Morning Observations is a feature where we break down the previous night's game with an analytical eye.
#1: Third period won the game again for Flyers
On Wednesday night in New York, the Flyers were essentially taken to the cleaners by the Rangers for the first 35 minutes of the contest, and only kept the game deadlocked at 0-0 due to an especially stellar performance by goaltender Steve Mason. But after a solid finish to the second period, Philadelphia came out firing in the third, finally winning the shot attempts battle and scoring two goals to come away with a victory. Last night’s game against the Toronto Maple Leafs followed a similar formula. After two periods, Philadelphia had a 41.68% score-adjusted Corsi and certainly hadn’t played their best hockey. But yet again, they hit the locker room tied (this time 1-1) and would have one period left to change the direction of the narrative.
Their third period against Toronto was even better than the one versus the Rangers. On Wednesday night, the Flyers basically just broke even for the first time and got some lucky bounces — it may have been their best stanza of the night, but that wasn’t saying a lot. Philadelphia straight up blasted Toronto in the third, however. They won the 5v5 shot attempts battle 32-11, taking five more attempts in the final twenty minutes than they did over the first forty. In fact, the domination was so thorough that the Flyers finished ahead in all of the full-game play-driving metrics, including score-adjusted Corsi (53.96%) and Expected Goals (56.23%). And most importantly, all of that pressure eventually resulted in the gamewinner, a blast from fourth liner Roman Lyubimov with just minutes remaining that eluded Curtis McElhinney to give the Flyers the win. A well-earned win, even if they did almost all of that earning in about 33% of the game.
#2: Flyers a 0.500 team at the All-Star break
There will be no meaningful hockey games this weekend, as the NHL takes off for the All Star festivities in Los Angeles. For the Flyers, it’s an odd time for the break to fall, (considering that they just concluded their bye week) but ASG still functions as the unofficial “midway” point of the year, so it’s a good time to assess where the team stands. To be sure, had the ASG break come last weekend, fans would be rightfully disgusted with their team, but this week certainly changed things. Finally, the results started to match up with the solid underlying metrics that Philadelphia had posted in January, and now the team hits the break on a three-game winning streak.
At the 50-game mark, the Flyers have 25 wins and 25 losses (19 defeats in regulation, 6 in overtime/shootouts), making it totally fair to call them a mediocre team. Philadelphia’s strength remains the power play, which has been the best shot creation PP in the NHL this season, and while the penalty kill is far from elite, it’s definitely improved versus last year. Evaluating the team’s 5v5 play is more complex. On one hand, the Flyers are a 50.88% score-adjusted Corsi team, solidly in the middle of the pack. On the other, they’ve struggled in terms of scoring chance differential (48.17% xG), even if they’ve begun to close that gap in recent weeks. The elephant in the room remains the goaltending, however, which is why it was so encouraging to see both Steve Mason and Michal Neuvirth deliver strong performances prior to the break. If one (or both) can right the ship, it’s difficult to see this team missing the playoffs.
#3: Couturier line came out on top versus Matthews
A line consisting of Sean Couturier, Matt Read and Nick Cousins certainly doesn’t have any dead weight, but it also doesn’t scream “scoring line,” which is why it was something of a surprise when head coach Dave Hakstol put the three players together. But while goals might be a bit difficult considering the line’s lack of a true finisher, it does have all of the characteristics of a high-end shutdown unit. That’s exactly how Hakstol employed them last night, sending Couturier and company head-to-head with Toronto’s young phenom Auston Matthews, who rightfully is the odds-on favorite for the Calder Trophy. A whopping 10:45 of Couturier’s 15:01 minutes at 5v5 were spent against Matthews, and with the help of his linemates, he schooled the rookie.
