I just ...
...what? How? Why?
(Poor Sean Couturier, by the way. Maybe he should stop scoring go-ahead-by-2 goals.)
Generally speaking, in our observational pieces here at BSH we don’t spend too much time making guesses about the mental side of the game, since we’re not these players, their coaches, or their shrinks. We tend to lean most on what’s concrete and right in front of us, typically via some combination of what we’re seeing with our eyes and what the numbers are telling us. And we could talk about that as it pertains to this game and this team. In fact, we will, if you’ll wait a couple of paragraphs.
But mentally, how could this team be anything other than totally fried right now? No, they haven’t looked like a team that’s been thoroughly outclassed or outplayed every time they’ve been on the ice, but losing game after game that you know you should be winning might be even more exhausting than just playing badly from start to finish. Losing one game because your team can’t play defense with a lead like this is draining; losing four in the span of 12 days — all in the midst of an eight-game losing streak — seems almost impossible to do and even harder to handle.
What could Dave Hakstol possibly even say or do in the locker room after another one of these losses last night? And if he knew what to say or do, why didn’t he say or do it two weeks ago to make sure it didn’t happen three more times in the following week and a half?
This team — everyone on or involved with this team — needs a win in the absolute worst possible way right now. And while they will inevitably, at some point, get one, I don’t know how exactly they get there with the way things are going right now.
Two key numbers:
Minus-23 — the Flyers’ raw shot-attempt differential in the third and final period of yesterday’s hockey game (via Natural Stat Trick). The Penguins, in total, sent 32 pucks in Brian Elliott’s general direction during the third period, while the Flyers sent just nine towards Penguins replacement goalie Tristan Jarry.
If you look just at shots on goal, the Pens edged the Flyers out 20-5. If you only look at 5-on-5, total attempts were 24-6 while total shots on goal were 14-4. There is no measure by which the Flyers looked anything short of putrid during the final frame.
And while it’s true that this was another blown-lead game, the Flyers can’t blame score effects — the tendency for trailing teams to outshoot leading teams — for this wide of a gulf. The Flyers’ lead entering the third period evaporated within 1:46 after the frame began, and the time between Michael Raffl’s go-ahead goal late in the period and Jake Guentzel’s equalizing goal was just 2:37. The third period was tied for 15:37 of its 20 minutes, and the Pens just continued to run the Flyers over in the period.
There are multiple possible explanations, none of which are particularly good or reassuring ones, or ones that reflect very well on anyone from the skaters to the coaches. Maybe the team mentally turtled a bit after giving up a power-play goal and a flukey-bounce goal early in the third, and lost the confidence to attack this Penguins defense; of course, that mentality will never end well against a team with as much firepower as Pittsburgh. Maybe the team was just tired after an exhausting first two periods, but that’d still be pretty hard to explain, considering that they had two days off prior to this game.
The pessimist would say that a team that can’t bring itself to attack and fight while either tied or ahead in the third period against its biggest rival, all after having lost its previous seven games, is just mentally drained and defeated. It’s taken just too many gut-punches in the past couple of weeks to believe that things are going to end well, and its play in the most dire of situations possible shows that. This is why Dave Hakstol’s comment about how the team had picked up a point in seven out of its last 10 games following Friday’s loss seemed so out of place (and was ridiculed by fans and observers alike after it happened). Look at the way this team played in the third period last night and tell me with a straight face that this is a team that is in the right place mentally.
The optimist, though, would say ... hahaha, can you imagine? The optimist? Talking about this team? That’s funny. I’m funny.
11.48 percent — the share of Pittsburgh shot attempts that were blocked by Flyers skaters before they reached the net at 5-on-5. As a team, the Flyers blocked seven shots on 61 attempts by Pittsburgh. In terms of percentage of shots blocked, that’s a season-low by the Flyers; for context, their season-average in this category is 24.52 percent. In other words, in an average game the Flyers block the puck before it reaches and/or misses the net a little more than twice as much as they did last night.
