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Flyers 3, Senators 2: 10 things we learned from another step closer to the playoffs

The schedule handed the Flyers a game that seemed like an obvious win, and Philadelphia promptly took care of business, outplaying and outscoring the Senators on Saturday.

Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Morning Observations is a feature where we break down the previous night's game with an analytical eye.

  • Following Sean Couturier's goal with nine minutes left in the second period that gave Philadelphia a 2-0 lead, the Senators peppered Steve Mason with ten shots on goal while the Flyers could muster just one. Ottawa cut the lead back down to one during the barrage, and appeared poised for a dangerous late push. Instead, Philadelphia delivered one of its best third periods while ahead in recent memory. Generally, teams leading allow the trailing squad to dictate the pace of play in the final period -- it's this phenomenon that forced the analytics community to "score-adjust" their statistics, accounting for the trend. But the Flyers refused to adhere to the formula yesterday, outshooting the Sens 13-9 in the third and winning the even strength shot attempts battle 19-13. The teams traded power play goals, so it's not like the Flyers ran Ottawa out of the building late. But it's just as impressive that Philadelphia delivered their best puck possession period of the game in a situation that usually favors the trailing team. They did it primarily via a stellar forecheck, which was especially dominant in the final five minutes of regulation, as strong shifts from the Bellemare and Couturier lines kept the puck pinned deep in Ottawa territory rather than in the Flyers' end like the Senators surely wanted.
  • During March, the top power play unit was one of the only aspects of the Flyers' mix that underperformed. Long one of the team's biggest assets, the PP1 group was struggling in all metrics, from the obvious (goals scored) to the underlying (shot attempts, shots on goal). The injury to Jakub Voracek didn't help, but even after he returned to the lineup, the unit still was not scoring or generating consistent zone time. This week, things have changed. They didn't score against Winnipeg, but began to show signs of life during their second opportunity of the game. The unit finally came through with a key goal in the third period versus Washington, but the floodgates really opened up yesterday, as they delivered all three Flyer goals against the Senators. Claude Giroux has noted all along that the unit's success comes down to getting pucks on net, but Jakub Voracek and Dave Hakstol provided even more detail after the game. Voracek explained that he purposely positioned himself a bit higher in the right faceoff circle today, which gave him more space to take shots and make plays. Hakstol noted that the Flyers "added a little wrinkle" recently with the reintroduction of "pop-out" plays along the goal line, likely with the aim of creating more space up top by drawing penalty killers down low. It's clear that the coaching staff led by Joe Mullen have been hard at work to get the top unit going again, and their effort was rewarded yesterday.
  • The charge that a team "came out flat" is often overused by members of the hockey media. Just because a team gave up an early goal doesn't mean that effort or execution was necessarily lacking up and down the lineup -- it could just be the result of one bad play that happened to end with the puck in the net. But yesterday, the Flyers did look pretty lethargic early in the first period, even if they were not punished with a goal against. Philadelphia didn't produce its first shot on goal until seven minutes into the game, and they lacked any even strength shots up to the 8:23 mark of the first period. After a two-day break, it's likely that the cause was execution more than fatigue, especially because the poor play did not linger throughout the game. It was a strong shift by the Sean Couturier line that seemed to stabilize the Flyers, as they created six shot attempts and the team's first real sustained offensive zone pressure of the game. From that point on, Philadelphia's passes became cleaner and their forecheck got more effective, changing the complexion of the game.
  • They were kept off the scoresheet at even strength, but the line of Michael Raffl, Sean Couturier and Jakub Voracek was Philadelphia's most consistently effective unit all game long. Each forward finished with over a 53% Corsi For percentage, a testament to their ability to break down the Senators via the cycle game. After carrying play against Alexander Ovechkin on Wednesday night, this was undoubtedly an easier assignment, but Couturier and his linemates showed that they didn't simply get up to play an elite opponent. Unsurprisingly, they can take apart a poor team just as easily.
