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Flyers 5, Canucks 4: 10 things we learned from an actual win

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The Flyers have been in desperate need of a win and they got one last night, no matter how ugly it was at times.

Kate Frese Photography

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

#1: Sloppy game that both teams could have lost

A few times over the past two weeks, the Philadelphia Flyers have lost games that you could argue they “should have” won, based upon the amount of shots blasted at the opposing netminder and the quality of their chances. Last night wasn’t one of those games. Even though the earned the two points, it’s tough to argue that the Flyers played well on the whole when they took six penalties (two of which were double-minors), allowed 38 shots on goal, and lost the 5v5 raw shot attempts battle 48-36 to a relatively weak Canucks squad.

But somehow, they really didn’t deserve to lose, either. This was a contest between two teams insistent upon keeping the other in the game, due to brainless errors or just plain old poor execution. First, Brandon Manning and Michael Del Zotto almost gave the game away early by taking overlapping double-minor high-sticking penalties before the first ten minutes were finished. Vancouver got one goal out of that one. Not to be outdone, the Canucks allowed the Flyers to storm back in the second with two goals in a span of 18 seconds to take their first lead of the game. But just 22 seconds later, Steve Mason allowed a soft goal to Markus Granlund to tied things up again. It was that kind of night — one team made a mistake, the other team did whatever they could to top it. Philadelphia deserves credit for tying things up in the third and then grabbing a much-needed two points in the shootout. But on the whole, this isn’t a performance to have pride in. Luckily for the Flyers, the same could be said for their opponent.

#2: Flyers flipped the statistical script in this one

During the 2016-17 season, the Flyers have put together a unique statistical profile during 5-on-5 situations. While their performance in raw shot differential (Corsi) is mildly above-average, Philadelphia grades out far worse by metrics that account for shot quality created and allowed. While they are a decent 14th in score-adjusted Corsi, the Flyers rank 26th in score-adjusted Expected Goals at 5v5 by Corsica, and 27th by DTM About Heart’s metric. Generally speaking, these statistics see the Flyers as a team that gives back their shot attempt edge by losing the shot quality battle.

Last night, however, the Flyers lost in raw attempts but racked up more scoring chances overall than the Canucks. While Philadelphia finished with a 42.71% SA-Corsi at 5v5, they led in scoring chances (23-20 regular, 9-7 high-danger) and in xG with 52.09%. The gap was even larger when accounting for all situations, as the Flyers finished over a goal up (3.87 to 2.77) in xG. So what changed this time around? For starters, Vancouver isn’t a very good team by xG either, so it wasn’t exactly top-tier competition. But on the whole, it seemed like the Flyers played more a rush-centric, controlled entry game than usual, which lends itself to more quality chances due to the defense retreating.

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#3: Penalty kill skirted the line between great and bad

A brief look at the Flyers’ penalty kill efficiency metrics may lead one to believe that this was a fantastic performance from the shorthanded unit that kept the team in the game. And that’s not totally off base — Philadelphia’s PK killed seven out of eight opportunities, allowing only one 5-on-3 goal in the first period. The advanced metrics also supported the idea that the Flyers did a great job killing penalties. Nine of the team’s ten regular penalty killers on the night finished with Corsi Against per 60 (on-ice shot attempts allowed per 60 minutes) at 4v5 below 70. For reference, the best penalty killing teams in the NHL usually allow between 80-90 shot attempts per 60 over a full season. Only Nick Schultz was even in that perfectly-solid range (89.55), and he delivered by far the worst results on the team.

However, the stats do miss two key points. First, the Canucks did score a second power play goal just as a Michael Del Zotto penalty expired early in the second period. It may show up as an even strength tally on the scoresheet, but it was a PP goal in spirit, and was another example of poor Andrew MacDonald coverage down low, an issue that has plagued him in recent games. Second, it’s impossible to erase the fact that Michael Del Zotto made the penalty kill’s job needlessly difficult by committing two infractions while the Flyers were already shorthanded. In both case, Del Zotto’s penalty eventually led to a Vancouver goal. So while there were certainly positives last night for the PK, it wasn’t all sunshine and roses for them either.

#4: What if this is just a bad year for Steve Mason?

