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Devils 4, Flyers 1: 10 things we learned from a continued slide

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The bye week didn’t put a halt to the Flyers’ recent struggles, it simply postponed them.

Kate Frese Photography

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

#1: The Flyers didn’t play a perfect game, but they really can’t catch a break

There have been numerous games during Philadelphia’s recent run of poor results that were classic examples of the team being outplayed from start to finish. The matchup against the Sharks in San Jose and the most recent contest versus the Rangers certainly fall into that bucket. However, there have also been instances where the Flyers drove play, created chances and adhered to a process that really should get them a win, only to see one-off breakdowns and strange misfortune push them to a loss. Last night’s game against the Devils fell into the latter category.

That’s not to say that Philadelphia didn’t provide legitimate opportunities for the Devils to gain a foothold in this game. They took seven minor penalties, allowed a goal on a sloppy line change, and couldn’t keep the Devils off the scoreboard in the third period, which ended any realistic possibility for a comeback. But even given those missteps, it would be tough to watch that game and truly believe that the New Jersey Devils are the better hockey club. At 5-on-5, the Flyers controlled the territorial battle basically from start-to-finish, racking up 60 shot attempts to the Devils’ 25, good for a 67.17% score-adjusted Corsi, Philadelphia’s best single-game mark of the year. Even adjusting for shot quality per the Expected Goals metric, the Flyers dominated at 5v5, finishing at 61.33%.

What turned this game in the Devils’ favor was not especially good play by the club from Jersey, but a four-minute stretch that saw the Flyers end up two men down due to an awful clipping call on Radko Gudas (and then an angry response from Simmonds that elicited another penalty) and then a terrible line change once the two teams were back at 5v5. That’s regrettable, and at least in the case of the line change, preventable by the Flyers. But don’t be fooled by the score in this case — Philadelphia wasn’t dominated by an inferior opponent. They played a strong game for the most part, and simply got none of the breaks. Unfortunately, that’s hockey sometimes. It only feels like an especially poor performance because it happened to come in the midst of a stretch of especially poor results.

#2: Still, they took too many penalties, and PK eventually folded

At 5-on-5, the Flyers were the better team by a significant margin, but unfortunately for Philadelphia, only about 36 minutes of the contest was spent in that situation. That’s because this was a penalty-filled contest, with the two teams combining for 13 minor penalties overall. When that many penalties are called, it’s fair to partially attribute it to the officials simply calling an unusually-tight game, but even in those situations, the onus is on the players to adapt to the changing standards. In that regard, the Flyers failed, taking seven total minors.

Two of them can be washed away immediately, because Radko Gudas’ hit on Miles Wood was in no way, shape or form a clipping penalty, and had that call not been made, Wayne Simmonds does not take an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty as a result. But that still leaves five minor penalties taken by the Flyers in this one, far too many for a team whose discipline was a key reason for the ten-game winning streak in December. The penalty kill actually started strong, killing off the first three power play opportunities for the Devils, but then understandably cracked when faced with the two-man advantage due to the Gudas penalty. Then, in a game still within reach early in the third period, the Flyers took two straight penalties in the first six minutes (both from the fourth line) and blew a coverage down low to turn a manageable 3-1 deficit into a far more daunting three goal hole. It was the combination of poor discipline and a fading penalty kill that truly put the final nail in Philadelphia’s hopes.

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#3: Reasons for optimism

The Flyers have now lost 12 out of their last 15 games, and you would be forgiven if your view of the current situation is that the season is irreversibly spiraling out of control. It’s that belief that has some in the fanbase questioning whether it’s the right time to call up the kids en masse, or seriously wondering if Ron Hextall may make a big trade to reshape the team’s core, or even advocating for Dave Hakstol’s job security to be called into question. However, the Flyers remain right in the thick of the Eastern Conference wild card race despite their swoon, just one point behind the Maple Leafs (though Toronto has three games in hand). Philadelphia is in a rough spot, but this season is far from over.

And this is where a leap of faith becomes necessary, because the recent underlying metrics do not match up with the conventional wisdom that the Flyers have been absolutely awful during this calendar year. There have now been nine games in 2017, and during that stretch, Philadelphia’s shot creation and shot prevention metrics at 5v5, 5v4, and 4v5 have been undeniably strong.

Flyers Over Last Nine Games

Category Performance NHL Rank (If recent performance held for full season)
Category Performance NHL Rank (If recent performance held for full season)
5v5 Score-Adjusted Corsi 53.16% 4th
5v5 Score-Adjusted Expected Goals 54.00% 3rd
5v4 Shot Attempts For Per 60 115.77 1st
4v5 Shot Attempts Allowed Per 60 86.83 12th

This doesn’t paint the expected picture. Since the calendar flipped to 2017, the Flyers have been driving play at 5v5, racking up more shots on the power play than any other club has over the course of the 2016-17 season, and preventing shots on the PK at a better-than-league average rate. You can say that these metrics don’t match up with your evaluation of the team’s recent play, and that’s totally fair. It’s hard to watch the Flyers fall to an awful Devils team by a 4-1 score and come away optimistic. But the night is darkest just before the dawn, and I promise you, the dawn is coming.

