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Flyers 3, Islanders 2: 10 things we learned from a long-awaited victory

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The Flyers were finally rewarded for a strong performance, earning their first victory in 10 days against a game Islanders squad.

NHL: Philadelphia Flyers at New York Islanders Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

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

#1: Flyers finally got a deserved win

On Sunday morning, I noted that despite the Flyers’ recent run of especially poor results during the month of January, the underlying numbers did not support the narrative of a team in freefall. Instead, it told the story of a team driving play at 5v5, racking up tons of shots on the power play, and doing a decent job of shot suppression on the penalty kill. So what was causing the team’s 2-5-2 January record? Primarily, it was poor goaltending and a total inability to finish on scoring chances. Entering last night’s game against the New York Islanders, Philadelphia had scored on 5.02% of their shots at 5-on-5, while stopping just 87.7% of them. The all-situations rates were similarly awful (6.01% and 86.49%). While the poor results could be explained to a degree — the Flyers take a lot of outside shots, and their goalies have been a disaster this year — it was undeniable that plain old bad luck was also playing a role in the team’s horrible month.

Through the first half of last night’s game, that bad luck took center stage. After dominating the bulk of the first period, one poor pass from Andrew MacDonald into the neutral zone eventually led to a Keystone Cops-esque scramble in front by all five skaters, and a New York goal. It didn’t matter that the Flyers had outshot the Islanders 15-8 in the period, or that they had driven play at 5v5 to the tune of a 65.71% Corsi. All that mattered was that New York had the early lead. In the second, the Flyers missed out on a potential power play goal due to an “intent to blow” call by an official, and then watched a strange “shot” flip up and over the back of Steve Mason to extend the Isles’ lead to 2-0. To quote Yogi Berra, it was deja vu all over again.

But this time, the Flyers persevered. They received a key goal from Wayne Simmonds before the end of the middle stanza that gave them life, and then rookie Ivan Provorov tied things up early in the third period with (finally) a lucky bounce off an Islanders forward in front. But the most important aspect of the game is that the Flyers never stopped pushing, even when the breaks weren’t going their way. They led in raw shot attempts at 5v5 in each period, good for a 56.41% score-adjusted Corsi on the whole. In addition, this was the rare Flyers game that saw the team outperform their Corsi once accounting for quality, as they posted a strong 59.77% xG. Steve Mason even delivered a strong performance, and only a fantastic game from New York goalie Thomas Greiss prevented Philadelphia from winning this one in regulation.

#2: High-event hockey was the name of the game

The last time the Flyers played the New York Islanders in Brooklyn (back on November 3rd), it was something of a slog. Slowed by the poor ice surface and Jack Capuano’s desire to disrupt without creating much of anything, the two teams combined for 112.61 shot attempts per 60 minutes at 5v5, around a mid-tier pace relative to most teams’ full-season performance. Last night’s game, however, was a track meet from start to finish. The Flyers and Islanders generated a total of 113 shots in just under 50 minutes of play at 5-on-5, good for a 135.90 total shot attempts per 60 rate. The Islanders have recently made a coaching change, relieving Capuano of his duties and replacing him with Doug Weight in the interim, and it appears that Weight is opening things up from a stylistic standpoint.

Just like they did in November, the Flyers carried the bulk of play, but it did get dicey at times. At times during the contest, the teams traded rushes, forcing both goalies to make high-difficulty saves in succession. Philadelphia tends to play a dump-and-chase, grind-it-out cycling style, but games like this are a reminder that they can succeed on the rush as well, at least against clearly inferior competition.

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#3: Flyers attacked the slot far more last night

One distinguishing aspect of the Flyers’ offensive zone play this season has been their propensity to take lots of shot attempts from the outside, specifically from defensemen up top at the points. Micah Blake McCurdy’s great viz showcases the extent of this trend, as does the discrepancy between Philadelphia’s raw shot attempt creation at 5v5 (sixth in Corsi For per 60) and their Expected Goal creation (27th). Yesterday, I theorized that the gap is mostly due to a strategic emphasis upon low-to-high offensive zone play, centered around getting shots through from the points and then creating deflections or securing rebounds to generate high-danger chances. The low-to-high strategy generally eschews direct passes from behind the net into the slot, instead looking to get to those “dirty areas” via second chance opportunities.