Back in December, everything seemed to be coming into focus for Steve Mason. After a horrendous start to the season, he had stepped up in the absence of Michal Neuvirth and was arguably the biggest reason that the Flyers went on a ten-game winning streak. His save percentage was quickly moving towards the 0.910 range, and he appeared to have righted the ship.

January has been a totally different story. In five games, he has just one appearance with a save percentage over 0.900, and that’s exactly where his season-long rate has dropped. Last night, he was pulled for the start of the third period, and watched backup Michal Neuvirth make 14 stops in 25 minutes of hockey and then stop all three chances in the shootout. As Hakstol noted after the game, the decision to pull Mason was not because he was playing especially awful, but that there was one goal (most likely the second Granlund one) that he was sure Mason wanted back and that Hakstol felt the team needed a change.

The real question is what Philadelphia can expect from Mason moving forward. We’re now past the halfway point of the season, and the presumptive starter is sitting with a save percentage of 0.901 — awful territory for a backup, let alone a netminder with 36 appearances thus far. To be sure, not all of the goals allowed have been truly Mason’s fault; in fact, I’d venture to guess that not even a majority of them have been. The Flyers’ defense has been prone to breakdowns and have left him out to dry all too often. However, at some point, saves simply have to be made and weak goals like Vancouver’s third need to be avoided. Breakdowns notwithstanding, Philadelphia has actually done a pretty good job this season of suppressing shots from in close this year, meaning that Mason’s job maybe hasn’t been quite as difficult as it’s seemed. Mason has been a perfectly solid goalie over his tenure in Philadelphia, but we’ve reached the point of the season where it’s fair to ask if this might just be a down year.

#5: Couturier was the best player on the ice

Sean Couturier is an elite defensive hockey player. From the start of his career, he was thrust into difficult situations even as a teenager, and immediately showcased himself as a player who could be counted on at the end of games, the penalty kill, and against top lines. But Couturier does still possess special offensive gifts, even if they don’t manifest themselves in every game. Last night was one of those reminder contents when he flashes the high-end skillset that made him a top prospect in the QMJHL earlier this decade.

Especially in the game’s first half, Couturier took over. He was a controlled entry machine, moving through the neutral zone with speed and purpose on every shift. He just barely missed a goal off the rush early (he rang it off the post) and nearly nabbed an assist on an opportunity that Nick Cousins blew, which was created by yet another controlled entry by #14. That’s why it was great to see Couturier get rewarded with points later on, first via a secondary assist on Konecny’s power play goal, and then via a goal of his own in the second period, courtesy of a perfect Jakub Voracek pass. The underlying metrics backed up his strong performance as well, as Couturier posted a 56.63% score-adjusted Corsi, +27.03% relative to his teammates. He was a monster.

He received high praise from his head coach after the game, as well. Praising his center and saying that he had “led the way,” Hakstol also noted, “I thought that Sean had a heck of a night. Both directions, both specialty teams in the faceoff dot. In every phase of the game he was a real great hockey player for us tonight.” The entire second line had a strong night, but in both the coach’s eyes and mine, Couturier was the primary driver of their success.

#6: Provorov, Gostisbehere struggled

The seasons of Ivan Provorov and Shayne Gostisbehere have, in a sense, been mirror images of each other. Provorov has passed almost every eye test imaginable, including that of his head coach, who spent the better part of a month using the 19-year old as a top pair defenseman. It’s hard not to be impressed by Provorov’s calm and complete skillset on the ice. However, the rookie’s advanced play-driving metrics at 5v5 remain less-than-stellar. On the other hand, Gostisbehere has received lots of criticism from those who lean towards the eye test in their evaluation. They argue that his shot is less effective, his defensive game has regressed, and that he simply looks slower out on the ice. But Ghost’s play-driving metrics have actually been fantastic, far better than those in his eye-opening rookie season, in fact.

However, on this night, the duo had one thing in common — they both weren’t at their best against the Canucks. Regarding Provorov’s advanced metrics, many have accepted the argument that they have been dragged down by Andrew MacDonald, his regular partner since December. And while I believe that has played a major role, last night Provorov didn’t need any help to struggle. To my eyes, this was his worst game since his disastrous performance versus Chicago early in the year. The only difference was that none of his egregious turnovers ended up in the back of the net this time.