#4: Flyers finally tweak PP2 formation to strong results

Despite adding Travis Konecny and Ivan Provorov, the Flyers’ second power play unit has not just remained toothless this season, it’s actually regressed from a performance standpoint. Part of that has been due to the execution by the players, but the odd formations employed by the coaching staff certainly haven’t helped. Too often, players have been placed out of position for strange reasons — yes, Travis Konecny is very good at deflections, but is it really best to use a 175 pound 19-year old as a netfront presence? — and rarely has the formation been structured according to handedness to facilitate easy one-timers, as the top unit is.

That changed on Saturday, likely a result of the coaching staff tinkering with their tactics over the five-day break. The second unit remained in a base 1-3-1 structure, though they did occasionally shift to more of a two-point men overload style at times. The bigger change was from a role standpoint. Sean Couturier took over the netfront presence spot, while Travis Konecny took up shop in the slot position (where Schenn stands on PP1). Provorov was stationed on the left half boards, Streit was up top, and Nick Cousins took up Voracek’s role on the right.

There are obvious, immediate benefits to these changes. To start, it gave the unit a few natural one-timer options (Streit-to-Cousins, Cousins-to-Konecny), which PP2 has lacked. It also placed a larger body in front of the net in Couturier, which helped contribute to Konecny’s goal (just seconds after a power play ended). On the play, Steven Santini couldn’t get through Couturier to clear the rebound, allowing for Konecny to drive the net and score. In addition, the positioning of Konecny and Provorov in the formation allow for a natural switch from a 1-3-1 to a two point man structure, as Provorov now can choose to pull back to the point and wait for Konecny to drift in from the slot to Giroux’s spot, opening up another one-timer option. It’s not a perfect formation (Cousins isn’t an amazing distributor) but no PP2 formation is going to be considering the absence of elite scoring talent. But at the very least, this is the best look the Flyers have shown this year with that second unit, a welcome change.

#5: Ridiculous call on Gudas changed the game

As I’ve noted before, I generally like to avoid critiquing individual calls in a game because it’s my belief that they tend to even out on the whole. And to be sure, the Flyers had an entire third period to rebound from this particular call, and failed to take the opportunity, so it’s simply inaccurate to blame to loss on one play. However, the blown “clipping” call on Radko Gudas was just too egregious to ignore. On the play, Gudas slid over in rush coverage and took out Devils forward Miles Wood with a hip check, separating him from the puck and ending the threat. But when Gudas came to his feet, he realized that the official had whistled him for clipping, which is defined as a low hit at or below the knees of an opponent.

That’s not what happened here. Gudas did lower his head, but contact was made directly with Wood’s hip and torso, making this a vicious but totally clean by check. So why the call? My theory is that this was a true case of a reputation penalty. The official saw a Flyer appear to go low for a hit, noticed the #3 on his jersey and assumed that since it was Radko Gudas (who has a history of illegal hits), it must have been a clip. But on the replay, it’s obvious that the primary contact was to the “4” on Wood’s jersey. Wayne Simmonds then made the situation worse by taking an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty arguing the call, but it’s almost forgivable considering the circumstances. Yes, the Flyers could have killed off the penalty. But these are the types of bad luck plays that have been popping up far too often during the past three weeks. All the team can do is hope that the tide turns soon.

#6: Flyers’ offensive zone strategy isn’t bulletproof

In this game, Philadelphia clearly outshot the Devils in terms of raw volume, and even convincingly won the Expected Goals battle (which accounts for location and quality of opportunities). But as usual, the bulk of the Flyers’ shot still came from the points, as this 5v5 heat map from Natural Stat Trick showcases well.

The Flyers took 60 shot attempts at 5-on-5, but the high slot is conspicuously empty, while the highest-density area is up at that right point. It’s obvious when watching Philadelphia that their cycle game is almost entirely based around a low-to-high strategy. That means that the puck is consistently cycled down low where battles are won and possession is retained, and then the forward’s first read is a pass up to the point, when a distance shot is taken and the remaining forwards look to create screens in front and collect rebounds.

The low-to-high strategy certainly has its benefits. For starters, the passes are less risky than more incisive ones that attempt to cut into the slot (a “behind-the-net” strategy) and help to inflate raw volume and increase possession time. However, current research holds that a low-to-high strategy results in deflated shooting percentages, which makes sense — distance shots (even with screens and deflections possible) are less likely to become goals than ones from high-danger areas. The biggest question is whether the Flyers’ reliance on a low-to-high strategy rather than a behind-the-net one is driven by the coaching staff, or a lack of willingness from the players to attempt difficult passes.

