attempts, unblocked attempts, scoring chances) dipped in this series versus their performance during the regular season, and the results really were all that mattered.
#4: Neuvirth still great, and what it means
The Flyers were unable to come away with a third straight victory, but that cannot be pinned on goaltender Michal Neuvirth. Yet again he was brilliant, allowing just one goal on a Backstrom shot that was essentially unstoppable. Neuvirth was at his best late in the first period, when he held down the fort against a Washington five-on-three, giving his team's offense a real chance to get going without having to chase the game. The Philadelphia goaltender wasn't facing easy shots, either -- according to War-On-Ice.com, 18 of his 28 saves came on shots of a medium or high-danger variety.
Neuvirth's play also will spark a thousand talk radio conversations regarding which goalie should actually be the Flyers' presumptive starter in net for the 2016-17 NHL season. Luckily for Philadelphia, they have both Neuvirth and Steve Mason under contract for one more season each, and it's not like either has a stipulation that he must be the starter. But what is undeniable is that Neuvirth was the better goalie in this series, delivering three stellar performances while Mason was only at his best in Game 1.
As for what this performance means for next year? Probably very little. The Flyers players, while universally grateful to Neuvirth, have certainly not given up on Mason, and I expect the Canadian netminder to have the job in title to begin next season. But it is fair to note that Mason has dealt with numerous physical ailments over the past two years, and justifiable to wonder if you even want him taking on a full starter's workload. That's where Neuvirth will provide the bulk of his value, playing in far more games than the average "backup" goalie. And if he repeats his stellar statistics from 2015-16? The Flyers will cross that bridge when they come to it.
#5: Voracek's ineffectiveness probably due to injury
While Jakub Voracek was one of only six Flyers players to even score a goal in this series, it's clear that one point in six games is not what the team was hoping for from its star winger. To the Czech winger's credit, his on-ice shot attempt differentials at 5-on-5 were still solid in the series (+7.96% Corsi Relative after score adjustment) but the point production just was not there, at even strength and especially on the power play.
In the locker room after the game, Voracek answered every question patiently and willingly, with the notable exception of one query regarding whether his foot injury from February had negatively affected him in the series. Voracek quickly responded with a terse "no comment," in contrast to Claude Giroux who denied that injuries played a role in his underwhelming series. It seems likely that Voracek was bothered by some ailment against the Capitals, as his speed and puck carrying ability appeared much weakened by the naked eye.
After a slow first few games returning from his foot injury in mid-March, Voracek's play started to build momentum, culminating in performances against the Avalanche and Coyotes that saw him generate a whopping 20 total zone entries (11 controlled). But then, he appeared to hit a wall and the quality of his play tailed off through the remainder of the regular season into the playoffs. Whether Voracek was simply struggling to adjust to a not-fully-healed foot, re-aggravated the original issue, or suffered a second unrelated injury, Philadelphia just didn't get the best of Jake Voracek in a series where they desperately needed him.
#6: Top line simply didn't come through at even strength
In the wake of the injury to Sean Couturier, it was obvious that Dave Hakstol would have to lean upon his top line of Claude Giroux, Brayden Schenn and Wayne Simmonds to match the frightening top-six of the Washington Capitals. Unfortunately for the Flyers, they were not up to the task, becoming less and less effective as the series progressed. Through three games, Claude Giroux had a score-adjusted Corsi at 5-on-5 of 55.1%, a strong rate and solidly in the black. But in the final three games of the series, his line was butchered at evens, and the Flyers controlled just 32.3% of the 5-on-5 shot attempts with the captain on the ice.
The biggest issue seemed to be awful defensive zone play, specifically in engineering breakouts. Too often, the wingers (Schenn and Simmonds) stayed stationary at the top of the zone while the defensemen and Giroux faced heavy forechecking pressure from the Capitals, waiting for passes that never came. More than any other Flyers line, the top unit just could not get out of their own zone cleanly, and everyone deserves a bit of blame on that front. This doesn't make Claude Giroux a bad player, a declining player, or a choker. But he did have a bad series, even if he didn't get a ton of help from his linemates.
#7: What skaters played well in the series?
It wasn't all bad for the Flyers in this series, even if the team's biggest names weren't at their best. They did receive a number of strong performances from players further down the lineup, however. Topping the list is Sam Gagner, who seemed to make every line that he played on perform at a higher level. Gagner may have finished with just two points (tied for the team lead) but the Flyers generated 55.25% of the 5-on-5 shot attempts with him on the ice and just 41.52% while he sat on the bench, a staggering disparity.
