Morning Observations is a feature where we break down the previous night's game with an analytical eye.
#1: The worst game of the year
There’s no sugarcoating it — this was the least-watchable, most horrifically-played contest of the season for the Philadelphia Flyers. They’ve had other bad games, to be sure, but there always was something of a viable excuse. Either their underlying metrics weren’t terrible and they were buried by egregious breakdowns, or there was a schedule-related reason (like the Devils loss right before Christmas that Hakstol essentially forgave because he believed the team was spent). This was different; a shellacking with no real excuse.
Despite trailing during almost the entire game, the Flyers were outshot 48-23 in total attempts at 5v5, good for an embarrassing 29.6% score-adjusted Corsi. And there was no uptick in performance as the game progressed and Carolina expanded their lead, either. Aside from a brief burst with less than ten minutes remaining (that died quickly after power play opportunities dried up), Philadelphia was completely impotent offensively. The numbers and the eye test don’t lie — the Flyers were never in this one.
#2: Total team effort
As is usually the case when a team lays a stinker like this one, no players can avoid criticism. Ten of the 18 skaters finished with score-adjusted Corsis below 30% during 5-on-5 situations, with Brandon Manning bringing up the rear with an incredible 6.84 percent mark. But there wasn’t a line or pairing that stood out in a positive way. The Schenn line (which Chris Therien noted early in the game is one that Dave Hakstol “loves,” something I simply don’t understand) was on the ice for two goals against and created just four shot attempts. Bellemare and his linemates had some decent forechecking shifts and were rewarded with a PP opportunity late, but as usual, they created basically nothing offensively.
The Couturier line took two penalties (on one shift!) and couldn’t muster one high-danger chance. Giroux’s trio actually finished in the black from a Corsi standpoint, but broke down completely on Carolina’s second goal, so they can’t fairly be praised. As for the pairs, only the Provorov-MacDonald pairing avoided a goal against, and just Streit-Gudas were in the black in terms of play-driving. This isn’t really a game where you look for positives. You just accept it was an awful performance, and hopefully move on as quickly as possible.
#3: Defensive zone passing buried them early
It’s hard to single out one specific issue for the team in last night’s game, because they were poor in every single area. But the early problems stemmed from a total inability to exit the defensive zone. All too often, the Flyers would attempt to get the puck to the high winger along the boards next to the red line, making it very easy for a Carolina defenseman to pinch down and keep a cycle alive by pressuring the waiting Flyer. However, brainless turnovers truly killed them on the scoreboard in the first period. Travis Konecny attempted to thread a drop pass back to Brayden Schenn in tight traffic, resulting in a clean path to the net for Sebastian Aho. Then, Giroux failed on a tip pass at the blue line to a teammate, not getting the puck out of the zone and allowing for a swift counterrush ending in another goal.
Some of the problem was simply poor execution — accuracy, hesitation — but there also felt like a casual approach to passing as well. Too often, the Flyers assumed that the guy receiving the pass would make the extra effort to win a puck battle or speed up to accept it in stride, and instead no one was doing his job. Peter Laviolette would have been disgusted.
#4: It’s just one bad game, though
There’s no reason to absolve the Flyers for their performance last night. It truly was an unacceptable effort down to the last man, and all of the players admitted exactly that during their postgame media availability sessions. But as bad of a game as this was, it was just one game. The Flyers’ performance last night is almost certainly not a reflection of the team’s true talent level, in the same way that the team’s ten-game winning streak did not mean that the Flyers were going to run the table the rest of the season. Prior to the All-Star break, Philadelphia had won three straight games and seemed to have righted the ship. Clearly, last night’s loss throws a wrench into that theory. But it also doesn’t erase their solid play prior to the break, either. If the Flyers repeat this performance (or even struggle to a lesser degree) on Thursday and Saturday, then it’s fair to start worrying. But right now, this is just a bad game by an otherwise-okay team.
#5: The officials missed some key calls
Let’s be very clear — the Flyers were not going to win this game even if every single call by the officiating crew went Philadelphia’s way. From the start, the Flyers didn’t even deserve to be in the same arena as a just-okay Carolina Hurricanes team, so it’s impossible to say that Philadelphia deserved a victory. However, there were two key calls (after the Flyers were already down 2-0) that went against the team, and they should be addressed.
