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Maple Leafs 4, Flyers 3: 10 things we learned from watching playoff chances continue to dwindle

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An 0-2-1 stretch now has the Flyers needing to win out in order to ensure a spot in the postseason. What's gone wrong, and can Philadelphia right the ship?

Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

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

  • The go-to excuse for the Flyers' stretch of 0-2-1 play this week seems to be that the team is physically and emotionally spent, a victim of a two-month long push towards the postseason combined with a particularly demanding late-season schedule. I don't buy it. To be sure, the players are a bit banged up, as most are at the tail end of a grueling 82-game season. But exhausted teams don't outshoot their opponents 44-26 on the whole and 33-13 over the game's final two periods. They also don't win even strength puck possession battles by controlling 59.82% of the attempts (score-adjusted). Last night's loss was primarily a case of poor execution, particularly in the first period. Andrew MacDonald had an insightful quote about the poor start, stating, "I think we were kind of waiting to see what kind of game it was instead of taking it to them." They did look surprisingly passive early, especially in their defensive zone coverage. But the strong finish showed that the Flyers can still dial up both the intensity and the quality of their play. They'll need to do the same in their final 120 minutes of hockey this season if they want to lock up a playoff spot.
  • This feels like a devastating loss, especially since Toronto has been one of the league's worst teams by record this season. But a victory last night really wouldn't have changed the Flyers' path all that much. Had they beaten the Maple Leafs, Philadelphia would be sitting tied with Detroit and Boston at 93 points with a game in hand. But they would still come out on the short end of all the major end-of-season tiebreakers (regulation wins and head-to-head) against both rivals. If we assume that Boston and Detroit win on Saturday afternoon, all this overtime loss changed is that Philadelphia now needs to get four points in their final two games rather than just three. They were still going to be forced to come away with at least an overtime decision in their tough matchup against the Penguins to have a shot. Now, the path is less murky -- Philadelphia pretty much needs to win out to clinch the final wild card spot. Losses by either Detroit or Boston their respective finales would open up the scenarios a bit, but if the Flyers win out, those scenarios become irrelevant. Win and you're in. As Claude Giroux said after the game, "Tell us two months ago we’d be in this position, and we would take it."
  • In Detroit, the biggest problem was terrible offensive zone play, as the Flyers repeatedly wasted entries and committed turnovers to send the Red Wings on odd-man rushes the other way. While Wayne Simmonds' ghastly second period giveaway that resulted in a Michael Grabner tally certainly qualified as the latter, Philadelphia's effort on the attack was dramatically improved last night. Unfortunately, their play in the defensive zone was a different story. The breakdown that led to William Nylander's first period goal was the most glaring, but the Flyers often looked out of sorts when in shot prevention mode, preferring to sit back and hope that Toronto missed the net rather than actively pressure the puck carriers. It's not like the Flyers got better in this area as the game progressed, either. They just had the puck more, dominating the neutral and offensive zones. When the Leafs could get in on the attack in the latter stages, like they did in straight shifts with five minutes left in the third, they were able to easily get shots off and put pressure on Steve Mason. With the high-powered Penguins up next, Philadelphia cannot post a repeat performance in this area on Saturday.
  • In two nights, the Flyers have allowed three breakaway goals and a fourth off a defensive zone turnover by Shayne Gostisbehere that effectively hung Steve Mason out to dry as well. There's an element of flukiness to this, as a number of the Flyers errors leading to the breakaways were unforced (Simmonds' pass last night and Voracek's power play flub on Wednesday qualify). But you do get the impression that opponents are actively preparing to pounce on Philadelphia mistakes more than usual. Maybe it's just the recent opponents, as all three of Pittsburgh, Detroit and Toronto can be rightfully considered fast teams, especially up front. But the Flyers' attacking style does lend itself to counterattacks. Hakstol likes to activate his defensemen while in the offensive zone, letting them push deep with the expectation that a forward will circle back to the open spot at the point and cover for them. When working effectively, you get games like last month's victory over the Red Wings, when the Flyers spent basically the entire first period in Detroit's end. But if Philadelphia doesn't take care of the puck, opponents can take full advantage of pinching defensemen and move up ice in transition with numbers. Over the past week, that's happened far too often.
