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Ducks 4, Flyers 3: 10 things we learned from a tough luck loss

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The Flyers deserved a better fate in this one, but John Gibson was on his game.

Philadelphia Flyers v Anaheim Ducks

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

#1: Gibson the primary reason for the loss

Whenever the Flyers suffer a defeat, it’s easy for fans to fall into the blame game. And last night is no different — if you so chose, you could blame Steve Mason for giving up a weak goal to Ryan Kesler, the defense for blowing coverages on the first two Anaheim goals, or even Wayne Simmonds for failing to elevate the puck on his shootout opportunity. All of those mistakes did play a role in Philadelphia’s loss to the Ducks, of course. But by placing the focus solely on what the losing team did wrong, you risk marginalizing what the winning team did right. For Anaheim last night, there were two specific players that drove their victory — Ryan Kesler, and especially goaltender John Gibson.

Gibson’s performance wasn’t the most aesthetically pleasing. He allowed three goals, and regularly struggled to prevent rebounds. In fact, you could make a case that Philadelphia’s shot volume dominance was inflated a bit due to Gibson allowing more second-chance opportunities than expected. However, even when he allowed for cycles to continue due to not being able to corral the puck, he invariably made the second and third saves as well. Gibson faced 88 shot attempts last night, with a whopping 54 of them requiring a save.

The Flyers also racked up 55 scoring chances, with 20 of them falling in the high-danger category, so it wasn’t like everything was coming from the outside. In fact, Philadelphia racked up 5.98 expected goals in all situations last night, but could only manage three on the scoreboard. It’s clear that the Flyers had no trouble creating offense against Anaheim, and had the Ducks merely received run-of-the-mill goaltending, Philadelphia would have ran away with this one. Instead, we’re left dwelling on the mistakes that only mattered because Gibson was just that good.

#2: Better lineup, better results

Last Friday, the Flyers faced off against a fantastic San Jose squad and were taken to the cleaners in every single statistical category, including the final score. The Sharks are a better team on paper than Philadelphia, but that gap expanded due to the Flyers dressing a severely limited lineup. Some of it wasn’t the team’s fault, as Matt Read and Radko Gudas were simply unavailable due to injury. But the decisions to scratch Travis Konecny, sit Roman Lyubimov in favor of Boyd Gordon, and utilize Andrew MacDonald on the top pair were another story entirely, and all resulted in the Flyers intentionally utilizing a weakened lineup against a formidable opponent. The final result was predictable.

Last night, however, the lineup was far more optimal. Gudas and Read returned, giving the Flyers back two of their best play-driving players at 5-on-5. Konecny jumped in as well, proving that the scratch truly was just a one-game “message sender” by Hakstol. And Gordon returned to the press box in favor of the ever-aggressive Lyubimov. Even MacDonald saw his 5v5 minutes cut, receiving the fifth-most on the defense, even if he remained primarily paired with Ivan Provorov.

In a major shock, the Flyers responded to a far better lineup by playing far better hockey, particularly at 5-on-5. They finished with a 61.97% score-adjusted Corsi, buoyed by a second period that saw them rack up an incredible 33 shot attempts. In Expected Goals, they fared even better (67.13%), implying that this wasn’t one of those games where the Flyers dominated in raw volume but gave back some gains due to a shot quality discrepancy. Philadelphia may not have come away with two points, but they were the better team by a substantial margin. After an underwhelming road trip, there’s finally reason for some optimism. They come home nearly at full strength from a health standpoint, and with lineup decisions moving closer to being statistically optimal. Both are very good signs for January.

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#3: Mason bad, until he became good

It really was a tale of two halves for Steve Mason in this game. The first two goals by Kesler can’t really be pinned on the Flyers’ netminder, as both were a result of especially horrific coverage in front by the skaters. But goal No. 3 was a nightmare, as Mason allowed a harmless-looking wrist shot by Kesler to squeeze through his pads and extend Anaheim’s lead to 3-1. With that goal, Mason had allowed three on just nine shots. Dave Hakstol would not have been unjustified in making a goalie switch in the wake of Kesler’s hat trick, especially because Mason did suffer a hand injury on Friday, which provided a simple narrative to explain his poor game.

