Morning Observations is a feature where we break down the previous night's game with an analytical eye.
#1: Total collapse in the third period
Considering the Flyers’ recent quality of play, it’s understandable if a fan who missed Sunday afternoon’s game against the Washington Capitals would simply assume that it was more of the same — Philadelphia getting blasted from start-to-finish by a superior foe. But the truth is a bit more complicated. In fact, the Flyers got off to a fantastic start in this one, outshooting the Caps 13-5 over the opening 20 minutes, and carrying play at 5v5 to the tune of a 68.09% Corsi.
They even avoided the the defensive miscues that plagued them in the opening period against Boston (when they also won the territorial battle), leading in 5v5 scoring chances 8-1. The second period wasn’t as impressive, but they again held Washington to just five shots on goal, and gave up just one high-danger chance over the game’s first 40 minutes. Yes, they were down 1-0 due to an ugly turnover by Michael Del Zotto, but this felt like a very winnable game as long as the Flyers replicated their process from the first two periods.
Spoiler alert: they didn’t. Everything that Philadelphia did right over the first forty minutes went up in smoke during a five-minute span that saw them allow four goals and turn a tight contest into a total blowout. There were coverage breakdowns (Cousins and Streit on Williams’ first), awful turnovers (Provorov on Niskanen’s first), leaky goals (Mason on Niskanen’s second), and then just plain lack of effort (everyone on Williams’ second). It’s impossible to know for sure what caused the collapse — maybe it was fatigue coming in the second game of a back-to-back, maybe the first goal of the period put the team in panic mode and then total despondency — but what can be said with certainty is that a team with designs on the playoffs shouldn’t be falling apart like that.
#2: Bad luck? Good team playing poorly? Bad team playing as they should?
The Flyers will hit their bye week with a 22-18-6 record, technically above 0.500 but actually having lost two more games than they have won. Unless the Carolina Hurricanes go into a swoon this week, it’s almost certain that they’ll pass Philadelphia for the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference before the Flyers take the ice again next Saturday. It’s undeniable that Philadelphia is posting its worst results of the season, but in order to turn things around, it’s necessary to diagnose what has actually gone wrong. Unfortunately, the answers aren’t clear cut.
It does feel like the shooters are snakebitten right now and the goaltenders are playing especially poor (especially at 5v5) and the numbers back that up. Since December 19th — the first game after the streak ended — Philadelphia has scored on only 4.71% of their shots on goal during 5-on-5 situations. During the same stretch, their goaltenders have stopped just 89.58% of the shots they’ve faced. That’s a PDO of 94.29, which is comically low. Since 2007-08, the worst full-season PDO for a team is 96.06 by the 2013-14 Florida Panthers, so the Flyers’ recent rates simply aren’t going to stay this poor. There absolutely is an element of bad luck to this run.
But that’s obviously not the whole story. It doesn’t take a hockey expert to see that the Flyers are blowing coverages in the defensive zone regularly, and that the goalies are simply not making enough tough saves when the mistakes occur. That’s not “luck,” that’s poor play by the skaters getting amplified by poor play from the netminders. And this is where evaluations get difficult. No, Philadelphia won’t continue to shoot at sub-5% rates and allow more than 10% of the shots to go in the net; history tells us that. However, is it plausible that Steve Mason never turns things around, because really poor goaltending years do happen, and it’s not like Mason has never been bad before. Also, the Flyers’ propensity for shots from the perimeter could continue to deflate their overall shooting percentage (it won’t stay this low, but could still fall below league average), and it’s not like they’ve dominated enough in terms of raw volume to make up for that. If either of those trends hold, we’re not talking about very good overall results the rest of the way.
#3: Bye week good thing or bad thing?
On the verge of losing their foothold on a playoff spot, Philadelphia will now be granted a five-day break, courtesy of the “bye week” that every team has been given this season. This isn’t just time off from games; the Flyers will also receive four days off from practices and meetings at the team facilities as well. Under normal circumstances, the bye week would be viewed as an obvious positive, a time for banged up players to recuperate and for all to let off some steam. However, these aren’t normal circumstances. Not only have the Flyers struggled to win games since returning from the Christmas break, they’re coming off maybe their worst weekend of the season, and now they’ll have to wait five days to regroup.
