Morning Observations is a feature where we break down the previous night's game with an analytical eye.
#1: Good underlying metrics aren’t enough
It’s worth repeating that those who believe in the usefulness of advanced metrics like Corsi don’t advocate for them because winning the shot attempts battle at 5v5 is more important than winning the game. It’s because having the territorial edge is more predictive of future goal differential (and in turn, win differential) than past goal differential, which explains the “good process, bad result” descriptions that I’ve often used to describe Flyers games this year. However, at a certain point of the year, a strong process matters far less than getting positive results in pivotal games that can swing the standings. Last night was one of those nights, as Philadelphia faced an Islanders squad with a slightly superior points percentage and just behind them in raw points. This was undoubtedly a huge game.
By the numbers, the Flyers didn’t play all that poorly. They led in score-adjusted Corsi at 5v5 with a 54.35% percentage, and just barely held the edge in all-situations xG, 2.82-2.75. But all of that puck possession and shot generation could not create more than one goal, a first period power play tally. Yet again, the Flyers were kept off the scoreboard at even strength, and yet again, a few particularly ugly breakdowns ended up in the back of their own net. Did this game’s outcome change my personal opinion that the Flyers are a better team than the Islanders? No, I still believe that Philadelphia’s roster is deeper and their systems are more effective than those of their division rival. But at some point, that has to translate into wins down the stretch, or else this team will be on the outside looking in. At least last night, the Flyers came up short.
#2: Early-season Flyers combined with January Flyers
Prior to the Flyers’ 10-game winning streak, the team seemed to being following a nightly formula — outshoot their opponents, but suffer from breakdowns that invariably ended in goals against. For weeks, the debate was whether the primary fault was on the team defense for the mistakes, or the goalies for never bailing them out. On two occasions last night, that debate resurfaced.
With the game tied 1-1, the Islanders moved up ice on a rush just as the Flyers executed a line change. Radko Gudas flinched in coverage for a second as New York entered the Philadelphia zone, with allowed for Andrew Ladd to find Jason Chimera for a mini-breakaway. A breakdown, to be sure, but in that situation you do hope that your goaltender can bail you out. Mason could not do so. Far worse was his performance on the Isles’ third goal, which saw Casey Cizikas take advantage of a Mark Streit turnover and then “could have been better” rush coverage from Shayne Gostisbehere to get a turnaround shot on net. However, it was a shot that Mason needed to stop, considering the relatively low velocity and minimal elevation. Give the Flyers one big save on Chimera and league-average goaltending on the Cizikas shot, and this game very well may go to overtime.
But the entire loss can’t be pinned on two bad plays. Just as they did in a few games before their bye week, the Flyers sagged after things started to break against them in the second. Unable to create separation on the scoreboard despite a dominant first period, they seemed shellshocked for a good five or six minutes after Chimera took advantage of the Gudas error, and never really regained their early-contest heights even after stabilizing things. The Flyers must do a better job of overcoming one-off bad plays if they want to make the playoffs, but they couldn’t do that last night. Combine that with the “every mistake ends up in the net” luck of the early season, and it’s a formula for a regulation loss.
#3: There is an element of bad luck at play
Talk to any Flyers fan right now, and you’ll likely notice a strange combination of anger, apathy, and pure frustration regarding their team’s recent performance. Philadelphia now has four goals in four February games, and just 31 goals in 17 games during the 2017 calendar year, good for a horrific 1.82 goals per contest rate. Generally speaking, if your favorite team isn’t scoring goals, they’re not going to be very fun to watch, and Philadelphia fans are getting a taste of that medicine over the past five weeks.
Some of the issue is execution, and as I’ve noted in the past, some of the scoring problems (at 5v5) may be due to the Flyers’ propensity to create lots of low-percentage shots via a low-to-high strategy. However, there’s simply no way these current shooting percentage rates are going to hold forever. Since the calendar turned from 2016 to 2017, Philadelphia has scored on just 4.35% of their shots on goal at 5-on-5, a full percentage point lower than any NHL team has delivered over a full season since 2007. Their overall shooting percentage of 5.74% also would also be a ten-year low (current worst — 6.90% by the 2014/15 Coyotes). These metrics are going to come up at some point. Now whether they regress quick enough to keep the Flyers in playoff contention is another story entirely.