When on the ice with Matthews, Couturier’s line won the score-adjusted Corsi battle handily, finishing at 70.05 percent. They also led in scoring chances 8-2, and high-danger chances 4-0. That’s especially impressive because the rookie has turned the high-danger slot area into his personal residence this year, racking up shot after shot there at 5v5. This time, however, he could not break into that region of the ice, primarily because the Couturier line usually had the puck and were cycling constantly. It’s obvious that Matthews is already an elite player in the NHL even at 19, but on this night, the “veteran” Couturier got the better of him.
#4: Slow-down pace by Flyers
The last time these two teams faced each other, it was a wild 6-3 decision that featured constant rushes up and down the ice and general chaos from start to finish. This game, on the other hand, was played at a far more measured pace. Even in the first two periods, which were largely controlled by the Maple Leafs, the two teams combined for just six high-danger chances, a far cry from Toronto’s preferred high-octane, trade-chances style.
Philadelphia has struggled to contain quick teams in the past, but even when the Maple Leafs were winning the territorial battle last night, they were forced to do it in a methodical way. That was a result of strong attention to detail on the part of the the Flyers’ five-man units. There were very few bad pinches by defensemen, the forwards backchecked consistently, and turnovers high in the offensive zone were rare. According to Corey Sznajder’s live tracking, Toronto finished the game with a 37.0% controlled offensive zone entry rate at 5v5, which surely is far below where a skilled team like the Leafs would like to finish.
#5: Provorov had a few bad moments, but on the whole was dominant
Since late November, it’s become very difficult to accurately evaluate the performance of rookie defenseman Ivan Provorov using statistical measures. That’s because he’s been attached to the hip to Andrew MacDonald, who has almost certainly served as a major drag on his on-ice shot differentials. Surely Provorov deserves a degree of blame for his declining metrics, but whether that is 20% or 2% is difficult to pinpoint. What is undeniable is that Provorov has rarely posted no-doubt-about-it dominant statistical performances since he’s been paired with MacDonald, which is why last night’s game felt like such an anomaly. Despite spending over ten minutes matchup up against Auston Matthews, Provorov finished with a stellar 68.98% score-adjusted Corsi, +32.48% relative to his teammates.
Provorov didn’t have a perfect game. He took a double-minor high sticking penalty in the first period, and had one especially egregious unforced turnover in the defensive zone where he mishandled the puck and gave it right to a Maple Leafs player. But aside from those few missteps, Provorov was masterful. He racked up seven offensive zone entries, four of which came with possession of the puck. He also engineered ten successful defensive zone exits (out of 13 attempts), and five of them came with possession. Finally, he was successful in rush coverage as well, forcing dump-ins on three of the five occasions when he was targeted. Considering his performance in these actions that would seem to have a positive impact on driving play in the right direction, it’s no surprise Provorov graded out so well from a Corsi standpoint. Rather than wait for MacDonald or even the forwards to push the puck in the right direction, Provorov simply did it himself.
#6: Penalty kill again stood out
For the second consecutive night, Philadelphia’s oft-criticized penalty kill units came up big for the team. The Flyers didn’t take many penalties — just the double-minor on Provorov and a kneeing call on Radko Gudas — but Toronto’s stellar power play doesn’t need many opportunities to make its mark on a game. Instead, Philadelphia shut them down cold, allowing just two shots on goal and zero high-danger scoring chances.
Unsurprisingly, it was the skilled forwards like Giroux, Couturier and Read who proved to be the best shot suppressors (all finished with Corsi Against Per 60 rates below 70), but only MacDonald and Provorov finished over 100 in that stat, hinting that the PK was a true team effort. The best part was the willingness on the part of the forwards to move the puck up ice, even if the aim was not necessarily to score. Responsible transition rushes on the PK can waste a lot of time, so long as those involved are sure not to get caught behind a counter-rush due to a turnover. Last night, the Flyers struck that perfect balance between aggressiveness and safety, and it helped to drive their strong results.