First, there was Lee Stempniak’s hit on Andrew MacDonald. On the play, Stempniak stared down MacDonald before making primary, principal contact with MacDonald’s head, driving it into the boards. Stempniak was whistled on the play, but for boarding, not for an illegal check to the head, which it clearly was. The latter penalty can only be deemed a five-minute major, which seemed to be the fairest result in this case. Instead, Stempniak got off with a two-minute minor, which was a big break for the Hurricanes. Then, on Carolina’s third goal, Jeff Skinner crosschecked Brandon Manning in the face after burning him on a rush, knocking him bleeding to the ice. Seconds later, a wide-open Skinner put Carolina up 3-0, essentially placing the game out of reach. Again, the Flyers almost certainly weren’t going to win this game anyway. But those two calls were such obvious mistakes that it’s easy to understand why the team was so incensed.
#6: However, Giroux lost his cool
I’m always amused when I hear fans complain that Claude Giroux isn’t a good leader, or that the team doesn’t “try hard enough” with him as captain. It’s obvious (to me at least) that Giroux’s flaw is more the opposite — he’s so emotionally invested in the game that he can become frustrated and distracted on the ice to the detriment of his (and his team’s) play. In my opinion, it can cause him to sag at times when the luck is seemingly against the team, or lash out when the calls aren’t going their way. The latter happened last night, and Giroux responded in kind, blasting Hurricane Derek Ryan behind the net and then throwing a few punches at him while he was down. This was in the wake of the Manning non-call, which surely had Giroux livid. But putting his team right back on the penalty kill wasn’t the right move, and the end result was a fourth Carolina goal that truly made their lead unassailable.
#7: Are the Flyers truly bad after breaks?
After the game, there was a great deal of talk that this Flyers team may just not respond well to long layoffs. They’ve now played three games after receiving at least four days of rest, and they’ve lost all three by a combined score of 15-5. I’m not quite sure I’d jump to the conclusion that the rest is the primary cause of those losses, however.
Obviously the Flyers played poorly on the whole last night, but they came out strong against the Devils following their bye week and only fell apart following an awful penalty call on Radko Gudas. As for the third loss (post-Christmas versus the Blues), that was more similar to the Devils’ loss than the crushing defeat against Carolina, as the Flyers took an early third period lead and basically breaking even through 40 minutes before totally collapsing. I’m not saying that the “Philadelphia struggles after breaks” couldn’t be a possible explanation — I just think that if it was truly a bulletproof theory, the team would have gotten off to slow starts as well. In their other two “post-break” games, that didn’t happen.
#8: Rubtsov scored so that’s cool
Since no Flyers fan really wants to re-live that loss any more than necessary, I’ll pivot to the junior ranks, where German Rubtsov scored a goal, his ninth point in six games. Rubtsov, the Flyers’ first round pick in last year’s draft, was having a miserable time seeing the ice for his KHL squad, and he was finally able to relocate to the QMJHL following the World Juniors tournament in order to get that much-needed ice time. Since joining the Chicoutimi Saguenéens, Rubtsov has immediately been granted big minutes, and he’s scoring more than enough to justify them.
Obviously it’s early, but his current 1.5 point per game rate isn’t that far off from Travis Konecny’s rate of 1.68 from his Draft +1 season last year. There’s no guarantee Rubtsov keeps up this pace, and obviously, don’t start dreaming that the Russian has much of a chance of jumping to the NHL next year after just nine strong games in the Q. However, it’s fair to be excited that Rubtsov appears to be concluding a frustrating year in positive fashion, and is back to being a truly intriguing prospect.
#9: Brayden Schenn’s weird season continues
After last night’s goal, Schenn now has 34 points (16 goals, 18 assists) on the season, and is currently on pace for 56 points, which would be the second-best total of his NHL career. Hilariously, only ten of those points so far have come at 5v5, which means that if his pace holds, Schenn will score 40 of his 56 points during situations (5v4, 6v5, 3v3) that make up a dramatically lower portion of an average hockey game. Production is production, so I can’t fault Schenn so long as he continues racking up the points. It just remains such a bizarre season to watch.
#10: Will lineup changes be made after this loss?
It was no surprise to see Hakstol keep his lines and pairings stagnant coming out of the break, especially after the team rattled off three straight wins. Now, things are a little different. There are definitely options for the coach if he wants to shake things up a bit — Michael Del Zotto is apparently healthy, and Dale Weise hasn’t played since January 15th. Neither has been especially impressive this year, as Del Zotto has scored but not driven positive on-ice results, while Weise has been the opposite. But both remain competent NHL players, and could easily check back in.
The bigger question is who would come out to accommodate them. There are obvious choices based on (what seems to be) the current depth chart, such as Del Zotto coming in for Manning, or Weise replacing Cousins. But Hakstol has also shown the willingness to deliver surprise scratches, and there were no shortage of poor individual performances from key players in this one. Frankly, Hakstol could use the game tape just justify scratching pretty much anyone on the roster, if he wants. It will be interesting to see if he does actually go to that well again.