But Hakstol instead stuck with Mason, and the goalie rewarded his coach’s faith. The Flyers did largely carry the play through the remainder of the contest, but the few chances that the Ducks did generate over the final 40 minutes of the contest required heroics on the part of Mason, and he was up to the task. He faced breakaways from Andrew Cogliano, Jakob Silfverberg and Rickard Rakell, all of which occurred with the game tied, and stopped each and every one of them. His save percentage (0.880) looks poor at first glance, but Anaheim racked up 2.93 expected goals in all situations last night, and Mason allowed three total. Via his strong play in the second half of the game, the Flyers’ netminder made up for his error against Kesler and basically delivered a “meets expectations” game on the whole. This loss isn’t on him.

#4: Top line righted the ship

With players like Sean Couturier and Matt Read back in the lineup, it’s less essential that the Flyers’ stacked top line of Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek and Michael Raffl dominate in terms of play-driving every single night. Still, for as long as Hakstol concentrates his two best scorers on one line, the top line will need to produce consistently in order to justify staying together, since the addition of Voracek to Schenn or Couturier’s line would immediately give the Flyers two “scoring” lines rather than just one. In the first period, the top line failed in that task, generating not even one shot attempt at 5v5 and were on the ice for both Anaheim goals against. It was a total disaster from the line expected to lead the way for Philadelphia.

However, Giroux and company turned things around the rest of the way. While the line still finished with negative Corsi percentage relative to their teammates (to be expected after such a horrid start), all three players ended up over the 50% mark overall. Their resurgence in the second period was a big reason why the Flyers jumped from a minor territorial edge over the first twenty minutes (51.23% score-adjusted Corsi) to pure dominance (77.35%) in the middle stanza.

#5: Great game by Couturier

Last Friday night against the Sharks, Sean Couturier and his linemates Dale Weise and Nick Cousins had little trouble getting into the offensive zone, via a combination of slick defensive zone exits and stifling neutral zone forechecking. But once they made it there, the unit seemed just a tick off in terms of capitalizing on that zone time, whether it was poor shot selection or inaccurate passes. Couturier was maybe the biggest offender, not a huge surprise considering he was in only his second game back from a knee injury. But the underlying process was still sound, and that boded well for his future performance.

Last night, Couturier delivered. His second period goal was partially due to good fortune (Gibson pushed a loose puck right onto his stick), but that’s the type of luck that you earn through consistent, quality chance generation. Couturier looked like the player from last season, who used superior strength to extended cycles and wear down opposing defenses. And though it’s difficult for coaches to line match on the road, Couturier spent a lot of time against Ryan Getzlaf and Rickard Rakell in this one. If Hakstol chooses to keep this new Read-Couturier-Weise line together, don’t be shocked if it’s used as a shutdown unit at home, as all three have delivered positive play-driving metrics this season.

#6: Konecny with huge game after scratch

We can debate the merits of Dave Hakstol’s decision to scratch Travis Konecny from last Friday’s against the San Jose Sharks until we’re all blue in the face. Suffice to say, it weakened the Flyers’ lineup in that game, but the coach clearly believes that Konecny will be a better player due to the decision in the long-term. Regardless of what side you take, the decision is now in the rearview mirror, and fans can only hope that Konecny responds well to the scratch (or at least doesn’t let it negatively affect his game).

He sure got off to a good start in the post-scratch era. Konecny potted the Flyers’ first goal of the night, racing down the ice on a rush with Wayne Simmonds and scoring off his own rebound. It wasn’t just the goal that made his performance so strong, however. All of the underlying metrics loved Konecny’s game — he posted a 69.57% score-adjusted Corsi, led the team in individual 5v5 expected goals with 0.83, and racked up an on-ice xG of 85.90%. It’s impossible to say with certainty that Konecny’s great game was due to the scratch, but it’s at least fair to acknowledge that the 19-year clearly didn’t respond in a negative fashion to it.

#7: Schenn line on the whole was fantastic

I’ve long been critical of both Brayden Schenn’s continued presence in the Flyers’ top-six, and his return to the center position. In my opinion, when all of the Flyers’ forwards are healthy, Schenn is not one of the team’s six best options up front at 5v5. In addition, I’ve held that his defensive weaknesses make him ill-suited for the center position and a better long-term candidate to play wing. But Schenn is still a talented NHL forward, fully capable of delivering great games, and that’s exactly what happened last night. His line (with Konecny back) was Philadelphia’s best.

