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Blue Jackets 2, Flyers 1: 10 things we learned from a hard-luck loss

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Facing a tough matchup against the team with the best record in hockey, the Flyers played well enough to win.

Philadephia Flyers v Columbus Blue Jackets Photo by Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images

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

#1: The Flyers truly dealt with bad luck in this one

The word “luck” probably gets thrown around a bit too much in the hockey stat-based community to explain outcomes that don’t match up with the underlying metrics. Usually, a team that wins despite getting dominated from a Corsi standpoint wasn’t lucky, they just were especially accurate with their shots on that night, or maybe their goaltender played fantastic. That process may not be easily replicated (which is why teams that consistently get outshot don’t tend to be very good), but it’s not merely good fortune. However, there are some times when a team loses a game, and it’s not because the other team did anything especially noteworthy. That’s what happened last night to the Flyers — the breaks simply didn’t go their way.

All the underlying numbers were in Philadelphia’s favor. They won the shots battle at 5-on-5, finishing with a solid 52.81% score-adjusted Corsi and 57.26% SA-Fenwick (removing blocked shots from the equation). They also had more scoring chances, both at 5v5 and overall. The Flyers didn’t dominate the game, but on the whole they did generate more offense than a very strong Blue Jackets club. Columbus’ edge in this game really came as a result of three plays.

The first was an odd overturn of an Andrew MacDonald first period goal, which was negated due to Michael Raffl apparently nudging Ryan Murray into his own goalie. Then, a period later, a Blue Jackets goal was also reviewed for possible goalie interference, but that one held up despite there being a solid case that Steve Mason’s skate was clipped right before the shot, preventing him from making a save. And finally, Brayden Schenn failed to convert on a wide-open net, in a situation where he probably scores 99 times out of a 100. So in the end, it was two officiating decisions that both could have went the other way, and one freak mistake by Schenn that pushed this game into overtime. That’s about as close to a truly “bad luck” loss that you’re going to see in the NHL.

#2: Columbus’ bread and butter was their forecheck

This was the first look that Flyers fans have had of this new and improved Columbus Blue Jackets squad this season. Their rise has been meteoric and bizarre — just last year, they were a total disaster and one of the worst teams in hockey, and now the Blue Jackets aren’t just improved, they’ve delivered truly elite results. And that’s with the same coach, and only a few additions to the roster (Zach Werenski being the most impactful).

So how are they doing it? If this game was any indication, it’s by using an old John Tortorella staple — an ultra-aggressive forecheck. During their best moments in this one (especially early on), the Blue Jackets were swarming in the offensive zone to recover loose pucks and pressure Flyers zone exit attempts. The forecheck was basically a 2-1-2 on steroids, with the Blue Jackets often willing to send up to three players far below the faceoff dot. Columbus knows their strength is up front, as they are one of the few NHL teams that can legitimately roll four scoring lines, so a swarming forecheck does play to the roster well. What the Flyers showed in the majority of this game, however, is that if you can get past that forecheck, Columbus can be gashed for high-quality chances.

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#3: Blue Jackets, Flyers showing why fourth lines are important

One of the secrets to Columbus’ success this season has been their willingness to play dangerous scorers on their fourth line, while their opponents continue to view it as a place to dump their penalty kill specialists or rough-and-tumble grinders. Last night, the Blue Jackets had Sam Gagner and Scott Hartnell playing on line four, and neither player would be totally out of place on most NHL teams’ top two units. The Flyers, as usual, rolled with Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Chris VandeVelde on their fourth line instead.

The disparity in talent between the Columbus and Flyers duos is staggering. Over the past three seasons, Bellemare has been the least efficient scoring forward at 5v5 in the entire NHL, while VandeVelde’s 39.2% Goals For percentage at 5v5 is 12th-worst in the league over that same time period. At least at even strength, these are not good NHL players. As a result, it was no surprise that the Bellemare line struggled in terms of Corsi, finishing in the sub-34% range. On the other hand, the Columbus fourth line was their second best play-driving line, trailing only the Jenner-Dubinsky-Atkinson unit. Stellar record aside, the Blue Jackets aren’t close to being a flawless team, but in terms of their bottom-of-the-lineup optimization strategies, they’re undeniably forward-thinking. Let’s hope that the Flyers were paying attention last night and make roster decisions in the future with that in mind.

