Morning Observations is a feature where we break down the previous night's game with an analytical eye.
- It was noted by a few of the beat writers that the Flyers have only played three bad games since the start of March -- March 4 against the Edmonton Oilers, March 19 against Pittsburgh, and then Sunday against that very same Penguins team. Considering that two of their "bad games" came against the same team, it's likely that this isn't a case of Philadelphia just happening to deliver a stinker twice in a row. Instead, it speaks to a clear advantage that the Penguins have over the Flyers. Not only has Pittsburgh been the best team in the Eastern Conference for the better part of two months now, their preferred style under new coach Mike Sullivan is tailor-made to give Philadelphia fits. Kurt noted last week that Philadelphia's recent play has shown no signs of statistical weaknesses, but that doesn't mean the roster is absent holes. The defense is still underwhelming on paper, and aside from Giroux, Voracek and (arguably) Couturier, there aren't many forwards capable of creating space for themselves on the rush. The Penguins under Sullivan basically pressure a team to death, contesting every pass and challenging every rush. Players with high-end puck skills can make them pay, because the aggressive puck-chasing tactics invariably leave a few players open. But so far this season, Philadelphia has not executed well enough versus the Penguins to do so. Truthfully, I'm not sure their current roster can.
- There was a great deal of marveling at the Penguins on the Flyers' CSN broadcast yesterday. To be sure, this isn't merely a totally different Penguins team than the ones Philadelphia regularly took apart over the past few years, it's a complete 180-degree turn from where they were back in November of this year, prior to the firing of Mike Johnston. So how has Mike Sullivan turned this team around? Without getting into the X's and O's, Sullivan has done a fantastic job of honestly evaluating his team's strengths and weaknesses and fostering a philosophy that takes full advantage of the former while minimizing the impact of the latter. The Penguins may be a top-heavy team up front with Crosby, Malkin and Kessel the only forwards that really scare opponents, but they do possess speed up and down the lineup. They also have an offensively-gifted back end that nevertheless can be exploited without the puck in the defensive zone. Sullivan's solution has been to unleash his forwards in a pressure-oriented system, betting that their ability to force turnovers should lead to lots of high-danger chances even offensively-challenged forwards can bury. The defensemen are also given freedom to challenge oncoming forwards whenever they attempt to enter Pittsburgh's zone, as the occasional turnstiling is better than death by a thousand cuts through watching players like Justin Schultz and Trevor Daley try to provide strong positional coverage against the cycle. Pittsburgh always was a team with lots of talented pieces, but now they have a coach with the stomach to deploy the roster correctly. The strategy is going to result in some ugly breakdowns, especially against really talented opponents. But considering the strengths of the roster, there's a good chance Pittsburgh will still be able to drive play overall against pretty much anyone.
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- The first period was Philadelphia's worst of the day by far, and it was due to a total inability to move the puck through the middle of the ice. On the rare occasions when the Flyers could actually gain entry in the Pittsburgh zone, their forecheck showed signs of life, but on too many occasions they were stuffed before even passing the faceoff circles. As usual, Pittsburgh was constantly pressuring the puck carriers, and the Flyers simply could not make accurate passes under that pressure. Every time it looked like the Penguins had overcommitted in the middle of the ice and left a man open, Philadelphia would inevitably flub the pass, allowing for Pittsburgh to recover the puck and move back up ice. As a result, the Penguins generated 68.6% of the even strength shot attempts in the period, and scored two goals to take a lead they would never relinquish.
- During the broadcast, Flyers television analyst Bill Clement noted on a number of a occasions (especially early in the game) that Philadelphia would be well-served to play more of a north/south, puck retrieval style against the Penguins rather than use east/west creative passes that are more likely to result in controlled zone entries. There's a lot of wisdom in this suggestion. To be sure, a successful controlled entry into the offensive zone is more valuable than a dump-in, as the current research holds that the former generates an average of 0.66 unblocked shot attempts while the latter only creates 0.29. But when an opponent is aggressively challenging your forwards in the neutral zone, sometimes dump-and-chase is the best way to get them to back off. Flipping the puck around a defenseman playing high in the neutral zone and then beating him in puck retrieval will have him cheating on future entry attempts to try to get back to the corner first. For a team like Philadelphia that is built around an aggressive and effective forecheck, this is an even more acceptable strategy. I'm not saying that the Flyers should exclusively use dump-and-chase tactics in future games against the Sullivan-coached Penguins. But a few strong forechecks early could have the effect of pushing Pittsburgh defensemen back, giving Philadelphia forwards more opportunities to make plays and get in on the attack with speed and possession as the game progresses.
