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Flames 3, Flyers 1: 10 things we learned from more drab, uninspiring hockey

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The Flyers are a team. It’s questionable whether they have played a sport called hockey recently, though.

NHL: Philadelphia Flyers at Calgary Flames Candice Ward-USA TODAY Sports

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

#1: Why can’t the Flyers score?

All of the Flyers’ current issues stem from this one, simple question. Since January 15th, Philadelphia has scored 16 goals in 12 games, on 354 shots. That’s a 4.52% shooting percentage in all situations, and a 3.46% rate at 5-on-5. Call those statistics any number of unflattering adjectives — horrific, embarrassing, pathetic — and you wouldn’t be wrong. An NHL team seemingly has to actively try to have this poor of a scoring stretch.

There’s three possible explanations for this run. The first is that it’s simply a case of incredibly bad luck. The Flyers do have players with scoring talent on this roster -- Simmonds has a career SH% of 13.4%, Schenn is at 12.2%, even Raffl is at 12.0% — and it’s unlikely all of their true shooting talent levels fell off a cliff at the same time. Maybe this is just a case of absolutely zero of the bounces breaking their way over a month-long stretch. Possibility #2 is that the system and tactics are dragging down everything. Philadelphia does employ a heavy dose of low-to-high passing to create their offensive zone shots, and they are inherently lower-percentage opportunities. And then there’s option #3, which holds that it is totally on the players, and that we need to re-calibrate our expectations of the squad’s long-term shooting talent.

My personal belief is that it’s a combination of #1 and #2. I’m wholly unconvinced that the entire team has forgotten, all at the same time, how to create the circumstances that allow goals to be scored. These are still talented forwards, most of whom are not out of their age-related primes. My guess is that we’re now seeing what happens when you combine a low-percentage shot creation style with a totally snakebitten roster. Every team goes through goal-scoring slumps, but for clubs that don’t take as many point shots as the Flyers often do, they tend to last a week or two at most. Philadelphia is now coming up on Week 5 of this. Poor fortune is clearly playing a role here, but a team has to make its own luck to a degree as well. In too many games during this run, the Flyers have simply not done that.

#2: Last night they did create chances though

All too often, the Flyers have resorted to that low-to-high style to generate a high percentage of their shot attempts. Last night, however, it would be unfair to blame their one goal performance on an unwillingness or inability to get into the slot and netfront areas. Philadelphia actually led in regular scoring chances (at 5v5) by a 32-20 margin, and in high-danger chances 13-6. The result was a 69.68% Expected Goals For percentage, which even exceeded their score-adjusted Corsi of 60.83%. Not only did the Flyers win the raw shots battle, they actually improved upon their edge after adjusting for quality. Look at all of that blue (showing high density shot areas) around the net and the low slot in this heatmap from Natural Stat Trick.

When a team racks up 34 shots on goal, 70 total attempts, and 3.63 expected goals in a game, there’s no reason to believe that they won’t score at least a few actual tallies. Instead, the Flyers could only pot one, despite the process appearing relatively sound. They now have a score-adjusted Corsi at 5v5 of 55.4% in their last four contests, yet have a 1-3-0 record in those games. The stats say that better results are on the horizon, but they’ve been saying that for quite a while now. It’s tough to blame fans if they just don’t buy it anymore.

NHL.com Report & Highlights | Corsica.Hockey Game Recap Page | HockeyStats.ca Recap | NaturalStatTrick Recap | HockeyViz.com | BSH Recap | Meltzer’s Musings

#3: Strong first periods haven’t mattered

As previously mentioned, the Flyers have carried play over the past four games with little to show for their efforts. A big reason for both of those facts — the play-driving and the poor results — has been the team’s first periods over that stretch. Since last Monday, the Flyers have dominated each of the opening stanzas, but somehow were unable to hit the first intermission with a lead in any of those games. That’s despite winning the shot attempts battle (at 5v5) 89-42 over that the timespan, and the shots on goal battle (all situations) 56-21. The territorial advantage is great, but without earning a tangible lead as a result, it’s little more than a curiosity for now.

#4: Power play in first period wasted all goodwill

Minutes after Matthew Tkachuk tied the game, the Flyers were then given a golden opportunity not just to regain the lead, but to take full control of the contest. Alex Chiasson foolishly decided to spear Nick Cousins at the end of a play, and while a five-minute major seemed harsh for relatively minimal contact, the call was made and Philadelphia would get to spend a quarter of the period with the man advantage. From the start, however, the Flyers were a mess. On their first few entry attempts, it almost looked like they were playing it safe because they knew they had five full minutes, attempting dump-ins rather than being creative through the neutral zone. Then, as they tried to “get serious,” the execution was a disaster, with missed passes and not enough movement from players without the puck.

Calgary then gifted the Flyers a two-man advantage over the final two minutes of the major, as Sean Monahan somehow managed to shoot the puck into the safety netting behind the Flyers net on a clearing attempt. But the highlight of that opportunity was Ivan Provorov and Mark Streit passing the puck between themselves for ten seconds while the rest of the second unit just stood in place. I’ve defended the Flyers’ PP all season, because even when they’re not scoring, they generally create shots and chances at an elite level. But last night, they seemingly forgot everything — controlled entries, reliance on Giroux’s passing, hard work on the boards in puck battles — that makes them so great.