#4: Giroux line strong yet again

The first game of the “Matt Read on the top line” experiment was an unqualified success. The line drove play and scored an even strength goal against the Lightning on Saturday, so they were justifiably kept together for a second go-around. And yet again, the trio drove play on almost every shift. Read actually led the squad in score-adjusted Corsi at 74.11 percent, and Raffl and Giroux weren’t far behind.

However, the line was unable to score a goal (just like the rest of the team at 5v5), and as a result, it was broken up in the third period as Hakstol moved Voracek up to play with Giroux and Raffl. If anything, the old top line looked less effective than the new one in their limited third period minutes. Going back Hakstol’s comments after Saturday's win, it doesn’t seem like he’s wedded to the idea of Read on the top line, but he may have actually found something here. I’d hate to see an unlikely success get thrown away too soon.

#5: The officials helped swing this outcome

It’s time to talk about the referees. I try to avoid bringing up “blown” calls in these Observations posts, for a few reasons. First, it’s nearly impossible to remove bias from an analysis of specific decisions by the officials. Second, and most importantly, I believe that individual calls rarely impact the game as much as we think. Even if there is one call that was missed at a key moment, there were probably a few other calls (or non-calls) that went your team’s way in the game that you don’t remember. In this game, however, the decisions by the officials did truly swing the game, so they’re definitely worth discussing.

The goal calls were the biggest in terms of impact. And truthfully, it’s hard to say whether the “right” decisions were made, because the rule is generally employed by officials in such an inconsistent way around the league. On MacDonald’s non-goal, Raffl did make contact with Murray, who then did jostle his own goalie, so there is a case to disallow. But it’s murky because Raffl was one step removed from the contact. Could Murray have made a great effort to avoid his goalie, or just taken a different route entirely across the ice? Almost certainly. It would have been easier to swallow for Flyers fans if the refs had simply set a standard that any contact with the opposing team’s goalie in this game would result in a disallowed goal, but then Mason’s skate was obviously clipped right before Columbus’ tally, and that goal was allowed to stand. The contact wasn’t much, but once the standard is set, you’d like to see it be adhered to on both sides. Instead, the Flyers ended up on the short end of the stick in two toss-up decisions, which is obviously tough to accept.

There were other questionable calls as well. Most blatant was the decision to not whistle Nick Foligno for burying Travis Konecny with a high hit long after the Flyers forward had lost control of the puck. But by the midway point of the game, the referees had swallowed their whistles entirely, letting both teams get away with multiple penalties. Still, the fact that the refs missed numerous on-ice penalties doesn’t create much confidence in their abilities to make the correct goal calls, and those are what truly swung the game.

#6: Brayden Schenn had himself a strange game

I’m on record as advocating for Brayden Schenn to be dropped in the lineup at 5-on-5 and primarily used as a power play specialist, due to his poor results in the situation this season and the fact that even assuming a bounceback, he is not statistically one of the Flyers’ six best 5v5 forwards. So a game where Schenn blew two golden opportunities at even strength only to be the hero at 6v5 would seem to support my position. However, Schenn’s performance last night wasn’t that simple. In fact, his line was legitimately fantastic at evens in terms of shot creation and prevention. Schenn himself finished with a 65.03% score-adjusted Corsi, and the Flyers won the high-danger scoring chance battle 5-0 with him on the ice. It was truly an “everything but the finish” game.

Of course, Schenn found a way to redeem himself late, scoring with 16.5 seconds left to send the game into overtime. And that’s basically been the story of his season — little to no even strength production saved by a stellar ability to rack up points with the man advantage. However, this line with Simmonds and Weise actually has driven play in two straight games, so the “Schenn is bad at evens” narrative doesn’t really fit this time, if the image of him missing on a wide open net can somehow be scrubbed from memories.

