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Flyers vs. Capitals: How Philadelphia fared in the neutral zone in the playoffs

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We use manually-tracked zone entry data to better understand the Flyers' first round playoff loss to the Washington Capitals.

Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

A week and a half ago, the Philadelphia Flyers' season came to close with a Game 6 loss to the Washington Capitals. After battling their way into the postseason on the back of stellar play since around the middle of February, the Flyers simply could not impose their will on the Presidents' Trophy winners.

But with the benefit of time, it's a little easier to understand exactly what went wrong. Philadelphia's penalty kill was a disaster in the first three games of the series, but after adding pressure-based tactics to their shorthanded units, they did show measurable improvement in that area. The power play, on the other hand, stayed ineffective through the majority of the series, showing only brief bursts (Game 2 and Game 4) of competence. On the whole, the underwhelming play of the Flyers' special teams placed a heavy burden upon the team's even strength play, forcing Philadelphia to not just carry play at 5-on-5, but outright dominate.

And through the first eleven periods of the series, the Flyers were by every available statistical measure the better team during 5-on-5 situations. But the Capitals turned the tide in the third period of Game 4, unleashing a barrage of shots and chances that would have resulted in a series sweep if not for the stellar backstopping of Michal Neuvirth. The Czech goaltender raised his game even further in Game 5, stealing a game that saw Washington outshoot the Flyers 44-11. But the Capitals would not be denied in Game 6, using a strong first two periods to take a lead and hanging on in the third as Philadelphia threw everything they had at goalie Braden Holtby.

Just like in the regular season, I was able to track all of the zone entries during 5-on-5 play for the Philadelphia Flyers in their playoff series versus the Capitals. Using this data, we can identify what the Flyers did right in the series, what they did wrong, and what allowed Washington to turn the tide at even strength by the series' conclusion.

Overall Series Metrics for the Flyers

By tracking Philadelphia offensive zone entries -- both created and allowed -- we can get a better understanding of how the Flyers performed in all three zones of play at 5-on-5 during their first round playoff series. In addition, let's take a look at how they graded in the series versus their play during the 82-game regular season. Then, we can see what was different about their performance in the playoffs compared to their success during the year.

Series Metrics

Interestingly enough, the Flyers actually put together solid performances in the offensive and defensive zones against the Capitals. They created 5.08% more unblocked shot attempts than would be expected considering how they gained the offensive zone. Philadelphia was a positive offensive zone team in the regular season, but they exceeded even that performance against Washington.

Their defensive zone play was also solid. Their shot suppression performance during the regular season was -2.25% below expectation, and they improved to -0.97% versus the Capitals -- basically break-even with the expected number of shots allowed.

Instead, the Flyers lost this series in the neutral zone. Washington generated 353 total entries at 5-on-5, while Philadelphia could muster just 312. That 46.92% Entry For percentage meant that the Capitals were getting in on the attack far more than the Flyers were, giving them extra opportunities to create shots and goals.

As I had mentioned in my "Keys to the Series," the Flyers would need to prevent Washington from blasting into the offensive zone with a high controlled entry rate. They would want to force their opponent to play dump-and-chase hockey, taking the skilled Capitals out of their comfort zone. The overall series numbers imply that Philadelphia did a solid job in this area, as the 45.04% Controlled Entry Rate that they allowed the Capitals was actually better than the Flyers' regular season percentage.

However, the full series percentage misses one thing. Washington's turnaround in 5-on-5 play that begun in the third period of Game 4 was sparked by a dramatic improvement in the number of controlled entries they created.

Time Period Capitals Controlled Entry Rate
Game 1 - Game 4 (second period) 41.58%
Game 4 (third period through Game 6) 49.67%

Once Washington began to consistently hit the Flyers' zone with possession of the puck, they turned the tables on Philadelphia's edge at 5-on-5. From the third period of Game 4 through the end of the series, the Capitals again looked like the better team at even strength, and it's because they finally were using their speed and skill to generate entries.

Individual player entries for the series

In addition to looking at team-level metrics, we can also use the entry data to determine which Flyers were taking an active role in getting the puck into the offensive zone against the Capitals. By comparing each player's performance in the series versus his full-season statistics, we can better tell who stepped up his game and who was frustrated by Washington's tactics.

Individual Entries

The obvious standout among the forwards was Sam Gagner. No Flyers skater was better at generating entries against the Capitals, and his 26.19 Entries per 60 minutes was a sizable increase over his performance in the regular season (20.75). Gagner was pushing play in every game, making it no surprise that he led all Philadelphia players in the series with a +12.91% Corsi relative to his teammates.

On the other hand, you won't find a stat that better explains Jakub Voracek's struggles in the series than his 28.57% Controlled Entry Percentage. Voracek led all Flyers players in the regular season with a strong 58.68% rate, but was forced to almost exclusively play dump-and-chase hockey against the Capitals. As he noted in his exit interview, Voracek was still feeling the effects of his foot injury, and the biggest issue it caused was an inability to create separation from opposing defensemen. The Capitals clearly noticed this on tape and made it a point to aggressively challenge Voracek on entries, limiting a key aspect of the Philadelphia star's game.

