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Red Wings 3, Flyers 0: 10 things we learned from an opportunity wasted

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The Flyers had a chance to essentially lock up a playoff berth last night against a team they had already beaten twice this year. Why weren't they able to do so?

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

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

  • In their two victories over the Detroit Red Wings this season, the Flyers took full advantage of an above-average forechecking game to retrieve dump-ins, extend cycles, and keep constant pressure on a limited Detroit defense. The Red Wings made sure that Philadelphia would not repeat that formula last night. The Flyers' dump-and-chase game was toothless from the start, unable to recover pucks in the corners or sustain consistent possession. Credit the Red Wings for improving their technique up high in the offensive zone to disrupt Philadelphia's retrieval tactics. Detroit defensemen utilized top-notch positioning (to the point where many rushes looked like borderline interference) to force Flyers forwards to always take the long route to the puck in the corner. The extra half second lost was usually enough for extra Detroit support to arrive, making it very difficult for Philadelphia to win puck battles. But even when the Flyers would hit the zone with speed and create a true 50/50 contest down low, they often lost it anyway. It was a combination of poor puck retrieval on the part of the Flyers and great positional play by Detroit that prevented a key roster weakness from being exploited.
  • Obviously, for a team battling for a playoff spot and still needing a few more wins to lock one up, this is a disappointing loss. But it's probably a good idea to take a step back and realize that when the Flyers lose an important game, it doesn't make the players gutless, lazy, pathetic or chokers, which seemed to be the prevailing sentiment on social media. Don't forget that this wasn't a loss to a scrub team. The Red Wings had 40 wins coming into last night, better full-season even strength puck possession statistics, and were just as desperate as the Flyers to secure their place in the postseason. Sweeping the season series against a team like that was always going to be unlikely. That's not to say that the Flyers played a good game last night -- they clearly did not. But a road matchup against a playoff rival is always a toss-up, and this loss is just as attributable to a good opponent playing a great game as it is to Flyers' ineptitude. Save your vitriol in case they lose tonight at home against a Toronto Maple Leafs team that has lost its last four games and seemingly has packed it in for the season.
  • It may not have felt like it, but the Flyers actually held their own in this one from a shot-attempt standpoint. They led in score-adjusted Corsi (52.54%) while narrowly losing when blocked shots were taken out of the equation (47.66% score-adjusted Fenwick). Detroit didn't set up permanent residence in the Flyers zone, like Pittsburgh did on Sunday afternoon. Instead, the Red Wings executed a counter-attacking gameplan to perfection, pouncing on Flyers' turnovers and using their speed up front to create high-quality scoring chances via the rush. In fact, both Detroit non-empty net goals were unassisted, and directly the result of Philadelphia mistakes. Shayne Gostisbehere threw an ill-advised pass out front under heavy pressure (and possibly an uncalled hook) from Brad Richards that Darren Helm was able to push past Steve Mason. Later, Jakub Voracek let a puck bounce over his stick on the power play, and speedster Andreas Athanasiou buried the ensuing breakaway. Most of Detroit's other chances came on other breakaways or quick transition rushes, not extended cycles. The Red Wings were opportunistic, not dominant, and the strategy proved to be effective enough to cruise to a victory.
  • If you had to point to one area where the Flyers failed in last night's game, it would be the offensive zone. They actually did a solid job in stifling Detroit's controlled breakouts and regroups through sound neutral zone positioning and aggressive reads. Unfortunately, their offensive zone play was totally ineffective. An inability to consistently win puck battles killed the Flyers' dump-and-chase game, and controlled entries were often wasted by a willingness to settle for perimeter passing rather than incisive attempts into high-danger areas. The result was numerous fruitless forays into the offensive zone, lacking scoring chances or even shot attempts. The Flyers finished with just four high-danger scoring chances at even strength, unacceptable considering the amount of time that they spent in the offensive zone with the puck.
