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Flyers 3, Canadiens 1: 10 things we learned from a stifling defensive effort

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Rebounding from their worst game of the season in Carolina, the Flyers shut down a strong Montreal team and took the victory.

Kate Frese Photography

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

#1: Low-event style worked for Flyers

If your plan is to introduce a hockey skeptic to the sport, I wouldn’t recommend showing tape of last night’s Flyers-Canadiens game. It was truly a slog, mostly devoid of high quality scoring chances and shots on goal. In fact, the two teams combined for just 40 pucks on net all game. For reference, Philadelphia has at least 40 shots on goal on their own in ten separate games this season, so this type of low-event game was a bit of an anomaly for the team.

However, it’s hard to argue that it wasn’t effective, especially coming against a Montreal team that is one of the best in the Eastern Conference. Not only did the Flyers come away with a 3-1 victory, they had a slight edge in shot attempt differential at 5v5 (51.37% score-adjusted Corsi) and won the Expected Goals battle (53.39%) as well. And that’s coming against an opponent who is near the top of the league in both categories on the year. The aesthetics might not have been the most pleasing, but this was a perfectly acceptable bounceback game after the Flyers’ putrid showing in Carolina.

#2: Impact of the Gostisbehere/Konecny scratches

There were rumblings on Wednesday that Shayne Gostisbehere might receive his third healthy scratch of the season against Montreal on Thursday, and those proved accurate. However, it wasn’t just Ghost who would be viewing the game from the press box — rookie Travis Konecny joined him as well in taking a seat. Understandably, most fans were confused by the move, and they were even joined by beat writers as well. Of course, then the Flyers go out and not only defeat a strong Montreal club, but outplay them as well. Does that justify Hakstol’s decision to scratch his two dynamic weapons?

It’s tough to say. The team was certainly worse on paper with Konecny and Gostisbehere out, and maybe this 3-1 tight win becomes a 5-1 thrashing with an optimal lineup. At the same time, Gostisbehere and Konecny both have legitimate defensive issues, backed up by the numbers. While Ghost has done a good job this year in aiding overall shot suppression, the Flyers have struggled in scoring chance prevention with him on the ice, while Konecny has been below average in both shot and chance prevention. That’s not to say that either is a net negative player (hint: they aren’t), but their game doesn’t exactly fit with the tight checking, “don’t let them breathe” style that the Flyers employed last night.

It also is fair to theorize that the reason that Philadelphia tightened things up with Gostisbehere and Konecny out of the lineup may have been because the remaining players received a clear message from the coaching staff: if two of our biggest offensive risk-takers just got scratched, the rest of us had better keep things simple and play a conservative game, or we could be next. I can’t imagine that motivation will remain effective forever, though. Even if Hakstol’s decision “worked” last night, removing two of the team’s best offensive weapons will eventually cost them games, as the Flyers simply don’t have the defensive talent up and down the lineup to repeat this formula nightly.

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#3: Dangerous chances took time to create

At the end of the first period, the Flyers were down 1-0, even though they had outshot the Canadiens by a 10-5 difference and were dead even in 5v5 shot attempts (20-20). However, despite the shots and the offensive zone time, it never felt that Philadelphia was truly threatening to score against Carey Price. That’s because the Flyers were almost completely held to the perimeter during the first twenty minutes of the game.

But that did change as the game progressed. The Flyers never looked especially dangerous, but they did begin to generate some rebounds, and even a few chances off the rush, particularly from the Giroux line. It wasn’t a deluge, of course, but Philadelphia started to attack the high slot more often, as proven by the end-of-game heat map from Natural Stat Trick. It remained a low event game, but the Flyers did put more pressure on the Canadiens in the second and early third periods especially, culminating in Matt Read’s gamewinning goal.

#4: Top line helped turn the game

The biggest difference between the first and second periods in terms of shot creation was the performance of the Flyers’ top line. The trio of Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek and Michael Raffl had been underwhelming in recent weeks, but on this night, they were the team’s best, even if they didn’t score. All three forwards finished right around the 60% Corsi mark, with Giroux and Voracek helping to generate three of Philadelphia’s four high-danger scoring chances at 5v5 on the night. Recently, I’ve noted that if the Flyers plan to “stack” the top line, they need tangible offense from the unit at even strength, which hasn’t been there over the past few games. However, last night was a very good sign. We’ll see if they can carry that over to Saturday’s game versus the Kings — a bigger club that Giroux struggled against earlier this year.

#5: Power play remains fine

The Flyers have a number of legitimate issues with their roster and overall performance this season — a limited defense corps, too many outside shots in the offensive zone, anemic 5v5 scoring — but the team’s top power play unit is not one of them. They’ve gone through goal scoring “slumps” to be sure (though they’ve always stayed in at least the top third of the league in efficiency), but their underlying numbers remain stellar. Only Anaheim averages more shot attempts per 60 than the Flyers, they’re fifth in xG created per 60, and they lead the league in both unblocked attempts and shots on goal. That’s almost entirely due to the effort of the top unit, which remains a truly elite shot creation PP group.

Last night, even with Shayne Gostisbehere sitting as a healthy scratch, the power play came through in a big way. With the team playing a low-event style at even strength despite being down 1-0 on the scoreboard, the importance of the PP skyrocketed. And following a totally unnecessary interference penalty on Andrew Shaw (who was benched by Michel Therrien as a result), the top unit struck, as Claude Giroux took full advantage of a Wayne Simmonds screen to slip a shot past Carey Price and tie the game. Kurt made the point a few weeks ago that the Philadelphia power play is clearly the most trustworthy aspect of the team, and they proved that again last night.