  • It's tough not to be amazed by the continued stellar play of Steve Mason. The Flyers goaltender has now started eight straight games over a period of 15 days, and has posted a 0.941 save percentage during that stretch, a rate that would easily lead the NHL if extrapolated over a full season. It's becoming commonplace to watch Mason deliver a performance worthy of a three-star selection each game, and yesterday was no different. His biggest save came right after Wayne Simmonds scored to give the Flyers a 1-0 lead early in the second period. An Andrew MacDonald turnover sent Mike Hoffman going the other way on a breakaway that threatened to quickly erase Philadelphia's lead. Mason stood tall, however, stoning Hoffman and preserving a lead that his team would never lose through the entirety of the contest.
  • For the third straight game, the line of Matt Read, Nick Cousins and Sam Gagner was lights out by the possession statistics. Gagner led the way with a 67.86% Corsi For percentage, while Read brought up the rear as the Flyers merely controlled 62.07% of the even strength shot attempts while he was on the ice. Also, they weren't just generating shots from the outside -- the forwards on the line combined to create four of Philadelphia's nine total even strength high-danger scoring chances. Read generated three of those himself, and while he continues to struggle to turn his strong play into goals, his process is definitely sound. Cousins and his linemates actually received more 5-on-5 ice time than Claude Giroux's top line yesterday, as Hakstol clearly worked to get a high-performing unit on the ice as much as possible. Long gone are the days when the Pierre-Edouard Bellemare line was getting third line minutes because the head coach simply could not trust his "scoring" bottom-six line.
  • This was a particularly big win for the Flyers, because the next five games do not look easy on paper. Philadelphia gets two games against Pittsburgh, who have been the Eastern Conference's best even strength team over the past two months and just throttled the Flyers two weeks ago in a head-to-head matchup. They also get a Detroit team that is just as desperate as the Flyers, and an Islanders squad that has seemingly righted the ship after a poor stretch of play in mid-March. Even the game against Toronto could be more difficult than it appears at first glance, as the Maple Leafs have posted a strong 51.7% score-adjusted Corsi since the trade deadline when they began calling up their young talent from the Toronto Marlies of the AHL. Ottawa, on the other hand, was both a poor even strength team and long out of the playoff picture, making them an ideal late-season opponent. To their credit, the Flyers both won the possession battle (53.5% score-adjusted Corsi) yesterday and took the important two points.
  • In his three 82-game seasons as a Philadelphia Flyer, Wayne Simmonds has come up just shy of the 30-goal mark, finishing at 28 twice (2011/12 & 2014/15) and 29 once (2013/14). With his two-goal game yesterday, the Wayne Train is yet again at 28 goals, needing two more in his next five games to finally pass the threshold. With the power play back firing on all cylinders, it's certainly feasible than Simmonds pots another pair of goals, but he's far more focused on the Flyers making the playoffs than personal success. When I asked him after the game about the possible achievement, he matter-of-factly stated, "It would be nice to get thirty, but if we make the playoffs, I could care less." Right now, it's looking like he has a good chance of doing both.
  • The numbers really do tell the story here -- at this point, Erik Karlsson pretty much is the entire Ottawa Senators team. With the fleet-footed puck-moving defenseman on the ice, Ottawa carried play and generated 61.9% of the even strength shot attempts. But with Karlsson on the bench, the Senators were consistently hemmed in their own zone with little chance of escaping it, as they limped to a 40.8% Corsi For percentage. The Swedish defenseman added an assist on Mike Hoffman's power play goal and now has a whopping 79 points on the season, leading all NHL defensemen. He's rightfully been mentioned as a leading contender for the Norris Trophy, and he almost deserves it just for putting up with this mess of an Ottawa team and still producing on a nightly basis.
  • The fourth line may have been underwhelming by the possession statistics in this one, but they came through with pivotal late game shifts that helped to make up for their defensive struggles. Hakstol actually used Bellemare and VandeVelde twice in the game's final five minutes, but it was the full unit's shift with four and a half minutes left that really stuck out. They spent the entire 63 second shift on the attack, mostly with the puck pinned along the boards in the offensive zone. Try as they might, Ottawa could not dig the puck out and move up ice, wasting away pivotal seconds in a must-win game for Philadelphia.