  • The offensive zone struggles weren't just limited to even strength play. Philadelphia went 0-for-4 on the power play last night, and it certainly wasn't for a lack of shot attempts. They blasted 17 in the general direction of Wings goalie Jimmy Howard, and didn't have much trouble getting set up on the attack. The problem was actually hitting the net with their shots. Philadelphia generated only four shots on goal with all that pressure, as nine were blocked and four missed the net entirely. While the ease at which they generated those shots hints that the overall process is probably sound, four shots on goal simply isn't going to cut it in a single-game sample.
  • Three of those missed shots on the power play came off the stick of Jakub Voracek, who looked like his early-season struggling self from the right faceoff dot. At the start of the year, Voracek was being fed the puck for PP one-timers on a regular basis, but he could not bury any of his chances. Likely as a result, the Flyers gradually shifted the power play's focus back to the left side of the ice, with Giroux and Gostisbehere the primary puck handlers and Brayden Schenn the main one-timer trigger man. Last night, Voracek tried to reassert himself in both roles, and the results were disastrous. Not only did he struggle to hit the net with his shots, it was his turnover that caused Andreas Athanasiou's breakaway shorthanded goal. Voracek has the skills to be a major weapon on the power play, which he showed last season. But with only a week left in the year and the team smack in the middle of a playoff hunt, this may not be the best time to push Voracek back into primary puck handler duties on the PP.
  • One theory during and after the game was that the Flyers are simply running out of gas, caused by a demanding stretch of 12 games in 24 days over the past four weeks. If that's the case then Philadelphia is in real trouble, because they now face a crazy four-games-in-five-days run to close out the season. Still, I'm not ready to call this team gassed just yet. Sure, they've now lost two straight in regulation for the first time since early February. But Pittsburgh is the best team in the Eastern Conference right now, and Detroit is a solid club that that equaled the Flyers in desperation and were also playing at home. These were two tough games against squads that probably possess more talent up-and-down the lineup than Philadelphia has. Tonight's game against Toronto will be the real test of the fatigue theory, as the Maple Leafs have lost four straight by a combined score of 16-7. If the Flyers can't beat them, then we can start talking about the team having nothing left.
  • One thing didn't change despite the loss -- Steve Mason was yet again unreal in net. The two goals he allowed came on a fluke bounce off a Detroit player alone in front, and a breakaway by one of the league's fastest players. The Red Wings didn't take a lot of shots, but characteristic of the counter-attacking style they employed, the shots they did take were usually of extremely high quality. He robbed Dylan Larkin on a second period power play chance with a last-ditch sliding stop, and then somehow made two separate stops on a breakaway chance later in the period, first denying Darren Helm and then recovering to keep a Luke Glendening shot out of the net as well. This game could have easily been 4-0 entering the third period, but Mason instead gave his team a chance to come back late. It's not his fault that they were unable to do so.
  • It's hard to point to one Flyers line that really stood out last night. The Couturier unit led the on-ice shot attempt charts, as Raffl, Couturier and Voracek all finished with over a 64% Corsi For percentage. But the three forwards combined for zero high-danger chances, and that matches with the eye test, as they rarely looked threatening even with lots of offensive zone time. The Bellemare line had another strong forechecking performance, even if they predictably struggled in turning all that havoc into scoring. But their role isn't to be a primary scoring line, so you can't fault the fourth line. Philadelphia needed their big guns (Giroux, Voracek, Simmonds, Schenn, Couturier) to provide the offensive punch, and they simply didn't get it done.
  • It's amazing to me that Darren Helm only received about nine minutes of even strength ice time for the Red Wings, because it seemed like he was always involved whenever Detroit looked most dangerous. Not only did he score the first goal of the game, Helm's speed game fit perfectly with the counter-attacking style that Detroit employed. He gave the Flyers fits both defensively and offensively, and to my eyes was the most effective player of the game. He'll be a free agent this offseason, and would be a major asset to any team's bottom-two lines.