Michael Raffl also impressed, even after being thrust into an unfamiliar second line center role late in the series. He'll likely never be an elite scorer, but his work along the boards and on the cycle would make him a great fit on any team. Brandon Manning actually finished with the best Corsi Relative of any Flyers defenseman (+6.64%) in the series and was solid throughout. Nick Schultz was his usual play driving liability at even strength, but he did yeoman's work on the penalty kill in shadowing Alexander Ovechkin, and was the only PKer who performed his assigned role admirably. Unfortunately, these aren't the players capable of carrying a team to a playoff upset, yet another reason why Philadelphia's season is now over.
#8: Not an excuse, but injuries did not break Flyers' way
Before the series began, I published an article detailing my "Keys to the Series," breaking down what important matchups the Flyers would need to exploit in order to have a real shot at taking down the Capitals. By the start of Game 6, however, two of those keys were no longer applicable to the series, made irrelevant due to Philadelphia injuries.
The expected battle between Sean Couturier and Alexander Ovechkin was in my mind the most important matchup of the series. By the end of Game 1, that went out the window due to Couturier's shoulder injury. The Flyers also lost the advantage of an underrated third line, first losing Sam Gagner to promotion, and then injury replacement Scott Laughton to a scary collision with the boards. By Game 6, Philadelphia's shutdown center was a player who spent most of the year at wing (Raffl) and the pesky third line had one player who spent 51 games in the AHL this season (Colin McDonald). There was already a talent gap between these two clubs at series start, but Philadelphia's unfortunate injuries made it significantly larger.
#9: Breakouts need to be analyzed in offseason
If there was one recurring issue at even strength for the Flyers in this series, it was the inconsistency of their defensive zone breakouts. Their strong even strength games (Games 2, 3 and most of 4) saw them efficiently move the puck out of their own end aided by clean, crisp passes. But in their underwhelming games, defensive zone passing was a key hindrance. Too often, the Flyers wilted under Washington's forecheck and resorted to casual uncontrolled exits into the neutral zone or blind passes up the boards intended for a player not yet in the correct spot.
This issue is partially a result of Philadelphia's biggest weakness -- a lack of impact talent on the back end. Players like Nick Schultz, Andrew MacDonald and Brandon Manning are often going to resort to "safe" exits because they don't possess the high-end puck skills to move through the middle of the defensive zone on their own. But the defense isn't going to get great overnight, as it will take time for prospects like Ivan Provorov, Travis Sanheim and others to carve out full time roles. If the Flyers want to take another step forward next season, Hakstol needs to take a long look at tape from the season and see if he can make any tweaks to their tactics. I'll be doing the same tape dive this offseason to better understand the problem, as well.
#10: A brief look at the offseason
With the Flyers' playoff run now over, it's time to turn our attention to the next stage of the team's retooling process - the 2016 offseason. Philadelphia has a whopping ten picks in the upcoming draft, including five in the first three rounds. But more intriguing will be how general manager Ron Hextall approaches his pending free agents and the the open UFA market itself.
Brayden Schenn, Nick Cousins, Ryan White, Radko Gudas, Brandon Manning, Sam Gagner and Evgeny Medvedev are all in need of new contracts, and it seems likely that all but Gagner and Medvedev will get one. The Flyers might be better served moving on from White (his 46.43% Neutral Zone Score was the lowest among regular forwards), but considering Hakstol's appreciation for the fourth line and White's solid goal totals, I'd be willing to wager he returns. Gagner will be the most intriguing decision, considering his strong closing kick to the season. I'm not sure the Flyers will be able to find a superior option in free agency over Gagner at his likely price.
Trades are also an option, and some in social media have thrown around names like Matt Read, Mark Streit and Nick Schultz as players that could be shipped out for future value. I don't doubt that Hextall will explore all options over the next few months, even on the trade market. But most intriguing will be his approach to free agency. For the first time since taking over as GM, Hextall actually will have a degree of cap flexibility if he wants it. He could look to target a scoring infusion via mid-tier options like Teddy Purcell or David Perron, beef up the bottom-six with someone like Darren Helm, or chase a big fish like Loui Eriksson, Kyle Okposo or even Steven Stamkos. Regardless of Hextall's eventual tactics, this promises to be an eventful offseason in Philadelphia.