Ghost wasn’t so lucky, as he was outmuscled in front on Granlund’s second goal and made the incorrect assumption that Simmonds would pick up a middle lane driving Brandon Sutter on his goal and ended up floating in no man’s land. Truthfully, Gostisbehere’s game wasn’t as bad on the whole as Provorov’s (Ghost’s 48% Corsi versus Provy’s 40.91% speaks to that), but neither defenseman was especially inspiring. With Radko Gudas out of the lineup, the Flyers were surely hoping their two most talented defensemen would step up, and unfortunately, they did the opposite.

#7: Bellemare scored at even strength, for once

As I’ve noted over the past week, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare’s role at 5-on-5 continues to shrink, and last night’s game was no different. He actually finished with the least amount of minutes at 5v5 of any Flyers’ player, at only 5:48. But in those limited minutes, Bellemare was actually able to add a goal, a one-timer courtesy of a Matt Read takeaway and setup. It’s fair to note just how unlikely this event was — entering last night’s game, no NHL forward over the past three seasons (with at least 1500 minutes of total ice time) has been a less efficient scorer at 5v5 than Pierre-Edouard Bellemare. So enjoy this welcome burst of offense from Philadelphia’s 4C, but certainly don’t have expectations that it will continue.

#8: A classic Brayden Schenn game

It’s been an odd season for Brayden Schenn. After signing a lucrative contract extension in the offseason following an offensive breakout, Schenn’s performance at 5v5 has fallen off a cliff, both from a scoring and play-driving standpoint. But his overall point totals still look totally fine. That’s a result of especially fantastic production on the power play and during 6v5 situations late. In the end, Schenn is still scoring goals and helping the Flyers win games — he’s just doing it in a highly unorthodox way.

He continued that trend last night against the Canucks. After a few very strong games, the new line of Schenn, Wayne Simmonds and Dale Weise was butchered from a play-driving standpoint, as the trio all finished with score-adjusted Corsi For percentages below 30%. But when the Flyers really needed a goal, there was Schenn, blasting a one-timer past Ryan Miller to tie the game in the third period. He now has three goals in his last three games, and sits with a solid 29 points in 41 games, a 55-point pace over 79 contests. But what’s fascinating is how he’d get there, if the current trends hold. Schenn would score just 15 points at 5v5, but rack up an insane 40 in all other situations. I can’t wait to see if he can pull it off.

#9: Konecny’s minutes still low, advanced stats strong

Yet again, Travis Konecny did not see the ice during the 3-on-3 overtime. At least this time, it wasn’t Dale Weise who took his minutes, but Nick Cousins isn’t substantially better from an offensive skills standpoint and he was the one who received the call this time. It was a carryover from 5v5, when Konecny’s minutes were also limited. He received just 8:57 minutes total during the primary game situation, ranking eighth among Flyers forwards. Even though the rookie scored a power play goal, Hakstol still did not showcase the same trust in the youngster as he does with Konecny’s rookie counterpart, Provorov.

Konecny does occasionally struggle with turnovers, and can be a bit too cavalier with the puck up high in the offensive zone. But Konecny’s overall advanced metrics remain solid, and last night was no different. He actually led all Flyers players with a 57.74% score-adjusted Corsi, and also delivered a strong 67.12% xG. His metrics likely do get inflated a bit, because Hakstol tends to avoid using him in especially difficult matchups, but Konecny is not a player whose defensive shortcomings outweigh his strengths. Giving him back a larger role at 5v5 would certain appear to be justified.

#10: Second power play unit finally shows something

In a major surprise, it was not the top power play unit that got the Flyers on the board first last night (though they did tie things up in the third). Instead, it was the much-maligned second unit that broke through, courtesy of a Travis Konecny tally. The goal was a high-skill one as well, as Dale Weise used expert hand-eye coordination to bat down a Couturier pass off a controlled zone entry and knocked it in the general direction of Konecny, who would not miss with his shot. It was the second unit’s first power play goal since way back on November 22nd.

Could this rare bright spot be the start of a long-term improvement? I asked Konecny about that after the game, and he did express some confidence that the unit may be figuring things out, stating, “It’s been a long time coming for us. Our movement’s a lot better, we’re starting to get in the swing of things as a group and chemistry is important on a power play. You’ve gotta learn the guys you’re playing with and I think it’s starting to show for us.” He’s not wrong that the unit has been creating more shots recently — they’ve averaged over 85 shot attempts per 60 in four of their last five games — so maybe he has a point.