Hakstol’s comments after the game imply the former. I asked him if he felt the low-to-high strategy was being overused and was contributing to the team’s 5v5 offensive struggles. The head coach disagreed, stating, “No, we had 85 shooting attempts tonight, and we had them from a lot of different areas. We can get shots through a little bit better, getting them through to the net, and work a little bit harder from up top at the blue line, getting them on net and making sure we’re getting them on the 4x6. Not wide, not high. That’s an area we can do a better job, but we had a mix of opportunities from the “Grade A” area. They’re hard to come by, and they get tougher and tougher to come by. We had enough opportunities tonight.”

That strikes me as a coach who believes that a low-to-high point shot-centric strategy is the best way for his team to generate shots and chances right now. To him, the team is poorly executing, but the underlying direction is sound. And he may be right. After all, the Flyers have a blueline filled with good shooters, and have more coming in the pipeline, so this strategy can be justified by the talent on hand. The potential problems are twofold, though. For starters, continued reliance on point shots to create offense risks the cycle game becoming too predictable. Defensemen may be having trouble getting shots through because opponents know they are coming. In addition, depending upon rebounds and deflections to create high-quality chances forces a team to be at the mercy of good bounces far more than a squad that generates clean shots from the slot off passes or rush chances. Right now, the Flyers are having some bad luck offensively, but in my opinion, it’s their offensive zone strategy that forces them to depend on that luck so much.

#7: Giroux line dominated in terms of puck possession

Matt Read returned to the Flyers’ lineup after missing both games last weekend, and in a mild surprise, he was immediately returned to the top line alongside Claude Giroux and Michael Raffl. It’s true that the top unit was pasted last Sunday against Washington with Wayne Simmonds replacing Read, but I still expected the Flyers’ power forward to get a longer look up there. Instead, he dropped back down to the Schenn line, and Read regained his old spot.

The trio may not have scored any goals together, but they did everything else right. In fact, the line was a cycling machine, racking up 20 shot attempts at 5v5 and allowing just three, for a whopping 86.86% Corsi For percentage. Their xG matched up almost perfectly with their Corsi (all were in the 84-86% range), implying that it wasn’t low-quality shots that inflated their metrics. The Giroux line instead was doing everything right, and simply were not rewarded with a goal. Unfortunately, that can happen in hockey, but they should come away satisfied with their play and know that if they replicate it today, the goals will come.

#8: Del Zotto continues his strange season

A brief look at the advanced metrics might have you believe that Michael Del Zotto had a solid performance. After all, his score-adjusted Corsi was a defense-high 79.51% and he even drew a second period holding penalty on Miles Wood. But he was a key observer on two Devils goals that helped to turn the game. The first was less egregious on his part — while Del Zotto was caught in no man’s land a bit on Pavel Zacha’s first period tally, the puck was bouncing around throughout the sequence and while MDZ could have played the man more aggressively, it was a tough split-second read. However, his coverage on Wood’s third period power play goal was a disaster. As has happened many times this season, Del Zotto got caught puck watching and left Wood wide open for a backdoor pass in front of the net, making for an easy goal.

As I’ve noted on BSH Radio, the only reason why I still support keeping Del Zotto in the lineup is because I believe he remains an upgrade over Nick Schultz and Andrew MacDonald. But his errors in coverage this season have been consistent and painful to watch. We’re now over halfway through the year, and barring some sort of dramatic turnaround, I think it’s fair to theorize that Del Zotto’s strong two-way play in 2015-16 was more of a career anomaly than a sign of things to come.

#9: Bellemare line killed the team in the third

In recent weeks, the fourth line of Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Chris VandeVelde and Roman Lyubimov has watched its role decline as the Giroux-Couturier-Schenn lines have taken center stage. It was a logical decision by Hakstol, even accounting for his obvious affinity towards the players. But fourth lines still have to receive some shifts, and during the first six minutes of the third period, those shifts helped to bury the Flyers. First, Bellemare took a tripping penalty, which the Flyers were able to kill off, but just 12 seconds after that penalty expired, Chris VandeVelde then committed yet another tripping infraction, putting Philadelphia right back on the PK. This time, the Devils would not waste their chance, essentially killing any hopes for a comeback. In a limited role, a fourth line has to live by the medical creed of “do no harm,” and they failed miserably in that respect yesterday.

#10: Bye week didn’t result in much rust

The 4-1 score may seem to show that the Flyers came out flat in their return from a five-day break, but only the top power play unit showed any real signs of being out of sync. Philadelphia carried play basically from the start, posting a 60.83% score-adjusted Corsi in the first period at 5v5, and drawing two Devils penalties in the first ten minutes of the contest. You also didn’t see the Flyers misfiring on many passes or making too many terrible turnovers, two issues that plagued them last weekend. The top power play unit was a bit off (as Jake Voracek noted after the game), but even they peppered Devils goalie Keith Kinkaid with shots (125.00 attempts per 60 with Giroux on the ice), even if the quality of chances were a bit lacking. Philadelphia may have lost this game, but I would attribute very little of that result to the dreaded bye week.