Morning Observations is a feature where we break down the previous night's game with an analytical eye.
#1: It’s time to sell off the expiring contracts
Flyers general manager Ron Hextall confirmed on Friday that he would not be buying at the trade deadline, but that other possible moves would be decided by the team’s results in the Stadium Series game against the Penguins and (possibly) their game against Colorado back at home. It was an implicit admission that some selling could occur if the team fell even further out of playoff contention. Last night’s 4-2 loss certainly dug the hole deeper, as the Flyers now sit five points out of the final wild card spot with three teams (including the Bruins, who hold the spot) still in front of them. The team would need a monster close to the season over the final 21 games to pull off what is increasingly looking like a small miracle.
Basically, it’s time to face the facts — the Flyers need to sell. This isn’t advocating for a complete teardown; if that has to happen, it’s not something that should be done at the last minute, as it’s best served for the offseason. But in the here and now, Hextall would be well-served to try to move as many of his expiring contracts as possible. Mark Streit is the obvious piece — he can still help a contender on the power play, and gaffe last night notwithstanding, is still passable at 5v5. He’ll easily find a home if Hextall wants to move him. Michael Del Zotto and Nick Schultz (especially the latter) will be tougher, but neither should be in the Flyers’ plans long-term, so any offer would do. I’d personally advocate moving one (or both) of Pierre-Edouard Bellemare or Chris VandeVelde if there actually is a market, but it’s possible that Hextall has interest in retaining them in the offseason, so that may be a non-starter. In any case, there’s no reason to shy away from a sell at this point — the playoffs truly are a pipedream.
#2: Elements didn’t seem to play a major role
The outdoor nature of the game was certainly a unique draw, and all of the players (even Jakub Voracek, who was otherwise extremely frustrated) noted how much fun they had playing in an open-air stadium. Still, from the press box, it didn’t seem like the elements had a major impact on the outcome of the game. That’s not to say they weren’t prevalent — the wind was howling, and there was even a light snow in the second period — but it wasn’t an especially sloppy or slow game to watch, nor did one team seem to be dealing with the elements better than the other.
The officials did choose to have the teams switch sides midway through the third period to ensure no one had an advantage, but I’m not sure which team even would have had it. The wind seemed to mostly be blowing east/west across the rink rather than north/south, which likely would affect both teams equally. As for the ice surface, it looked a bit choppy, but no moreso than a bad night at the Islanders’ arena. None of the goals (at least to my eyes) were obviously attributable to the elements, which is a good thing in my book. That meant that the fans could simply enjoy the unique experience rather than worry about how it impacted their team’s chances of victory.
#3: Classic Flyers first period
As has happened many times over the past few weeks, the Flyers actually got off to a fairly strong start, racing out to an early 9-5 edge in shot attempts and creating numerous scoring chances, including a Raffl deflection that rang off the post and a strong Couturier rush opportunity. But as has also been characteristic of the Flyers over the past month, they could not turn that consistent pressure into a goal, and just after a fruitless Philadelphia power play, the Penguins made them pay. Philadelphia could have survived a failed clear by Shayne Gostisbehere, but then Mark Streit got completely lost in coverage and allowed Sidney Crosby (the one guy who you absolutely can’t forget about) to get behind him, making the end result of the play inevitable.
Following that error, the Flyers were scrambling for the next few minutes, but did collect themselves for the final few shifts of the period, resulting in a slight play-driving edge (53.62% score-adjusted Corsi, 57.09% xG) for the opening stanza on the whole. But due to their inability to finish on chances and their tendency to make the breakdowns especially egregious, all of the good things they did to largely control the pace in the opening period were for naught.
#4: Neuvirth was a predictable goat
If you went back in time and told a Flyers fan in November of 2016 that Michal Neuvirth would start eight of nine February games and then earn the nod over Steve Mason in the Stadium Series game, the logical assumption on the part of November Flyers fan would be that Neuvirth took a stranglehold on the starting job via stellar play. But that fan would be wrong. Instead, Neuvirth entered last night’s game with an 0.894 save percentage in February, far from the resume of a “hot” goalie. Nevertheless, Hakstol chose to ride Neuvirth yet again in this high-profile game, to disastrous results. Pittsburgh’s first goal was essentially unstoppable, but the second was one that he could have had, and then the final two were obviously ones that he should have had.
This really shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Neuvirth was not playing particularly good hockey recently, nor has he played particularly good hockey all season long. For all of the (justified) grief that Mason has received from Flyers fans, it’s important to note that his full-season save percentage (0.900) remained superior to that of Neuvirth (0.888) entering last night’s game, and now the gap is even larger. Truthfully, I’m not sure I would have started Mason in this game considering the circumstances -- after all, he’s played just one game over the last 25 days. The real problem was that the team was backed into a corner because of their refusal to split the games more evenly in February. For this pivotal game, their two choices were a struggling goalie, or a guy who has barely played all month. It’s no surprise that the situation ended in disaster.