Last night’s game was a clear exception. While the point shots still came — and to be clear, the Flyers want guys like Gostisbehere and Provorov blasting away a fair amount — the forwards down low were not as apt to blindly pass back up top as a first instinct. Instead, there were legitimate attempts at incisive passes into the center of the ice. Part of this is due to the nature of this game, as it was a more rush-based contest than the average Flyers game, and it’s far easier to penetrate the slot when the opponent is backing up than if they are set in cycle defense. But that wasn’t the whole story, as the below heat map chart from Natural Stat Trick hints, and the 5v5 scoring chance totals (42 regular chances, 13 high-danger ones, 3.45 Expected Goals) showed.

#4: Flyers came out strong yet again

For a team that is supposedly struggling mightily, the Philadelphia Flyers sure seem to get off to decent starts, at least in terms of territorial play. Over their last four games, the Flyers have outshot their opponents 52-33 over the first twenty minutes, and hold a combined 66.73% score-adjusted Corsi in opening stanzas during that stretch as well.

That supports the theory that this team isn’t lacking for effort, at least early in games when they are most motivated to break their recent run of poor play. The big difference in last night’s game versus recent losses was that the Flyers did not collapse after their strong opening push, even though it did not result in a lead. In fact, the Isles exited period one with the 1-0 edge, in spite of territorial domination on the part of the Flyers. But for a team that struggled with slow starts early in the year, it’s at least heartening to see that trend broken even as the end results haven’t been ideal after 60 minutes.

#5: Ivan Provorov is already great

Come April, it’s going to be very difficult to accurately evaluate the rookie season of Ivan Provorov by the advanced numbers. After all, they’re not especially impressive — Provorov’s 49.08% score-adjusted Corsi at 5v5 is sixth-best on the defense, and his -3.49% Corsi relative to his teammates looks poor as well. For someone who isn’t watching Provorov nightly, it’s easy to glance at these statistics and assume that Provorov’s rookie season has been a bit of a rough go.

Flyers fans know better, however. Not only is it fair to attribute a large portion (not all, but a not-insignificant amount) of his play-driving issues to spending over 340 minutes at 5-on-5 alongside Andrew MacDonald, it’s been impossible not to be impressed with the 20-year old’s calm and complete puck skills. They were on display yet again last evening, as Provorov trailed a rush and then activated deep into the offensive zone with a slick lateral skating move, creating space for himself before directing a puck into the slot for an attempted pass that ended up in the back of the Isles’ net. These are the types of plays that Provorov makes regularly.

But it’s the less flashy plays that have me convinced that the full-season metrics are missing something when it comes to the rookie. One perfect example was actually highlighted by the TV broadcast before the third period. In this instance, Provorov alertly backed up MacDonald after a puck skipped over the 30-year old’s stick in the offensive zone, won a race to the loose puck behind the net, warded off an Isles forechecker right on his back as he circled the net, and then singlehandedly engineered a controlled zone exit. It’s plays like those that make you wonder just how strong his advanced metrics would look alongside a partner that Provorov wasn’t forced to bail out of trouble constantly.

#6: Top line was regularly pinned in own zone

Claude Giroux ended up being the hero in this one, scoring the gamewinning goal during the 3-on-3 overtime session. At 5v5, however, his line was something of a disappointment. Reunited with Jakub Voracek, it was fair to expect the old gang of Giroux, Voracek and Raffl to wreck havoc on a limited Islanders squad, but instead, they were the only line that New York could handle. Only Voracek finished with a score-adjusted Corsi over 50%, and all three players finished in the negative by on-ice scoring chances. Their biggest issue was defensive — on far too many occasions, the trio was trapped in their own zone for shifts at a time, with the Islanders’ first goal being the most egregious example. It’s especially frustrating because the Giroux line drove play so well on Saturday with Matt Read at RW, and Jakub Voracek is an obvious upgrade in terms of talent. When that much talent is stacked on one line, you simply expect better.

