Morning Observations is a feature where we break down the previous night's game with an analytical eye.
#1: Flyers wasted a strong first period
After a thoroughly underwhelming performance against the Los Angeles Kings on Saturday, the hope was that the Flyers would come out strong against a struggling St. Louis Blues squad. And that’s exactly what happened — Philadelphia outshot the Blues 11-1 in the opening stanza and won the 5v5 attempts battle handily with a 68.57% score-adjusted Corsi percentage. In addition, they led in scoring chances 12-5, so it wasn’t like every single one of their shots was coming from the outside. The Flyers controlled the pace of the game, and actually found a way to combine their tight checking from last week with actual, tangible offense.
However, none of their 11 shots on goal or 28 overall attempts could find their way past St. Louis goaltender Carter Hutton, who entered the game with a putrid 0.896 save percentage on the season. He should have been an easy netminder to victimize, but instead, the Flyers found a way to make him look like Carey Price over the first twenty minutes of the game. Then, the Blues found their footing, more than doubling up Philadelphia in shot attempts during the middle stanza (15-7), and doing what the Flyers could not in the first period — earn an actual goal for their troubles.
There was a push by Philadelphia in the third, but following Kenny Agostino’s goal that came about due to a Jakub Voracek offensive zone turnover, the Flyers lost that jump in their step quickly. Despite 17 attempts at 5v5 in the period, the Flyers couldn’t manage even one high-danger chance. In the end, Philadelphia closed out the game with slight edges in the 5v5 statistics (55.85% SA-Corsi, 54.74% xG), but the bulk of those leads stemmed from their huge territorial edge in the first. Once they wasted that period, they blew their best chance at victory.
#2: Defense did activate more
Last week, the big story surrounding the Flyers was an absence of shot creation and offense. They averaged 19 shots on goal during the three contests, and managed just one even strength goal. Now, Philadelphia may not be stocked with high-end scoring talent, but we’re talking about a team that has averaged over 30 shots per 60 minutes (in all situations) this season, so on the whole, they certainly haven’t been hurting for offense generation. What seemed to change last week was the mentality of the defensemen, who appeared less willing to activate on the rush and in the cycle game while on the attack, in addition to being less aggressive in executing offensive and neutral zone pinches. An active defense had been a hallmark of the Hakstol style since he took over as Flyers head coach, making the tweak especially noticeable.
So in a game that saw Philadelphia be shut out for the second straight contest, that must mean that the defense was yet again passive in the play, right? I’d argue that wasn’t the case. From the start, defensemen were actively jumping into the play, starting rushes, pinching, and generating chances. Even Andrew MacDonald and Nick Schultz ended up with scoring chances from the slot credited to them by the end of the second period. At least stylistically, the Flyers looked like their normal selves. Of course, that didn’t result in any goals, but their 26 SOG total was decent, and they finished with a 2.05 xG total on the night. I’d be the first one to criticize the Flyers if I felt they were purposely sacrificing offense for defense (as I did last week), but I didn’t see that as the reason for the shutout last night. To me, it was more due to a combination of strong play from Carter Hutton, an inability to finish on scoring chances, and a lack of execution in the second half of the contest.
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#3: Gostisbehere needs to come back
You could make a decent case that this was a game that the Flyers “deserved” to win. They led in all of the 5v5 play-driving metrics, and the two Blues goals came about as a result of a kind of lucky/kind of awesome redirection and a turnover-turned-breakaway due to the Flyers’ pressing to tie the game in the third. However, there remains a very loud and conspicuous elephant in the room when analyzing a game that saw Philadelphia fail to score even one goal. The fact that Shayne Gostisbehere sat for the third consecutive contest makes it difficult for the Flyers to argue that they are doing everything they can to solve the scoring issues, as Ghost is clearly the team’s most dynamic defenseman.