  • While many of the Flyers' lines have been struggling this week, the Untouchables line of Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Chris VandeVelde and Ryan White is playing some of its best hockey of the year. Toronto simply had no answer for the Flyers' fourth line last night, as they delivered shift after shift of intense pressure and forechecking prowess. Ryan White led all Philadelphia players with a stellar 80% Corsi For percentage, with VandeVelde and Bellemare not far behind, checking in at 73.53% and 69.44% respectively. Still, even when the line is humming, the lack of high-end skill usually keeps them off the scoresheet. Not last night. While Andrew MacDonald may have gotten the goal, it was only possible due to the hard work down low from Bellemare and company. If the Flyers do find a way to slip into the playoffs, their fourth line is looking mighty dangerous.
  • For the first time in weeks, you wouldn't be totally unjustified by pinning some of the blame for a Flyers loss on goalie Steve Mason. It's not that Mason had a terrible game -- he gave up two breakaway goals and was the victim of a total defensive breakdown on a third -- but he could not come through with a huge save in a key moment. Last Saturday against Ottawa, Mason stopped Mike Hoffman on a breakaway just after the Flyers had taken a 1-0 lead. It was a high-danger chance at a pivotal moment in the game, and Mason was able to shut the door. Last night, he faced a similar situation in the second period, as Michael Grabner blasted down the ice on a breakaway after the Flyers had cut Toronto's lead down to one goal and had really turned up the pressure. This time, however, Mason could not shut the door, and all of Philadelphia's hard work in the second period became meaningless due to one Wayne Simmonds bad pass. Again, breakaways are tough to blame on the goaltender, as the shooter holds a major advantage. But Mason has spoiled the Flyers with consistently heroic performances recently, to the point where you expect him to always bail the team out. Last night, however, Steve Mason looked human, and they needed him to be superhuman yet again.
  • For the first two years of his Flyers career, Mark Streit looked every bit the high-end power play quarterback that the team desperately needed with Chris Pronger gone and Kimmo Timonen slowing. His shot wasn't overpowering, but it was accurate, and he was a stabilizing presence at the point in terms of puck control. Those days seem to be over. Streit still has his hockey smarts, but his ability to hold the point and extend offensive zone time on the power play has dropped off a cliff this year. It was obvious last night, as Streit mishandled both fluttering clearing attempts and passes from teammates, allowing the puck to trickle out to center ice on multiple occasions. Streit only has one year left on his contract, and he's rightfully been passed by Shayne Gostisbehere on the power play depth chart. But if Ron Hextall has designs on trying to trade Streit in the offseason, I doubt another team will watch tape of his 2015-16 season and think that he can still excel in heavy power play minutes, which used to be one of his primary selling points to NHL teams.
  • On Twitter during the game, three specific Flyers seemed to be the primary targets of the fans' ire -- Wayne Simmonds, Jakub Voracek and Matt Read. In this case, social media matched the possession charts, as the aforementioned forwards were Philadelphia's three worst Corsi players last night. Simmonds partially redeemed himself with the game-tying goal late in regulation, but it's difficult to forget that it was his ill-advised pass that caused Grabner's breakaway tally. Voracek was moved up to the Giroux line but again was turnover-prone. He even lacked the jump in his step that usually allows him to generate controlled offensive zone entries at will. Read was been a whipping boy of the fanbase all year due to his declining scoring statistics, but even as a Read defender, I'll admit that his play over the past few weeks has been underwhelming. He no longer leads the team in Neutral Zone Score (that honor has passed to Sean Couturier), as his play with the puck in the middle of the ice has become sloppy. I actually suspected that he would be the player to come out of the lineup in favor of Scott Laughton, but Read avoided the press box last night with Nick Cousins taking a seat instead. Still, the Flyers need more from Read (and Voracek, for that matter) in order to go 2-0 the rest of the way.
  • Scott Laughton started his first game since March 22nd, replacing Nick Cousins as the Flyers' third line center. He didn't receive a ton of ice time (less than nine minutes at 5-on-5), but did finish with a solid Corsi For percentage (69.23%). Basically, Laughton looked serviceable, even back in a center role where he struggled earlier in the season. But if Hakstol was hoping for an infusion of well-rested speed, this certainly wasn't Chris Kreider showing up in the 2012 NHL playoffs and blowing the doors off a bunch of exhausted opponents. Laughton looked fine, and didn't make an obvious mistakes that should get him immediately sent back to the press box. He's no gamechanger, though.
  • Hockey's a strange game sometimes, and Andrew MacDonald's performance last night was a classic example. Through two periods, I thought MacDonald looked underwhelming, especially in the offensive zone. Poorly-timed pinches led to a few odd-man rushes for the Leafs, and his play with the puck at the point looked especially toothless. Then, midway through the third period with the Flyers in desperate need of a spark, MacDonald let loose a beautiful snipe of a wrist shot from the point to keep his team in the game. It was a huge play from an unlikely source. But then, in overtime, his sliding pokecheck attempt turned into a tripping penalty and a power play that ended with Toronto scoring the game-winner. MacDonald basically went from "unlikely hero" to "unfortunate goat" in about ten minutes of game time. That's hockey.