Some of this is a matter of circumstance and opponent, in all likelihood. Pittsburgh’s speed, creativity, and offensive talent are tough to get in the way of, so to speak. Only two teams this season (Florida and Detroit, oddly enough) have done a better job of getting their shots through than the Pens have this season.
Still: when your goalie faces 50 shots on goal in regulation and 52 in total, at some point he’s going to start looking around and asking where his help is. There could be a mental aspect to this, too — to tie this to our first number in this section, why else wouldn’t the Flyers be jumping in front of every shot they possibly could in the third period of a tie game against a rival? This is probably just a blip on the radar, but it’s worth monitoring tonight against San Jose.
Three Flyers of note:
1. Andrew MacDonald
Yes, we must begin with none other than the man making his long-awaited (well, arguably) return to the Flyer lineup. MacDonald played for the first time in five weeks on Monday night after getting injured blocking a shot in mid-late October, and Dave Hakstol wasted absolutely no time getting him back into the swing of things: MacDonald played 23:56 last night, second to only his defensive partner Ivan Provorov.
And MacDonald was ... well, he was Andrew MacDonald. He had his good moments, such as some generally sound defensive work here and there as well as a nice diving poke to Provorov that send Jakub Voracek in on a breakaway in the second period. There were also downsides; he was taken off the puck for a turnover and odd-man rush at one point, and a failed zone exit gave Phil Kessel a chance in the second period. Plus, as mentioned above, MacDonald’s influence didn’t do wonders for the Flyers’ ability to block shots, as one might have guessed it would.
Still, despite the heavy minutes, MacDonald’s overall impact didn’t exactly push the needle in either direction for the Flyers last night. He was actually +7.48% in shot attempts relative to his teammates, and while his raw numbers still weren’t much special (+16/-19), they were fine enough for a Flyers team that had bigger problems on the night.
2. Brian Elliott
It was a truly bizarre night for the Flyers’ main goaltender, who clearly has the confidence of his team’s coaching staff right now considering that he was on the ice for the third straight game despite giving up five and four goals in his last two appearances. It’s not often that you’re talking about the great effort of a goalie who gives up five goals in a game, but don’t take it from me. Here’s NBC Sports’ Adam Gretz, a Pittsburgh-slanted national reporter, observing from PPG Paints Arena last night:
Brian Elliott has made a stunning amount of huge saves for a goalie that has given up three goals in this period.— Adam Gretz (@AGretz) November 28, 2017
To be clear, not everything was peachy for Elliott last night. While Pittsburgh’s first goal was scored on a beautiful shot by Jake Guentzel, Elliott was very aggressive in playing it and there’s an argument to be made that it’s a shot he could have stopped. On Pittsburgh’s second goal, the puck was straight-up in Elliott’s glove before it popped out, allowing Patric Hornqvist to eventually tip a rebound past Elliott. But there were a number of massive saves he made, particularly in the aforementioned third period, and it’s pretty tough for the goalie to be doing that when the team in front of him spends the entire third period deciding that actually playing hockey is optional.
At the end of the day, it’s hard to say a game in which the goalie allowed five pucks past him was a true sterling performance. But having faced both an obscene amount of volume (52 shots) AND quality (per Corsica.hockey, Elliott actually faced 5.4 Expected Goals’ worth of shots on the night), Elliott’s probably much closer to being the near-hero of last night’s game than he was the goat of it.
3. Danick Martel
Rarely does the guy who got the least ice time of anyone on the team get singled out as a player of note, but Martel’s third career NHL game deserves some further scrutiny, mostly for what it wasn’t.
Martel played just 8:20 last night, a marked drop-off from each of his first two pro games, in each of which he was around 12 minutes played. An outstanding shift by his line (alongside Nolan Patrick and Wayne Simmonds) in the first period set the tone, as each of them had a crack at scoring on Matt Murray on the shift. Through the first two period, the Flyers tended to get the better of the ice with the diminutive rookie on the ice.