All game long, the Konecny-Schenn-Simmonds unit put constant pressure on the Ducks’ defense. In their most frequent matchup — the Ritchie-Vermette-Perry line — Schenn and company pasted them in 6:42 minutes to the tune of a 74.18% score-adjusted Corsi. But competition didn’t matter last night, as the second line took down all comers. They primarily played a rush-based style, which fits the skillset of Konecny and Schenn specifically, and they were dominant enough on the cycle to force Anaheim to resort to the “uncontrolled exit and line change” strategy all too often, which helped Schenn and his linemates from getting exposed defensively in the neutral zone. For the unit to work over the long term, they’ll need to continue to carry play in the offensive zone to mask their weaknesses elsewhere, and on this night, they did just that.

#8: Roles starting to emerge with healthy lineup

Over the past few weeks, it’s been tough to get a handle on whether many of the Flyers’ odd lineup decisions were due to the coaching staff truly believing that the players were suited for those roles, or were just examples of Hakstol making what he believed were essentially “the best worst choices” considering the club’s injury issues. However, with only Mark Streit still out among nightly starters, we’re now getting a glimpse into how the coach will structure a full-strength lineup. There still are a few issues, but the early signs are mostly promising.

The most obvious shift since Sean Couturier returned was the demotion of the Bellemare line back to fourth line status. Bellemare has received 6:24, 7:30 and 7:04 in the three games since Couturier’s return, around where you’d expect a true fourth line center to fall. The top three lines are taking the bulk of the minutes with the Giroux unit out in front and the Couturier/Schenn lines about even. In addition, with Gudas back from his one-game injury hiatus, he received the most 5-on-5 minutes of anyone on the defense, with Provorov right behind. MacDonald was fifth on the defense in minutes ahead of only Gostisbehere, who continues to be sheltered with easier matchups and lots of offensive zone starts at 5v5.

There are still some issues here. Ghost has been the best play-driver on the defense even accounting for usage, and could use more minutes. MacDonald should be one step away from the press box. Swapping Schenn and Couturier as centers on their lines would create the best top-six, as well. But for the first time in a while (maybe the first time all year), Philadelphia’s 5v5 lineup last night was pretty close to optimal considering the circumstances.

#9: Ducks had only one line and one pairing working

Aside from John Gibson, Ryan Kesler was the obvious hero for the Ducks last night, considering his hat trick. But while Kesler didn’t get much support from his fellow skaters, there were a few that showed up to play. Linemates Andrew Cogliano and Jakob Silfverberg also were consistently dangerous, and each finished with Corsi percentages over 50% and xG rates of 60%. The line actually topped the Giroux line head-to-head as well, especially dominating early on. But with that trio off the ice, the only times that Anaheim received a reprieve was when their defensive pairing of Hampus Lindholm and Josh Manson skated at 5v5. Manson actually led all Ducks with a 64.21% Corsi, and Lindholm wasn’t far behind at 59.44%.

It shouldn’t have been a big surprise — Manson is sixth among all NHL defensemen (with at least 300 5v5 minutes) in Corsi For% RelTM, and Lindholm ranks eighth. And on the forward side, Cogliano is fifth in the NHL in that stat in his own right. These are players who have elevated the performance of their teammates whenever they have hit the ice this year, and they did so again versus the Flyers.

#10: Gudas solid throughout, Del Zotto improved

Radko Gudas remains the unsung hero of the Flyers’ defense. While Gostisbehere brings the flashy plays and Provorov has taken over the role as hyped rookie, it’s Radko Gudas who continues to drive play at 5v5 despite relatively tough usage. He gets less time than expected supporting PHI’s top line, and more time against opposing top-sixes. He’s also the only Flyers defenseman to have received appreciably more defensive zone starts than offensive ones this year, yet he remains solidly positive from a Corsi standpoint.

Yesterday, he was the rock that helped to stabilize the play of Michael Del Zotto. In the first period, Del Zotto was a disaster, neglecting his netfront coverage responsibilities on Kesler’s first goal and failing to disrupt Kesler’s solo rush on his hat trick tally. Alongside a partner who has struggled this year and was off to yet another bad start, Gudas simply played the physical yet smart game as he’s done all year, separating Ducks from the puck and efficiently pushing play in the right direction. That allowed Del Zotto to spend less time defending and more time on the attack, and by the third period, the dynamic MDZ was back. He racked up 11 shot attempts and finished with a solid +4.80% Corsi relative to his teammates. Credit Del Zotto for turning things around, but give Gudas (+5.23% Corsi Rel) the most praise for carrying his partner into more favorable situations.