Yes, Gostisbehere hasn’t scored at nearly the rate that he did last season. And to be sure, his 5v5 on-ice goal based results (34%) have been awful, though that’s mostly due to an unsustainably-low 4.81% shooting percentage when Ghost has been on the ice. But you don’t need to look at stats to know that Gostisbehere is more useful in helping the Flyers to score goals than at least half the defensemen that Philadelphia dressed last night, and possibly all of them. And even if you believe that Ghost’s awful on-ice shooting percentage at 5v5 is reflective of general ineffectiveness and not just dumb bad luck, it’s obvious that the power play is suffering dramatically in his absence. The top unit is weaker because penalty kills can now more directly attack Giroux and Voracek rather than stay up high to defend against possible Gostisbehere one-timers. The second unit is weaker because Streit is now with PP1, forcing Hakstol to go with either Brandon Manning or Andrew MacDonald there. The result has been a sputtering PP, and with the even strength scoring still anemic, that means little in the way of offensive firepower.
There are other factors causing the offensive swoon aside from Ghost’s absence — quality of opponents, strong goaltending, a temporary change of mentality — but the scratching is surely playing a role. At this point, the Flyers have an obvious problem in that they can’t score goals right now, and a player sitting in the press box who directly aided in the creation of 46 of them in just 64 games last season. Defensive concerns aside, it’s long past time to put Gostisbehere back in the lineup.
#4: Konecny was flying, then injured
Unlike Gostisbehere, Travis Konecny did check back into the lineup last night and immediately provided a spark. Konecny brings a speed element to the forward corps that is severely lacking considering the existing talent, and he showcased that on multiple occasions in the first period. In just under seven minutes of 5v5 ice time, Konecny helped the Flyers rack up 10 shot attempts, good for a strong 88.24 Corsi For per 60 rate. For a team starved for offense, he was a godsend, and a big reason why the team had such a strong first period.
However, the 19-year old forward could not last the game. It wasn’t a surprise scratching or even a benching due to rookie mistakes that caught Hakstol’s eye, but an awkward collision with the boards in the first half of the second period. At first, it looked like he may have injured his shoulder (an injury he’s struggled with in the past) but upon further review, it looked like Konecny’s bigger issue was his lower body getting twisted as he hit the boards. Tim Panaccio confirmed it after the game, reporting that Konecny had suffered ankle and knee sprains on the play. The rookie did try to fight through the pain and skated a few more shifts, but eventually was sent to the locker room midway through the period and did not return. Obviously, an extended absence would be a big loss for a punchless Flyers squad, considering Konecny’s offensive skillset.
#5: New-look Couturier line was most effective
With Matt Read out of the lineup in favor of Konecny, Hakstol shuffled up the middle-six a bit, this time moving Wayne Simmonds into the RW spot with Sean Couturier and Nick Cousins. The goal was likely to use Simmonds as a way to get the line more involved offensively after a few down games, but it was actually Cousins who stood out the most in this one, leading the trio in both shot attempts (five) and individual Expected Goals (0.23). He also had Philadelphia’s best chance of the game, a crashing-the-net one-timer on the rush that Carter Hutton was able to stop. Cousins also led the team in score-adjusted Corsi For at 76.54 percent, with Couturier and Simmonds close behind. The unit didn’t score, but they were moving through the neutral zone with ease and created lots of chances despite being primary matched up with the Tarasenko line. The Flyers might have something here.
#6: Streit-Schultz pair, on the other hand, got wrecked
The same cannot be said for the pairing of Nick Schultz and Mark Streit, which managed an awful 27.53% score-adjusted Corsi in almost 11 minutes together. Dave Hakstol seemed to recognize their poor performance, using them at 5v5 like his third-pairing, but it’s impossible to truly shelter struggling defensemen in an NHL game. Whenever they hit the ice, the Blues seemed to have the puck, with the Perron-Lehtera-Agostino trio especially enjoying their time spent against Schultz-Streit. There’s a reason why Schultz was buried at the very bottom of the Flyers’ depth chart for most of the season, and he reminded observers of that last night — he’s just not an especially effective NHL defenseman at this stage of his career. And when paired with a slowing Mark Streit, things can get ugly fast.