The struggles of Philadelphia's first line was a big reason why the team could not upset in the Capitals in round one, and that shows up in the individual entry data as well. Both Brayden Schenn and Claude Giroux saw their Entries/60 totals drop dramatically from their regular season averages, implying that neither was taking a primary role in getting the puck into the offensive zone. The Flyers simply needed more from their first line, and instead, they spent too much time on defense rather than creating chances of their own.

Looking at the blueline corps, the Capitals did limit Shayne Gostisbehere's raw entries to an extent, dropping him from his regular season Entries/60 rate of 12.04 to a playoff mark of 9.95. Still, when Gostisbehere could join the attack, he usually was doing it with speed and possession (64.29% Controlled Entry rate), implying that the dynamic defenseman picked his spots well. But it was Radko Gudas who proved to be Philadelphia's most efficient entry creator in the series, a mild surprise. He did show underrated neutral zone skill in the regular season, but surely the Flyers would have rather seen some of those Gudas entries go to more dangerous players, such as Giroux and Schenn.

Zone Entry Defense in the series

Just as we can look at how the Flyers players performed in generating offensive zone entries, we can also analyze how well the Philadelphia defense prevented the Capitals from creating their own attack time. Whenever a Flyers defenseman was specifically targeted on the rush by a Washington player, there were three possible outcomes -- the Capital gained the zone with possession of the puck, he chose to dump the puck in to avoid checking pressure from a Flyer, or the Philadelphia defenseman prevented the entry entirely.

The defensemen most efficient at preventing Capitals players from gaining the offensive zone with possession of the puck can be viewed as the team's most effective neutral zone defensemen in the series. Let's take a look at how each Philadelphia defenseman graded.

Entry Defense

Radko Gudas may have been the best entry creator on the defense against the Capitals, but Washington definitely made a point to attack him on the rush in the series. A big reason for Gudas' advanced statistical improvement in 2015-16 was his strides in neutral zone defense, but he remains a player with below-average speed vulnerable to high-skilled forwards on the rush. Gudas allowed the Caps to gain the zone with possession 60 percent of the time when he was specifically targeted, and his 4.65% Entry Break-Up percentage was also far below his regular season average.

Nick Schultz played his usual passive style in the neutral zone, and it seems like Washington took notice in their gameplanning. No Philadelphia defenseman faced more direct targets by a Capitals player considering his ice time, as he led the blueline with a whopping 35.44 Targets/60. Washington made it a point to attack him early and often in the series.

Philadelphia's best neutral zone defenseman, Shayne Gostisbehere, lived up to his advance billing in the series. While he broke up less oncoming rushes than he did in the regular season, Gostisbehere allowed the Capitals to enter the offensive zone with possession of the puck just 40% of the time, by far a defense-best rate. Even against top competition like Washington, the Ghost Bear clearly keeps tight gaps in the neutral zone and challenges opposing forwards.

The Capitals may have missed an opportunity to directly attack Andrew MacDonald in the series. MacDonald's 69.70% Controlled Entry Allowed rate was the worst on the defense, yet the Capitals targeted him just 33 times. This may help to illuminate why MacDonald passed both the eye test and the statistical test (-0.13% Corsi Rel) in the series -- Washington stayed away from his side of the ice on rushes.

Neutral Zone Scores

We've looked at the individual entry metrics for each player -- now it's time to look at the big picture. Neutral Zone Score counts up all of the entries (both created and allowed) that occurred while a player was on the ice, giving extra weight to controlled entries since they have been proven to be more valuable. Essentially, it analyzes which players were moving the puck in the right direction most often.

Neutral Zone Score

The Flyers' third line was, simply put, their most effective unit throughout the series. The original trio of Matt Read, Nick Cousins and Sam Gagner all finished above 50 percent in Neutral Zone Score, with new addition Scott Laughton (added to the line to replace Gagner after he replaced Sean Couturier on line two) also grading out extremely well.

Unfortunately, once Colin McDonald was added to the mix after Laughton's violent collision with the boards in Game 4, the third line became noticeably less effective. McDonald's 43.88% Neutral Zone Score hints that he was a real drag on his previously-impressive linemates.

This data also makes Philadelphia's biggest problem in the series abundantly clear. The top line of Claude Giroux, Wayne Simmonds and Brayden Schenn was absolutely taken to the cleaners at even strength. Giroux, universally lauded as the Flyers' best player, actually posted the worst Neutral Zone Score of any forward on the team who played in all six games.

A team isn't going to win many playoff games if its most talented player performs like its worst in the neutral zone.

Conclusion

The Flyers did a number of things right at 5-on-5 during their six-game series against the Washington Capitals. They outperformed their season averages in the offensive and defensive zones, and even held the high-powered Caps to a mediocre 45.04% Controlled Entry rate for the series. The team's third line also proved very effective, as was any line that included Sam Gagner.

But the tide turned in the third period of Game 4. Finally, Washington began to generate lots of controlled offensive zone entries, specifically victimizing Radko Gudas and Nick Schultz on the back end. The injury to Scott Laughton earlier in Game 4 brought Colin McDonald into the lineup, weakening the dangerous third line. In addition, Philadelphia's top line of Giroux, Schenn and Simmonds were demolished in the neutral zone, performing even worse than the team's "Untouchables" fourth line.

Zone entry data can only tell us so much, especially over just a six-game span. But they do help to illuminate key areas where each Philadelphia Flyers player succeeded and failed in the 2016 NHL playoffs.