#6: Read has been really useful this year

Last night, Matt Read scored a goal. For most forwards on the roster, that would be cause for satisfaction, but not the sheer joy that it likely gave Read. After all, this is a player who used to be a regular 20-goal scorer, one who held an elite 15% shooting percentage for three full seasons, yet has watched his offensive production fall off a cliff over the past three years. Last night’s game winner was Read’s first tally since November 3rd, and it was reminiscent of how he used to score — a perfectly-placed, top corner sniper’s goal that could beat even the best of goalies.

But even though Read is no longer the sniper of years past, he’s no longer reviled by large sections of the Flyers’ fanbase as he was last season. That’s partially because he got off to such a fast start this year, which tends to drive public perception (I believe Brandon Manning is still benefiting from this as well). But I’d like to think it’s also due to the fact that Read has been straight up good this year, driving play at 5v5 better than any Flyers player and even scoring at a third-line level. It’s ridiculous how strong Read’s advanced metrics have been this year — his 56.3% Corsi For percentage ranks 15th in the entire NHL among forwards (with over 400 5v5 minutes), with the next best Flyer (Raffl) coming in at #51. He’s also the only Philadelphia forward with a positive Goals For percentage (52.0%) so far this year. That’s why it was so nice to see him rewarded with a big goal last night — considering all of the little things he does right to drive positive outcomes, he deserved to be the one in the spotlight for once.

#7: How did the new lineup additions look?

In place of Gostisbehere and Konecny, Dave Hakstol added Nick Schultz and Dale Weise to the lineup last night. Schultz has essentially been the 8th defenseman on the depth chart this year, but with Michael Del Zotto still dealing with a bone bruise, he was the easy choice to slide into the lineup. As for Weise, his performance this year hasn’t been without positives, but he simply hasn’t scored at a remotely acceptable level for a top-nine forward, so it was understandable to see him spend an extended period as a healthy scratch. Still, the chances of Weise coming back strong (especially against his former team) felt more likely than Schultz turning back the clock.

And that’s exactly what happened. Interestingly enough, both ended up with solid performances in terms of score-adjusted Corsi (Schultz at 58.25%, Weise at 58.09%), but in terms of individual contributions, Weise was the far more impactful player. He didn’t score, but he took three shots on goal and led the team in individual Expected Goals with 0.47. Schultz, on the other hand, looked like Nick Schultz — positionally sound, but slow to loose pucks, and where the puck went to die in the offensive zone. Hilariously, Schultz was out there for yet another Flyers goal at even strength, raising his team-high on-ice shooting percentage to 11.36%. But if you actually think that Schultz is doing anything to directly cause that sky-high rate, I have a slightly used Andrew MacDonald here to sell you.

#8: PP2 was embarrassing

One under-the-radar problem with scratching both Gostisbehere and Konecny in the same game is that it effectively takes two starters away from the second PP unit. Konecny is obviously a key piece, but with Ghost out, Streit is forced to move up to PP1 as well. In response, the Flyers moved Dale Weise back into the unit, and also gave Brandon Manning a shot on the left point. Weise is at least semi-justifable — as a netfront presence, it could work, even if it hasn’t so far this year — but Brandon Manning on an NHL power play was a sight to behold. Sure, he’s scored at a solid rate in the AHL. But this is a guy with 21 points in 121 games in the bigs, and lacking anything in the way of a dynamic skillset.

The argument could be made that he was the best of a bunch of bad choices (though I think I’d rather have both Gudas and even MacDonald there), but that’s the point. If you’re icing a lineup that makes Brandon Manning a semi-acceptable choice to play on the power play, it’s probably not the best lineup possible. Unsurprisingly, PP2 generated almost nothing in the way of shot attempts (a horrific 35.29 per 60), and that’s something that should be expected to continue so long as Konecny and Gostisbehere remain out.

#9: Couturier line was line matched heavily

Despite the goal by Matt Read, the Couturier line didn’t have their strongest performance from a play-driving standpoint. All of Read, Cousins and Couturier finished with score-adjusted Corsi percentages below 33%, and they lost the scoring chance battle as well. However, it’s not like they received easy minutes. Couturier spent a little less than 12 of his 5v5 minutes versus Max Pacioretty and Alexander Radulov, a fate obviously shared by his linemates as well. And even though they lost the raw attempts battle handily, their overall defense against the Montreal duo was strong, holding them to just four shots on net in those twelve minutes of play. The Flyers’ trio wasn’t creating much, and I wouldn’t consider this to be a formula that should be replicated with a expectation of continued success, but on this night, the “suffocate and play it safe” style worked well for the Couturier line.

#10: Discipline and penalty kill also key contributors

Good defense in hockey is often how many plays a team doesn’t even allow to get started, rather than obvious goal prevention actions like blocks or saves. The same thing can be said for shutting down potent power plays. Montreal holds the third-best power play in the NHL by goal-based efficiency, obviously aided by the fearsome shot of Shea Weber. Instead of forcing their penalty kill to go head-to-head with Montreal, the Flyers instead avoided infractions almost entirely, taking just one minor penalty on the night. That discipline forced the Canadiens to play almost entirely at even strength, which had been turned into a slog by Philadelphia’s tight checking. And on the Canadiens’ one power play of the night, they could not even manage one shot attempt, as the Flyers’ clogged up the neutral zone and made it nearly impossible for Montreal to even get set up, let alone generate quality chances.