Then the third period came around, and Martel was suddenly glued to the bench. He only played two shifts the rest of the way — one immediately after Pittsburgh tied the game early in the period, and one just before the period’s halfway mark, at which point he and his line were hemmed into the Pittsburgh zone for long enough for Pittsburgh to tally four shot attempts. He wouldn’t see the ice again.
Had the Flyers been leading in the third period, I’d have understood leaning less on a rookie whose defense may not be up to snuff at the NHL level. In a tie game, though? In a period in which very, very little went right for the Flyers and they couldn’t generate anything in the way of offense? It’s not hard to think of this as a potential case of Hakstol trusting his veterans to keep things safe, at the expense of young players who may make mistakes. But given the overall lackluster performance the Flyers put up in that third period, the lack of Martel out there is a tough pill to swallow.
Four leftover thoughts:
- One game after playing a near-career high in ice time on Friday against the Islanders, Brandon Manning was back to being a third-pair defenseman last night — at least at 5-on-5, where he played just 11:55. So Manning’s ascent to top-pair status was, indeed, brief, and not something we should count on when this team is fully healthy. That said, part of why Manning’s TOI was as low as it was may have been his partner, as Travis Sanheim played a strikingly low 10:22 in last night’s game. This was Sanheim’s second straight substandard game defensively, so in some ways, I get it, but it’s not like the rest of the team was doing much defensively last night, and giving three shifts in the third period to a guy who’s already one of your most gifted offensive defensemen is another point under the “we’re playing scared to win” column.
- Officially, the Flyers’ penalty kill gave up just one goal out of five chances last night, though Sidney Crosby’s game-winner in overtime came mere seconds after a Jakub Voracek delay of game penalty ended and was for all intents and purposes a 4-on-3 power play goal, while another of the Pens’ power play “opportunities” lasted just 20 seconds. Still, it wasn’t a bad night for the new-look penalty kill, considering the fact that they were facing arguably hockey’s most dangerous power play. For all of the (justified) criticism we’ve had of the Flyers’ third period, the PKers came up big on a kill early in the third, in which Pittsburgh wasn’t allowed a single shot attempt for the entire two minutes.
- The Flyers’ “new-look” fourth line that consisted of Dale Weise and Jori Lehtera flanking Scott Laughton was about what you’d expect it to be, which is to say underwhelming. The trio actually had a couple of solid shifts in the offensive zone where it was able to get the cycle game going, but they just weren’t able to actually get there very often. Two guys with the skating ability of Lehtera and Weise don’t work overly well with Laughton, who was probably looking around wondering where his other, quicker linemates were. The trio was unsurprisingly the Flyers’ worst in shot attempts on the evening, and it didn’t make a great case for staying together beyond its first act.
- Closing with some quick hits: It’s a damn shame that this loss overshadowed that goal Raffl had in the third period, because man, that was pretty. He’s good for two or three goals like that a year where he just overpowers whoever’s on him, and then the goalie. Beeeeeautiful ... Gostisbehere’s goal in the 5-on-3 early in the second was noteworthy because of who fed him the puck: Nolan Patrick. Patrick appears to be a fixture on the top 5-on-3 unit in Sean Couturier’s stead (our old pal Charlie O’Connor has some thoughts here on why), and if that perfect spot to Ghost from the goal line was any indication, I do not expect him to be taken off of it any time soon ... The Flyers hit four posts and crossbars yesterday. I hate this game ... Travis Konecny finally ended his goalless streak off of a Brandon Manning point shot that bounced off of him and past Tristan Jarry, and while that’s maybe not the way he drew up the end to his goal drought, he’ll take it all the same ... I didn’t mention Couturier’s goal at all earlier, but at this point, his scoring is barely even noteworthy any more, y’know? He’s one goal off of a career high following a beautiful snipe on Jarry in the second period ... Here’s hoping Matt Murray, who took an awkward (and yes, obviously, not intentional) collision from Jakub Voracek on a second-period breakaway attempt and left the game favoring his knee, is alright ... finally, for a guy who plays a physical game and should in theory be good at staying on his feet, Patric Hornqvist sure does fall to the ice pretty easily, huh?