#5: Penguins’ thin defense hurt their breakout game
Pittsburgh may be one of the league’s best squads, but they’re not exactly running with their best roster at the moment, especially on the back end. With Kris Letang, Trevor Daley and Olli Maatta all out due to injuries, the Penguins’ defense corps was severely lacking entering this game. When Ian Cole leads your blueline in ice time, and a guy who wasn’t even on your roster at the start of the week (Ron Hainsey) ranks third, you know it’s not an ideal scenario. Pittsburgh certainly showed some cracks in this game as a result. For the first two periods, the Flyers had the territorial edge, leading in 5v5 score-adjusted Corsi in both sessions. To my eyes, that was primarily a result of Penguins breakout struggles, as the limited defense had regular issues with transitioning play from the defensive zone to the neutral zone.
Due to Pittsburgh’s obvious advantage up front, whenever they did get into the offensive zone, they looked far more dangerous than the Flyers ever did when on the attack. But their breakout issues gave Philadelphia a weakness to exploit. Unfortunately, the team’s inability to finish on chances (two goals on 37 shots) and poor goaltending wasted that opportunity, against a surprisingly vulnerable Penguins squad.
#6: Voracek looking dangerous again
One concerning contributing factor to the Flyers’ 2+ month goal-scoring struggles has been the play of Jakub Voracek. After a scalding hot start to the season where he looked every bit the player who scored 81 points in 82 games back in 2014-15, Voracek’s game has tailed off recently. Considering his stellar skating ability and “Jagr Jr” puck protecting ability, it’s been surprising to see Voracek rarely initating rushes that terrified opposing defensemen, and not even driving play at 5v5 especially well. Long one of the best Corsi players in the league, Voracek has just been barely positive relative to his teammates this season (+0.3% CF%RelTM), which is very unlike him.
However, over the past few games, Voracek has begun to look more and more like his old self, and his goal in the second period was the first classic Voracek scoring play in quite a while. Taking advantage of extra space down low due to a 4v4 situation, Voracek completely fooled Justin Schultz while initiating a power move from behind the net, making him look more like the defensive liability that he was in Edmonton and nothing like the play-driver that he’s been this year in Pittsburgh. When Voracek is “on,” he’s making those kind of plays on a nightly basis, and hopefully this is the start of that guy coming back for good.
#7: Streit not helping the ol’ trade value
On an early shift last night, Mark Streit carried the puck end-to-end, pulling off the type of controlled exit to controlled entry to scoring chance setup (Couturier shot stopped by Murray) that is exactly what both the Flyers are looking for from him. Not only was it the type of play that a “puck-moving defenseman” is expected to create for a team trying to stay in the playoff hunt, but it’s also what any contenders looking to add a veteran blueliner at the trade deadline would want to see from him. As Streit’s contract is about to expire and he likely will not be re-signed by Ron Hextall in the offseason, he’s the most logical choice to be sold to the highest bidder if the Flyers choose to peddle their rentals.
Unfortunately, that strong start did not carry over for the rest of the contest. It was Streit’s horrific defensive zone coverage that allowed for Sidney Crosby to score the first goal of the game, and you could almost see Marc Bergevin watching that play and asking his assistant, “So we’re going to trade for a guy who just forgot to mark the best player in hockey?” Streit’s play-driving metrics (team-low 37.76% score-adjusted Corsi) were nothing special either. I doubt this will make-or-break his trade value considering the fact that an outdoor game is a unique setting, but in a national broadcast, you would have loved to see Streit stand out in a positive way, or at least be relatively invisible. Instead, he was one of the bigger goats.
#8: Top PP unit is back, so is Ghost
After a brief experiment with Ivan Provorov on the top power play unit replacing Jakub Voracek, the Flyers reverted back to their usual look in the third period of the Washington game on Wednesday, and stuck with that last night. The biggest benefit to the previous adjustment was the fact that it moved Shayne Gostisbehere to the right faceoff circle, giving him less traffic to navigate his shot through to the net. But last night, Ghost found a way to get his shot through even while playing back up at the point, scoring on the team’s second PP opportunity of the night. It was a glimpse of the Gostisbehere of last season, as he let loose a low sizzler that eluded Murray, partially due to a predictably-perfect Wayne Simmonds screen in front. There weren’t a ton of positives to come out of this game, but a Ghost bomb finally ending up in the back of the net certainly gave the Philadelphia travelers reason to smile.
#9: Third period play needed to be better
Neuvirth was the biggest reason that Philadelphia’s attempted third period comeback failed, but the skaters cannot be absolved entirely. Despite the fact that they entered the final twenty minutes down a goal in what Jakub Voracek called “the biggest game of the season” prior to puck drop, the Flyers lost the shot attempt battle at 5v5 by a 14-7 margin, and could not muster one high-danger chance in any situation. Yes, they got the goal from Gostisbehere (which felt more like a season-long karmic reward for Ghost than anything), but it’s not as simple as just removing the two weak goals and saying this game should have went into overtime. The offense needed to create much more late in the game than they did.
#10: Giroux performed solid in tough matchups
Captain Claude Giroux was called out on the NBC broadcast for looking “invisible” last night, and to be sure, the Flyers could have definitely used some tangible offense from their star center. But Giroux wasn’t exactly getting easy minutes last night, spending over nine of his 12:36 total 5v5 ice time matched up against Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. Despite those difficult assignments, Giroux did finish in the black from a play-driving standpoint (53.98%) and especially had his way with Malkin (80% Corsi in 3:43). That’s not absolving Giroux’s continued scoring struggles at 5-on-5, but he was able to basically nullify Pittsburgh’s two best players during his shifts against them, and that does count for something.