It’s easy to play amateur psychologist and theorize that this bye week is poorly-timed because the squad needs practice time, or has to work through their issues on the ice. But you could also make a case that a mental reset might help the club, since they actually have driven play fairly well during this skid and are being buried by big mistakes. In the end, we don’t have a clue how the team will react to this week off. I can say with certainty that the players will tell you that they’d like to redeem themselves as quickly as possible, so in that regard, this will be a frustrating week. But maybe this club needs to stew on this, helping them break this malaise. One legitimate positive for the Flyers is that next weekend gives them two games against weak teams — the Devils and the Islanders — so they will be able to ease back into the schedule to a degree. If they can’t get it done against the two worst clubs in the division, then it truly does become time to panic.
#4: Power play simply didn’t get it done
I’ve made the case on multiple occasions that it’s not fair to be too critical of the power play in games that see them rack up lots of shots and chances but fail to score. Sure, it’s disappointing in the moment, but sometimes opposing goaltenders just make the saves, regardless of the PP’s effort. Still, that philosophy is context-dependent. In a game like yesterday, with the Flyers making a conscious attempt through 40 minutes to tighten things up defensively at 5v5 and sacrificing offense in the process, the performance of the power play becomes especially important. The opportunities were there — four of them in the first two periods — but Philadelphia simply could not capitalize.
The early power plays showed the most promise, as the top unit in particular peppered shots at Washington netminder Philipp Grubauer. But Grubauer stood tall, making a number of tough saves on Brayden Schenn in particular. Then, Washington’s penalty kill found its game, and squeezed the life out of the Flyers the rest of the way. It was especially frustrating because Philadelphia’s style on the day seemed geared towards the PP providing the firepower, as they finished with just 0.86 xG over 45 minutes of 5-on-5 play. Instead, the power play couldn’t convert, the offense at 5v5 was toothless, and a poor five-minute stretch in the third period nullified all of their early shutdown play.
#5: Better backchecking through 40 minutes
It seemed obvious that Dave Hakstol must have placed a major emphasis upon increased defensive effort on the part of the forwards after the Saturday loss and prior to yesterday’s game. From the start, skill players were killing themselves trying to get back on transition rushes. In the first period, both Jakub Voracek and Brayden Schenn broke up possible high-danger chances through high-effort backchecks, and that doesn’t go unnoticed by the coach or the players further down the roster.
The good news is that tells me that the players haven’t tuned out the coach. Hakstol identified an issue, communicated it to his team, and then watched them immediately improve in the area despite a 24-hour turnaround. The bad news, of course, is that the emphasis went out the window in the third period once things started to go bad. And unfortunately, it was captain Claude Giroux who was the most glaring offender, falling behind Matt Niskanen on the rush that ended in Washington’s third goal, despite both players starting from the same spot in the Washington zone. Giroux isn’t usually one to loaf, but that was tough to watch.
#6: Hilariously, the advanced metrics weren’t awful
While the Flyers did collapse early in the third period, their play over the first 40 minutes of the game was perfectly adequate (if toothless offensively), and then the final ten minutes saw the Capitals obviously take their foot off the gas pedal. As a result, the advanced metrics in this game may be a bit deceiving, especially considering the final score. Still, it’s fair to note that the Flyers weren’t taken to the cleaners in terms of the underlying numbers. Their score-adjusted Corsi at 5v5 was 47.31% and their xG was 44.58% — neither great, but also not 5-0 bad. In addition, they actually led in both categories when looking at all situations. The numbers seem to buy the narrative of an inability to finish on the PP combined with poor goaltending as the reasons for the loss, and while I’d certainly add defensive breakdowns, there’s some degree of truth there.