- To that end, the second period is the way that the Flyers need to play against the Penguins in order to have a shot. Granted, they were down by two goals so Pittsburgh may have let their foot off the gas pedal a little bit, and it's not like Philadelphia outplayed their opponent by any means. But they outshot Pittsburgh 13-10 at even strength, barely lost the overall shot attempts battle (27-24) and led in high-danger scoring chances six to four. They did so by keeping things simple, employing their forecheck whenever possible and using the occasional counter-attack to drive into Pittsburgh's end with control and speed. The Penguins had their stretches of dominance, which is to be expected, but the Flyers team that showed up in the second period could at least beat Pittsburgh given strong special teams play and/or stellar goaltending.
- Claude Giroux and his linemates ended up breaking even in this one from a Corsi standpoint, but it wasn't due to strong play against the Sidney Crosby line. In a little over ten minutes matched up against the Penguins star, Giroux posted a 33.3% Corsi For percentage, as the Flyers generated 9 even strength shot attempts and allowed a whopping 18. In good news, Giroux took every other Pittsburgh line to the cleaners, finishing with an 84.6% Corsi (11 attempts for, 2 against) when away from No. 87. I suspect that when the Flyers face the Penguins at home next Saturday, Hakstol will try to give Sean Couturier the bulk of the minutes against Crosby, not Giroux. Unfortunately, because this was a road game and there Pittsburgh has the right to make the last line change during stoppages of play, they were able to better dictate the matchups, and Crosby took full advantage.
- There were a few obvious gaffes, but the pairing of Brandon Manning and Radko Gudas continues to be the Flyers' best in terms of driving possession. Manning had a team-high 63.45% Corsi, while Gudas was close behind at 61.9%. Gudas' failed attempt to change direction on a quick Pittsburgh counterattack may stick in the minds of viewers, but despite occasional errors, that pairing was strong in two areas -- neutral zone disruption and withstanding the Penguins' forecheck. On the rare occasions when Philadelphia was able to rapidly move the puck up ice, it was usually because one of Gudas or Manning either broke up a pass in the center of the ice or retrieved a dump-in and quickly got the puck to a Flyers forward. Both defensemen received over 19 minutes of five-on-five ice time in this one, so Dave Hakstol seemed to notice their strong play.
- Unfortunately, the game did get ugly in the third period, with two specific plays raising the ire of the respective fanbases. First, Tom Kuhnhackl made contact with Andrew MacDonald as he crashed into the boards, and the result was that MacDonald went straight to the locker room with an apparent injury and did not return. Soon after, Wayne Simmonds' stick smacked Penguins goalie Matt Murray in the head/neck area at the tail end of a play. Neither incident resulted in a penalty, but both fanbases were livid on social media after the game as a result. Per usual, there are two sides to every story. In MacDonald's case, the Flyers defenseman actually was losing his balance prior to Kuhnhackl delivering the hit. However, Kuhnhackl initiated his check after MacDonald had turned to face the boards, implying that had the Flyer not slipped, he was still getting driven face first into the glass. Regarding the Simmonds play, the basic question here is intent. If Simmonds meant to hit Murray, it's obviously an extremely dirty play that has no place in the league. At the same time, Simmonds doesn't swing his stick at all and per the replay, you can argue that he seems jarred by the collision, as if he didn't expect it. The Flyers forward also supposedly apologized on ice for the contact. If you're a Penguins fan, then MacDonald was falling down and Simmonds' action is criminal, while if you're a Flyers fan, Kuhnhackl was lining up to board MacDonald anyway and Simmonds' contact with Murray was an accident. In other words, just two more controversies to add to the long-standing rivalry.
- Steve Mason delivered his worst statistical performance since March 12th, but it would be unfair to pin the loss on the Flyers goaltender. Not only was Philadelphia outplayed through the entire sixty minutes, Mason's saves kept the Flyers close for far longer than they had any right to be. In fact, Patric Hornqvist almost gave Pittsburgh the lead before even a minute had passed in the game. The majority of Penguins goals came via odd-man rushes that Pittsburgh executed perfectly, with only Hornqvist's second period goal the result of a point-blank shot. If you go down the list of "Players to blame for this loss," Mason surely isn't in the top-five despite the six-spot that Pittsburgh posted.
- This was the rare occasion when I wished the Untouchables line of Chris VandeVelde, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Ryan White got a little more ice time, especially early in the game. Considering Pittsburgh's aggressive pressure in the neutral zone, this contest was begging for a simple, straightforward approach to offensive zone entries and a heavy forecheck -- the Untouchables' specialty. Instead, all three members of the line received about nine minutes of 5-on-5 ice time, standard for a fourth line. In their limited minutes, both Bellemare and VandeVelde finished above 50 percent from a Corsi standpoint, hinting that maybe they could have brought something to the table in this game given additional ice time.