#7: MacDonald was having a strong game, then took bad penalty
Andrew MacDonald rightfully receives a large amount of criticism from both the blogosphere and the general fanbase, and it’s not just just due to his contract. it’s because, from a play-driving standpoint, no defenseman on the Flyers has been worse this season (-4.9% CF%RelTM) than MacDonald. However, that doesn’t mean that he isn’t fully capable of delivering strong games. Interestingly enough, this is the kind of game that a fan open to advanced metrics might view MacDonald positively while one trusting the box score could disagree. After all, MacDonald finished with a strong 61.825 score-adjusted Corsi, his passing was crisp, and he even disrupted an offensive zone entry or two. However, he happened to be on the ice for two goals against at 5v5 (even if none were his fault), which gave him an ugly -2 rating in terms of plus/minus.
What both sides can agree on, however, is that the foolish double-minor penalty that he took in the second period could have been disastrous. Luckily for MacDonald, the team stepped up and smothered the Blues’ power play, but that doesn’t make the reckless play any less disappointing. Truthfully, I was impressed with MacDonald overall in this game, and I suspect he’ll grade out well by the microstats once they are available. But it was the penalty and not the bad goal-based luck that put a damper on an otherwise-strong performance by MacDonald.
#8: Blues’ top line got shut down, still scored
You hate to see the Flyers waste a performance that saw them take play to a top line as dangerous as the Steen-Stastny-Tarasenko unit. And that’s exactly what happened last night — the trio could manage just four shot attempts in over 12 minutes of ice time, while allowing a whopping 18. Shift after shift, the Flyers pinned Tarasenko (in my opinion, one of the ten best players in hockey) in his own zone, far away from anywhere that could be considered a high-danger sniping area.
But not only could the Flyers not score a goal despite that massive territorial advantage, they couldn’t even keep the trio off the scoreboard. Stastny was actually able to score on one of those four shot attempts, redirecting a slap pass from Kevin Shattenkirk past Michal Neuvirth with his skate in a picture-perfect play. It’s the type of maneuver that has you marveling at just how skilled NHL forwards truly are, and it’s just the Flyers’ luck that it would come in a game where they did almost everything possible to shut down a dangerous line.
#9: Flyers do seem to be attacking the slot more
Just a few weeks ago, I expressed a concern that Philadelphia was settling for too many point shots and overusing a low-to-high offensive zone shot creation style. Over the past few games, however, it’s been tough to tell if the team is taking too many point shots, considering how few shots they had taken at 5v5 on the whole. Last night was a little different, as the Flyers did generate a decent number of total attempts (48 in about 44 minutes at 5v5). And as the great heat map from Natural Stat Trick shows, the Flyers did seemingly make a conscious effort to generate higher quality chances.
Clearly, it didn’t result in any goals scored, but the fact that a higher percentage of the team’s shot volume is centered in the slot and net front area does bode well for their process as a whole. In fact, since the start of 2017, there hasn’t been a major difference between Philadelphia’s raw shot volume differential at 5v5 and after that differential is adjusted for quality via the xG model (50.5% score-adjusted Corsi, 50.02% SA-xG). Maybe adjustments truly are being made, or maybe it’s just that a statistical anomaly is starting to even itself out.
#10: Where do the Flyers stand?
Three games into this key homestand, and the Flyers have delivered one strong win, one overtime loss that probably should have occurred in regulation, and one regulation loss that was probably a little unlucky. That’s not horrific, but a 1-1-1 record certainly isn’t how they wanted to kick off such a pivotal stretch of the season. Philadelphia still holds the final playoff spot in the East, but they’re ninth in terms of points percentage, ahead of the Islanders (who they face Thursday) primarily because they’ve played more games.
Since the turn of the calendar year, Philadelphia’s 5v5 play-driving metrics have been passable, but nothing special on the whole. Their shooting and save percentages, on the other hand, remain abysmal. From a statistical standpoint, the reasonable hope is that the Flyers will start getting some breaks in terms of shooting percentage while watching the goaltenders improve over their performance so far this season, but there are no guarantees (particularly regarding the latter). The recent lineup decisions also do not create confidence. However, considering the team’s current place in the standings and the simple fact that the Flyers almost certainly will not score on just 4.64% of their 5v5 shots (as they’ve done in 2017), I expect they’ll stay in this playoff race until the end.