#7: Bellemare line bounced back in a big way
On Wednesday night, the fourth line of Bellemare, VandeVelde and Lyubimov suffered the ignominy of not generating one shot attempt at 5-on-5 while the trio was together. Instead, they spent the bulk of their shifts holding on for dear life in the defensive zone, helping to prevent goals but little else. So of course, just 24 hours later, that line would become arguably Philadelphia’s most effective trio against the Toronto Maple Leafs, because hockey is a strange sport. Receiving just under ten minutes of 5v5 ice time, the entirety of the line finished with score-adjusted Corsis over 64%, and even contributed the game-winning goal courtesy of a Roman Lyubimov shot from the left faceoff circle.
I asked Hakstol after the game how impressed he was to see his fourth line bounce back after such a tough showing in New York. But Hakstol disagreed that the Bellemare had struggled versus the Rangers, noting, “I thought they were excellent [against New York]. Sometimes you don’t see what they contribute in the stats. I thought they were excellent last night, and followed that up again tonight.” Considering Hakstol’s comment on Saturday regarding the fact that the team took 85 shot attempts against the Devils, my guess is that he looks at some variation of Corsi charts in the aftermath of games, but based on this answer, it seems like those didn’t sway his opinion of the Bellemare’s line and their play on Wednesday. I personally find it hard to accept that a line that generated no tangible offense in a game at 5v5 could post an excellent performance, but I can certainly agree that the trio was awesome last night.
#8: Give the Couturier line some time to score
This was the third straight game that saw the line of Sean Couturier, Matt Read and Nick Cousins dominate from a play-driving standpoint and yet fail to light up the scoresheet. Against the Maple Leafs, the circumstances were a bit different, as shutting down the Matthews line was goal #1, but every line is expected to chip in offensively given the opportunity, regardless of role. And you can just hear the grumbling beginning — “there’s no scorer on this line, it’s empty possession.” My response to that would be that it’s too soon to tell one way or the other, but what we do know is that this line is having no trouble creating high-quality scoring chances.
Last night, the trio combined for 1.22 individual Expected Goals at 5v5, implying that at least one of the forwards should have scored a goal against the Leafs. In addition, they racked up five HD chances on the night, as getting to the slot was no problem for them. The fact that the line has not yet scored might just be a case of some bad luck, especially considering how they’ve won the territorial battle handily in three straight games together. My guess is that high volume and high-danger chances will eventually win out over the assumed poor finishing talent of the line over the long-term.
#9: Top line isn’t clicking right now
The classic Flyers’ top line of Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek and Michael Raffl has now been back together for three games, correlating perfectly with the team’s recent winning streak. So that means that the top line must be firing on all cylinders, correct? Unfortunately, it’s not the case. Since the top unit was reunited, Claude Giroux has just a 42.42% Corsi For percentage, and his linemates are right around that rate as well. Luckily for the Flyers, the Couturier line has been driving play well enough to make up for the top line’s struggles, but they won’t hold a 65% Corsi forever. Giroux and company simply need to get going after the all-star break, as there’s just too much talent on that line for it to post sub-50% performances.
#10: Mentally-fragile just a narrative?
In the wake of the Washington defeat two Sundays ago that saw the Flyers allow four straight goals in the third period after carrying play over the first 40 minutes, it was proposed that Philadelphia was simply a fragile team at the moment. During the first half of January, it seemed like one mistake would become three in the blink of an eye, leading to losses in games that the Flyers otherwise dominated. That’s a far cry from the team that we saw this week, who showed the ability to shake off underwhelming 40 minute stretches and deliver its best results with the game on the line.
Does that mean that the bye week “reset” served its purpose? Maybe, although the late second period meltdown in last Saturday’s Devils game argues against that theory. Maybe the team just needed one win and that changed the whole mentality of the club. Or maybe the concept that the Flyers were fragile was just a false narrative, born bad cluster luck, and skater mistakes never being bailed out by the goaltenders. Regardless of the explanation, the Flyers seem to have this issue in the rearview mirror now.