#4: Gostisbehere’s game was a mixed bag, mostly good
The big story yesterday afternoon was that Shayne Gostisbehere would be returning to the Flyers’ lineup after three games exiled to the press box. Considering the team’s recent goal-scoring struggles, his return to the lineup came not a moment too soon, and almost immediately, Gostisbehere proved his worth in that regard. The top power play unit, which had flailed over the past week in Ghost’s absence, got back on the board in the first period, with Gostisbehere himself earning the primary assist on a Wayne Simmonds tally. The Flyers may not have scored on two late PP opportunities, but one-for-three certainly isn’t bad, and it can be directly attributed to the readdition of Gostisbehere to the fold.
The rest of Ghost’s game deserves a more nuanced breakdown. In terms of positives, Gostisbehere definitely seemed more active without the puck defensively, directly attacking opposing forwards on most occasions, both on the rush and in the cycle game. Surely, that extra effort didn’t go unnoticed by Dave Hakstol. In addition, despite slightly less aggression on the forecheck, Ghost was back to his dangerous self with the puck on the attack, moving laterally to open up lanes and even driving into the slot at times to make his shots more dangerous. However, Gostisbehere’s performance in terms of on-ice metrics was less impressive. He finished last on the team in score-adjusted Corsi with a 36.42% rate, and was on the ice for two goals against.
At the same time, I find it difficult to pin either issue on Gostisbehere entirely. It may seem like excuse-making, but defensive partner Mark Streit did not have one of his best games in coverage, which helped contribute to Ghost’s poor Corsi. As for the goals against, the first one was almost entirely on Radko Gudas, who seemed to forget that he needed to temporarily replace Mark Streit on a line change (and therefore needed to cover the left side) rather than taking up his usual RHD spot, since Gostisbehere was still on the ice. On the second goal, Ghost had some culpability — he could have broken up Cizikas’ rush entirely — but it was one-on-one coverage and Ghost allowed a perfectly-stoppable shot that Steve Mason simply could not handle.
However, the young defenseman didn’t need to impress an SBNation blogger in order to keep his spot in the lineup. He was playing for Dave Hakstol, and the coach after the game was reserved in his praise, stating, “I thought he worked hard tonight. I thought he moved the puck well and was pretty aggressive with the puck. I thought his play on the power play was solid.” That’s not awful feedback, but conspicuously absent was any praise of his defensive game. Struggles in that area are almost certainly what had Ghost scratched in the first place, so in the end, progress there will decide whether Gostisbehere remains in the lineup on a nightly basis.
#5: Schenn line unsurprisingly successful
Ever since the Flyers determined that Brayden Schenn was going to be primarily used as a center this season, the line combination that seemed to make a fair amount of sense was one with Matt Read and Dale Weise on his wings. Schenn clearly has a nose for the net and for point production, as he regularly shows on the power play, but his play-driving ability ranges from barely passable (last year) to downright horrific (this year). Read and Weise, on the other hand, have driven play at 5v5 very well this season, but neither brings much in terms of scoring talent. The thought process behind a Read-Schenn-Weise line is that the wingers help get the puck into the offensive zone, and then Schenn takes the lead from there. And while the trio may not have scored last night, they certainly showcased the potential to follow that formula.
All three forwards finished with score-adjusted Corsi rates over 59 percent, and they handily won the on-ice scoring chance battles as well. That’s not to say that the unit didn’t get pinned in the defensive zone a few times, but their ability to cycle the puck while on the attack more than made up for it. Numerous shifts were spent in the Islanders zone, as Read and Weise focused on puck battles while Schenn tried to find soft spots in the New York coverage. Schenn actually led all Flyers with 0.42 ixG last night, a testament to the wingers’ efforts in getting him the puck. It’s just one game, but the line looked about as good in reality as I thought it would look in theory.
#6: Collapsing NYI D blocked lots of shots
One of the biggest issues that the Flyers faced last night was an inability to get their shots through to Thomas Greiss. Despite winning the 5v5 shot attempts battle 62-45, they held a mere 36-34 edge in unblocked attempts and were actually behind in 5v5 shots on goal (27-25). The primary reason was that the Islanders blocked 26 shot attempts while the Flyers got in the way of just 11. Some of that issue was due to the point shots that Philadelphia uses as a primary part of their offense creation, but as the heat map shows, they also took lots of shots from the slot and netfront as well. But even in those situations, the Islanders found ways to block chances.