#5: Cousins had a monster first period

It’s obvious by now what role Nick Cousins is going to try and fill during his NHL career — that of the middle-six pest. Matt Cooke is the classic example, or maybe Alexandre Burrows during the seasons when he wasn’t playing alongside the Sedins. Cousins will never be an offensive gamebreaker, but his goal is to hold his own in terms of two-way play while constantly yapping on the ice and attempting to draw penalties. The first period against Calgary last night saw him fill that role perfectly.

Cousins did open the scoring with his sixth goal of the season, but most of the hard work was done by Matt Read on the forecheck to get him the puck staring at a wide-open net. It was Cousins’ ability to draw seven minutes worth of penalties that really stood out, first by getting Alex Chiasson to spear him and be kicked out of the game, and then later inspiring both Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau to attack him along the boards, drawing a roughing minor. Sure, the Flyers were unable to score on any of those power plays, but that shouldn’t take away from the ability to draw them in the first place.

#6: Couturier line with second straight dominant play-driving game

In Saturday’s victory over the San Jose Sharks, the new second line of Sean Couturier, Jakub Voracek and Jordan Weal was the standout trio, scoring the team’s only 5v5 goal of the contest and driving play to the tune of an 85+ percent Corsi. Last night, they weren’t quite as strong, but again led the way in comparison to the other three lines, as all of Couturier, Voracek and Weal finished with score-adjusted Corsi percentages over 65%. It wasn’t just empty shot generation, either. The Flyers created 12 regular and six high-danger scoring chances with Couturier on the ice, with Weal and Couturier posting on-ice Expected Goal percentages in the 80s.

Of course, because they play for the Flyers, all three finished with minuses on their records for the game, as they happened to be on the ice when T.J. Brodie’s seeing-eye gamewinner slipped past a screen and by Michal Neuvirth. It was one of only five shot attempts at 5v5 that occurred with Weal or Couturier on the ice. I’d hope that Hakstol looks past the -1 and keeps this trio together for today’s game, because they’re spending a lot of time in the offensive zone, and if anyone is going to finally break through with a goal deluge, it’s probably going to be them.

#7: Top line stuck along the boards

The team’s “top” line of Claude Giroux, Wayne Simmonds and Brayden Schenn was less successful by the advanced metrics. Giroux and Schenn brought up the rear in score-adjusted Corsi on the night (45.87% and 45.73%), and Simmonds was barely over 50%. They also blew the post-faceoff coverage on Matthew Tkachuk’s first period game-tying goal, which put a screeching halt on Philadelphia’s stellar start to the contest.

However, in watching the game, it felt like the trio had the puck for quite a long time, especially in the offensive zone. They were getting there, even retrieving dump-ins and creating possession time, but little was coming of it. On too many shifts, they appeared to be stuck along the boards, furiously grinding in puck battles just to end up creating a weak point shot that would be blocked anyway. You’d think that the line would be able to execute on a simple formula — one of Simmonds/Schenn gets to the front of the net, and Giroux tries to find them — but whether it’s the wingers’ inability to get to the high-danger areas or Giroux’s inability to thread the needle there, it’s not working.

#8: Weal sure looks like he belongs

Aside from Nick Cousins’ penalty-drawing abilities, Jordan Weal’s play throughout the game was was of the few undeniable positives. For the second straight contest, the recent callup has been one of the Philadelphia’s most effective forwards, and what’s been most noticeable has been his improvement in two specific areas. Last season, in his limited stint with the Flyers, Weal lost far too many puck battles along the boards, getting lost among the bigger NHL bodies. This time around, he’s holding his own -- maybe not winning every one, but at least tying up the puck long enough for a teammate to jump in and help him out.

Second, Weal looks faster this time around, which is helping his neutral zone immensely. In fact, on one of his few poor plays on the night, he was skating so rapidly through the middle of the ice that he actually lost control of the puck, which is obviously not ideal, but at least he was moving fast enough that it was even a possible outcome. Last season, Weal looked like a skilled forward, but one who maybe was too small and not quite fast enough to make up for it. Through two games this season, however, it’s been a different story.

#9: Flyers aren’t even facing top goalies

Especially frightening about the 12-game stretch of offensive futility is that the Flyers have often faced backup level goalie talent and still can’t seem to score. Since January 15th, Philadelphia has faced seven goalies that would not rank #1 on their teams’ ideal depth chart, and five starters. That may even be giving them too much credit, since one of those “starters” was Cam Ward (who beat Philadelphia that night, of course). During this run, Philadelphia has lost to such goaltending luminaries as Philipp Grubauer, Keith Kinkaid, Carter Hutton, and now Brian Elliott, who is having a truly horrific season. Maybe the goalies are just performing well above their established talent levels versus the Flyers (or in Elliott’s case, finally regressing to his), but they sure don’t look too threatening on paper.

#10: They lost to a team with one good defensive pairing

Calgary certainly has its fair share of dynamic young forward talent, but their primary weakness is a lack of depth on the back end. Essentially, they have three above-average defensemen (Mark Giordano, Dougie Hamilton and T.J. Brodie) and then a lot of nothing. Rather than ask each of them to carry one of Dennis Wideman, Deryk Engelland and Brett Kulak, the Flames have chosen to stack their top pair with Giordano and Hamilton, while hoping that the other two pairings can survive.

Last night, the outcome was predictable, even if Brodie did sneak in a second period goal. Giordano-Hamilton both finished in the black from a Corsi standpoint (59.39% score-adjusted Corsi), while the other two pairs got killed territorially. All four other Calgary blueliners finished below 28%. Somehow, the Flyers still lost to a team with that major weakness on the back end.