#7: Gudas struggled big time

Coming off one of his best games of a very strong season, Radko Gudas struggled mightily in this one. The numbers aren’t pretty (47.59% score-adjusted Corsi -14.89% relative to teammates) but if anything, they treat Gudas’ performance too kindly. His shift on Columbus’ only goal in regulation was a total disaster, and he struggled with turnovers all game long.

On Sunday, I noted that Gudas’ skillset is unorthodox for the type of game he plays — he’s a high-volume shooter without elite puck skills, and an aggressive neutral zone defender despite middling skating ability. Because his preferred style often has him playing above his natural skill level, his bad games can look really bad. It didn’t help that he was facing an ultra-aggressive forechecking team in Columbus, and defensive zone passing is one of the only true, measurable weaknesses in his game.

#8: Couturier line not at their best

Fans were rightfully excited when Dave Hakstol chose to reunite the always-dangerous “second” line of Travis Konecny, Sean Couturier and Jakub Voracek on Saturday, and they did not disappoint. However, their performance against the Blue Jackets was far less impressive. Only Voracek finished with a score-adjusted Corsi For percentage over 40%, and that was mostly due to time in the third period up with Giroux and Raffl.

The biggest issue for the line was defensive zone shot suppression and breakouts. On multiple occasions in the first and second periods, the unit wilted under Columbus’ forechecking, leading to entire shifts being spent without the puck. They were especially torched by the Jenner-Dubinsky-Atkinson line — in under four minutes against them, the Flyers allowed seven shot attempts against and generated just one of their own. The best way to “shut down” a great scoring line is to force them to play defense all the time, and that’s exactly what Columbus pulled off last night against Couturier and company.

#9: Odd ice time decisions late

The Flyers did find a way to nab a point due to Brayden Schenn’s late goal, but some strange choices by Dave Hakstol in the final minutes of regulation and overtime didn’t do much to help. With less than three minutes remaining and down one goal, Hakstol sent out the Bellemare line for a shift, a trio that had generated just four shot attempts together all game and not one high-danger scoring chance. Then, after Schenn tied things up, Hakstol sent Andrew MacDonald and Michael Del Zotto (the Flyers’ two worst play-driving d-men this season) onto the ice with the apparent goal of getting the game to overtime. Unsurprisingly, they were immediately pinned in their own end until the buzzer sounded. Finally, Dale Weise hit the ice for a shift in the 3-on-3 overtime with Sean Couturier, instead of Travis Konecny, Michael Raffl or Matt Read. All three decisions were tough to justify.

It would have been a different story if any of Bellemare, VandeVelde, MacDonald, Del Zotto or Weise had delivered an especially strong game. Weise was maybe the only one who played well (on the effective Schenn line) but his lack of offensive production this season makes him a less-than-ideal fit for the fast-paced, creative 3v3 overtime setting. It’s not that these decisions necessarily cost the Flyers anything — they still tied the game, got it to overtime, and Weise wasn’t on the ice for Columbus’ gamewinner. But it’s fair to say that the Flyers earned a point in spite of these strange choices, not because of them.

#10: Credit Hakstol for making intelligent pre-game roster moves, though

Like the vast majority of coaches, Dave Hakstol tends to adhere to the philosophy of not wanting to change his lineup in the wake of a strong victory, and the Flyers’ big win over the Lightning on Saturday certainly qualified. They won comfortably, and carried play by all of the key metrics. That’s why it was a pleasant surprise to see Hakstol make two lineup changes that served to put a stronger team on the ice for the following night. Boyd Gordon left the lineup and was replaced by Roman Lyubimov, and Brandon Manning came in for Nick Schultz.

In both cases, this was a play-driving liability come out of the lineup in favor of a replacement with positive metrics. It didn’t result in a victory, but the Flyers did come out ahead by advanced metrics, and I’m unconvinced that would have been the case with Schultz or Gordon in the lineup. One could argue that they never should have been in the lineup at all (Gordon especially), but I was personally impressed that Hakstol was willing to make tangible improvements to a lineup that had just won. They were the right moves, and ones that didn’t fit Hakstol’s usual modus operandi.