After the game, I asked Hakstol if there was anything in particular the Flyers could have done to get a higher percentage of their shots through to the net. Hakstol responded by attributing it mostly to what New York did right and less what the Flyers did wrong, stating, “They’re an excellent shot blocking team, if you look at the way they play. There are nights where I don’t think we worked confidently enough to find those shooting lanes. But I thought that we did a lot of good things in terms of having some patience up top and finding different shooting lanes tonight. And then from that side of it, I’ll give them credit for having good shot blocking.”
#7: Plan to slow Tavares had decent results
In terms of matchups, the Flyers seemed to use a two-pronged approach in an attempt to slow down the dangerous New York top line of John Tavares, Anders Lee and Josh Bailey. Philadelphia used both the old and the new shutdown lines in direct matchups versus Tavares and company, while keeping the remaining two trios as far away from them as possible. The Couturier line was unsuprisingly the first line of defense, receiving about eight minutes of 5v5 time against NYI’s top unit. Essentially, the two lines played to a draw, as Tavares came out slightly ahead (52.17% Corsi) but not ridiculously so.
But the second unit given heavy minutes against Tavares was the Bellemare line, brought out of their recent fourth line role to face the Isles’ superstar for over six minutes at 5v5. And they actually did a very good job, posting a 50% Corsi and (most importantly) not allowing the dangerous New York trio even one scoring chance. If you’re trying to understand why all of Bellemare, VandeVelde and Lyubimov received over ten minutes of 5v5 ice time last night, their solid play against the Tavares line likely explains a good portion of it.
#8: Provorov-AMac pairing was really good
I’ve long been critical of the continued usage of the Ivan Provorov-Andrew MacDonald, arguing that MacDonald’s limitations have hindered Provorov’s ability to drive play and eventually create tangible offense at 5v5. But the pairing is currently on a nice little two-game run of strong underlying play. After a performance against the Blues that saw the duo drive play to the tune of a 65% Corsi For percentage, they upped it to around 70% against the Islanders last night. Provorov was his usual self — fantastic skating to create shots, expertly-placed zone exits — but MacDonald was a pleasant surprise in that he not only avoiding any backbreaking mistakes, he also was a legitimate aid in moving the puck up ice.
#9: Mason has to be better
This was Steve Mason’s first appearance in the month of February, due to the strong play of counterpart Michal Neuvirth. Unfortunately, he did little to make his case for regaining his usual role as the #1 goaltender on the Flyers’ depth chart. The first two goals were not really on Mason (though you’d love to see him come through with a big save on Chimera’s mini-breakaway to bail out a breakdown), but the Islanders’ third goal was downright horrific. You can say that maybe Gostisbehere could have been more aggressive in trying to break up Casey Cizikas’ rush, but he did force the New York forward to commit to one side on a desperation turnaround shot that barely even came off the ice. Mason just couldn’t get over to his right in time, resulting in a leaky goal.
We’re now almost to the midpoint of February, and Mason still holds a save percentage of 0.900, right in line with his awful seasons with Columbus. It’s become commonplace to cite his play in December to argue that he can be better than this, but even in that month when he helped the team to a 10-game win streak, his save percentage was a mediocre 0.914. At this point, I’m done expecting Mason is going to turn his season around — it could happen, but I’ve seen nothing in his game-to-game consistency or his recurring technique errors to think that it’s right around the corner.
#10: Players were rightfully livid after the game
Take one look at social media and you’ll see just how angry the fanbase is regarding the play of their team. What quickly became obvious in the locker room after the game was that the players share the same frustration. For them, it must feel like banging their head against the wall. A brief three-game stretch last week aside, the Flyers have taken lots of shots, created lots of scoring chances, and just cannot seem to put the puck in the net in 2017. There are other issues, but a lack of goal scoring is the root cause of their struggles, and (in my opinion) the primary reason why fans can’t stand this team right now.
Last season, the players universally praised Dave Hakstol’s system, so I doubt they’re using that as a scapegoat at this point. Instead, it feels like they are a bunch that knows they are snakebitten at the moment, and and infuriated that things won’t break their way. Wayne Simmonds was especially livid, and while he never raised his voice in his post-game interview, the rage simmering beneath the surface was obvious. This is where a coach’s influence does become especially important, because the team needs to keep their cool despite this recent drought and ensure that the process remains sound, rather than overreact. Hopefully Hakstol can do just that.