#7: Only line that worked was Schenn line
Hakstol made one shift to the line combinations prior to yesterday’s game, moving Wayne Simmonds up to the top line with Giroux and Michael Raffl and dropping Travis Konecny to line three alongside Brayden Schenn and Dale Weise. Just like the Weise-Schenn-Simmonds trio, this was a line that seemed odd at first glance, considering the fact that Konecny struggled with Schenn as his center in December and that he was down on line three while Nick Cousins stayed at wing with Couturier and Voracek on the second line.
But just like the first few games of 22-10-17, the line actually clicked. They nearly scored on their very first 5-on-5 shift together, and continued to drive play throughout. In fact, the line was the only unit that proved immune to the five-minute collapse, and was not on the ice for one goal against. All three finished with Corsi For percentages over 60%, and were strongly positive in on-ice scoring chance differential as well. Schenn and Weise actually did not allow even one unblocked shot from the Capitals in their 5v5 ice time. I still don’t love Konecny down with them, but I can’t deny that the line was Philadelphia’s most effective yesterday, by a large margin.
#8: New first line was a disaster
On the other hand, the new-look top line of Giroux, Raffl and Simmonds was a mess from the opening faceoff. Obviously, they ended up on the ice for multiple goals against during the debacle of a third period, but their inability to create an offense whatsoever was even more alarming. In fact, Claude Giroux was not on the ice for even one shot on goal at 5v5 in the entire game, while his linemates could only manage to appear for one each. I actually liked the look of the unit prior to puck drop — Simmonds has performed like a top-six forward for the past few years, and Raffl + Giroux really should provide the necessary play-driving support for him. But yesterday, the line was simply ineffective in every way.
#9: Del Zotto’s disappointing year continues
Entering this season, Michael Del Zotto was not merely a part of the Flyers’ organization and their future plans, the biggest concern was seemingly that the team wouldn’t be able to meet his justified contract demands. What a difference just a few months can make. Today, it feels like a near certainty that Philadelphia will not be re-signing Del Zotto, who has went from top-pair defenseman last year to consistent liability in his own zone. It’s been a total regression back to his final days in New York, shown by his sub-50% Corsi and occasional scratchings.
Yesterday, it was a mistake on the penalty kill that was the most glaring error, as he mishandled a loose puck in front of his own net and allowed Andre Burakovsky to storm in all alone on Mason and give the Caps their first goal of the game. His play at even strength was little better, as he brought up the rear on the blueline from a Corsi standpoint at 37.50%. Del Zotto surely can play better than this, but we’ve seen that player all too seldom this season. He’s back to scoring at a decent rate, but this defensive inconsistency was what got him exiled from both New York and Nashville, and surely isn’t going unnoticed by GMs.
#10: Not many obvious changes to make
One of the questions posed to Dave Hakstol, Ron Hextall, and even the players themselves over the past week has been whether there will be any major changes made to the roster as a whole as a result of this poor stretch. This is mostly a question for the GM, though one would expect that the head coach would play a role in any major decisions. The problem is that there aren’t many obvious moves to make aside from sitting Andrew MacDonald, which doesn’t appear to be a priority at this point. The best forwards are playing, and the lines look good on paper. Maybe Michal Neuvirth could temporarily jump Mason on the depth chart, but it’s not like he’s been great this year either.
Could the Flyers make a big trade including key pieces? Sure, it’s always possible, even if it doesn’t fit with Hextall’s midseason track record. Colorado is apparently selling their top forwards, but they’re looking for high-end young defensemen, and I imagine that Ivan Provorov and Shayne Gostisbehere are untouchable. As for a jolt coming from a call-up, Travis Sanheim is playing stellar hockey for the Phantoms right now and very well could be NHL-ready. The problem is that the Flyers already have eight defensemen with the team, so they’d need to jettison at least one to give Sanheim a spot, and Hextall can’t make a trade without a taker. The fans’ frustration is both palpable and understandable, but my guess is that there’s no big move coming. It’s up to the current players to figure this out, not nebulous reinforcements.