#7: Andrew MacDonald struggled, rewarded with lots of ice time

I remain perplexed regarding the Philadelphia Flyers’ continued insistence that Andrew MacDonald is deserving of a top-four role at 5-on-5. Following 13 minutes of utter territorial domination on the part of the skaters, the Flyers’ strong start was wasted due to a poor shift kicked off by a totally ill-advised breakout pass by MacDonald. Not under any obvious pressure in his own zone, MacDonald chose to feed Voracek in the middle of the ice, leading him right into the path of an opposing checker. It’s the type of pass that can get your forward absolutely destroyed by an open ice hit. In this case, however, Voracek kept his head up and tried to avoid the oncoming checker, instead turning the puck over leading to a sequence that would end in the Isles’ first goal of the game.

Even the best players make mistakes, of course, and it’s not like one error should result in a coach stapling a player to the bench. But MacDonald not only didn’t see his ice time decreased as a result of the mistake, he ended up leading the entire defense in 5v5 minutes at 17:46. His Corsi For percentage (62.50%) ended up fine on the night, but he remained prone to mistakes, as shown by the fact that he was on the ice for four high-danger chances against. As I’ve said before on numerous occasions, it’s not the the fact that Andrew MacDonald remains in the lineup that confuses me most. I understand that most scouts view his skillset as NHL-caliber. It’s more that he isn’t used like the third-pair talent that every single metric pegs him as. Last night was just another example of the coaching staff’s continued favorable view towards a very limited NHL defenseman.

#8: Mason finally came through

It’s not overstating it to call the 2016-17 season a disaster thus far for Steve Mason. Heading into last night’s game, Mason’s 0.897 save percentage wasn’t just bad, it was worse than his performance in all but one of his horrific seasons in Columbus. Appearances from the Steve Mason who delivered three straight above-average seasons with the Orange and Black have been few and far between this year, but last night the old Mase was back.

The Flyers may have carried play, but when they did allow shots (especially in the latter half of the contest), they tended to be of a very high quality. His biggest save came in overtime, when he stymied Islanders star John Tavares on a breakaway opportunity less than a minute before his teammates would win the game. On the whole, New York generated 3.19 expected goals in the contest, and Mason just allowed two past him. That’s a solid night for any goalie, but especially for one dealing with recent struggles like Mason.

#9: Bellemare line bounced back

On Saturday, the fourth line of Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Chris VandeVelde and Roman Lyubimov were some of the bigger goats of the evening. Not only did they drive play worse than all of the other Flyers’ lines, the duo of Bellemare and VandeVelde took two early third period penalties that eventually served to push the game out of reach. In response, the fourth line came out last night and delivered one of their better games in weeks. Still seeing limited ice time at 5v5 (none skated for more than nine minutes), they made the most of it, with both VandeVelde and Lyubimov finishing with 64.68% score-adjusted Corsis and Bellemare leading all skaters at 72.60%. At least at 5v5, this was the ideal fourth line game — full of energy, heavy on the forecheck, and no big mistakes. Nice bounceback performance by the line.

#10: 3v3 overtime choices were interesting

For months, Flyers fans have advocated for Travis Konecny to get a longer look during the 3-on-3 overtime session. His electric speed and puck skills would seem a perfect fit for the situation, but Dave Hakstol has expressed on numerous occasions that concerns regarding the youngster’s two-way play have mostly kept him on the bench. Last night, however, Hakstol led the kid loose, and Konecny responded with two shots in less than a minute of ice time. His tandem with Sean Couturier makes a lot of sense — one speedy offense-first forward, and one more conservative, “safe” forward to cover for him.

Konecny wasn’t the only unexpected choice for the 3v3 period, though. Nick Cousins, Andrew MacDonald and Matt Read all saw action, while Wayne Simmonds surprisingly stayed on the bench. And of course, Bellemare received his regular shift as well. Cousins and Read are perfectly useful players, but guys like Simmonds and Michael Raffl would seemingly be bigger scoring threats considering their 5v5 play. In the end, it was nice to see Konecny out there, and that’s the most important thing in the short term.