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Maple Leafs 4, Flyers 2: 10 things we learned from playoff dreams slipping away

The Flyers had an opportunity to give their playoff chances a major boost last night. Instead, they fell back into old habits.

NHL: Philadelphia Flyers at Toronto Maple Leafs John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

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

#1: Game was lost in the second

As they have in so many games in 2017, the Flyers actually got off to a very strong start in this one. The forecheck was working, the passing was crisp, and the team was even directly attacking the front of the net and the slot area in an attempt to flood Frederik Andersen with scoring chances. Toronto didn’t generate their first shot attempt until seven minutes had passed in the game, and the Flyers were already up 1-0. The Maple Leafs unsurprisingly pushed back (and tied the game with a power play goal), but Philadelphia’s execution remained strong throughout the opening stanza. They hit the first intermission holding a minor advantage in territorial play and a sizable edge in scoring chances, implying that if they held that level of performance for the following 40 minutes, they’d come away with a much-needed victory.

Instead, the second period was all Toronto. The Flyers did keep the 5v5 shot attempts battle close (23-20 Maple Leafs) but there was a stark discrepancy in the quality of shots from both teams. Toronto was effortlessly creating chances off the rush and battling to the front of the net on the cycle, while the Flyers were settling for point shot after point shot. put the scoring chance differential (at 5v5) between the two clubs at 14-7, and if anything, that undersold Toronto’s dominance. Tyler Bozak’s goal was less the result of the “make one mistake and it goes in” issue that Philadelphia has dealt with all season, and more the floodgates finally bursting after a deluge of Maple Leafs chances.

There are tons of cheap narratives that could be built around the first and second periods. One could say that the Flyers got frustrated their strong first didn’t result in a lead and execution suffered as a result. Or that Toronto simply had to “weather the storm” early of a desperate road team. But in the end, it’s impossible to know what was going through the players’ heads in this one. All we can say is that they lost control of the pace of their game in the second period, lost the lead as a result, and never got it back in a game that they had to win.

#2: 5-on-5 scoring again goes cold

After exploding for six goals at 5-on-5 against the Buffalo Sabres on Tuesday night, the Flyers were back to their old ways versus the Maple Leafs just two days later. Despite blasting 28 shots on Frederik Andersen at 5v5 and generating 1.82 Expected Goals during the situation as well, they could not muster even one tally. Part of that was on Andersen, who was rock solid and occasionally brilliant throughout this game. His stop on Michael Del Zotto in the second period was truly one of those “timely saves” that commentators love to reference, since the game was tied at the time and Bozak scored to break it just seconds later.

But you can’t keep blaming “hot goalies” for the scoring woes. Recent games against Colorado and Buffalo prove that the Flyers can score, and to their credit, the offense in recent weeks can be better described as inconsistent rather than anemic (like it had been for the majority of 2017). Still, in the biggest games against the toughest opponents, the scoring is still coming up small. It’s partially due to the reliance on point shots — a trap they fell into again from the second period on — but that’s not the whole story, as Philadelphia was getting to the high-danger areas early. They were just missing the shooting accuracy that they had on Tuesday, and that Toronto had all night long, specifically on display with Bozak and Nylander’s tallies. Report & Highlights | Corsica.Hockey Game Recap Page | Recap | NaturalStatTrick Recap | | BSH Recap | Meltzer’s Musings

#3: Neuvirth decision proves misguided

The big shock leading into last night’s game was Dave Hakstol’s decision to start Michal Neuvirth against the Maple Leafs rather than Steve Mason. The latter, who has delivered a rare (for this season) run of strong play over the past two weeks, seemed the obvious choice, both due to his “hot streak” and because he’s simply been the team’s best statistical goalie all year long. Instead, Hakstol went with Neuvirth, who hadn’t started since February 25th and hadn’t delivered a single-game save percentage over 0.910 since the 11th. There’s a fine line between bold and foolhardy, and even prior to the game, this move appeared to be skirting the line.

While the decision was a shock, the result surely wasn’t. Neuvirth went out and played like the exact same goalie he’s been since mid-February — capable of making some very impressive saves, but also prone to leaky goals as well. All three goals against could have been stopped, though it’s fair to note that Nylander and Bozak’s tallies were especially well-placed. Still, it’s not as if they were unstoppable shots, and Marner’s goal in particular is one that Neuvirth simply needed to have. The Flyers’ goalie wasn’t the only reason the team lost, but he was a not insignifcant part.

My question is simple — what drove this odd decision to start Neuvirth? Hakstol referenced wanting to avoid overusing one goalie during the stretch run, but that’s never been his philosophy as an NHL coach, as he’s often ridden his “hot” goalies for weeks at a time without rest. Why change now, in maybe the highest-leverage game of the season against a rival for the final East playoff spot? Did Hakstol just have a hunch that Neuvirth was the right guy for this game? Did the career numbers versus Toronto (Neuvirth’s were very good, Mason’s quite bad) play a role, even though the bulk of those records came against far different Maple Leafs clubs? Or does Hakstol simply believe that Neuvirth — contrary to all of the numbers — truly is his best goalie, and he wanted the guy he viewed as his most reliable netminder in goal for such a huge game?

#4: Filppula line held their own versus Matthews

Toronto has earned a reputation for being one of the teams in the NHL more open to analytics, and while watching last night’s game, I had to wonder if the stats had played a role in driving the Maple Leafs’ preferred matchups. While the Schenn-Filppula-Voracek line has received tons of praise from the media over the past few days, they actually were dominated territorially in both the Capitals and Sabres contests. Rather than this being a happy accident as the prevailing narrative claimed, the unit by the numbers looked ripe to be exploited.

I believe the Leafs tried to do just that as the home team, as they chased the Auston Matthews-versus-Valtteri Filppula matchup all night long. Matthews spent over 11 minutes against the Filppula line, and at first glance, it seemed a major mismatch. But credit the Flyers’ trio — despite the tough assignment, they held up, posting an above-50% score-adjusted Corsi when head-to-head with the young phenom and his line. By the numbers, it seemed like the right move, and even as someone who does not root for Toronto, it was neat to watch them chase a matchup that made sense statistically. But this game is played by human beings, and sometimes those guys unexpectedly step up.

#5: Konecny dominant, moved up

For the third straight game, Travis Konecny started out with the fourth line, alongside Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Chris VandeVelde. Obviously, Konecny has far more talent than both, but I still had no problem with the decision. Considering Konecny’s early return from ankle and knee sprains, it seemed justifiable to limit the rookie’s minutes until he proved that his old burst had returned, and placing him on the fourth line was the easiest way to do so.

However, the caveat was that if Konecny did flash that old electricity, he would need to be moved up the lineup ASAP. To Hakstol’s credit, that’s pretty much what happened. From the opening shifts, it was clear that Konecny’s burst was back, and it was equally clear that Bellemare and VandeVelde had no chance of keeping up with him. So in the third period, it was heartening to see Konecny up with Sean Couturier and Matt Read, pushing Nick Cousins down to the fourth line. It didn’t pay off in a goal, but at least it proved that the “Konecny with the checkers” was truly a temporary strategy born of circumstance, and not something Hakstol was especially excited about trying.

#6: Weal stands out again

As I noted on Tuesday, Jordan Weal has been a revelation ever since being recalled last month, both by the eye test and the numbers. He grades out incredibly well by basically every metrics (standard, advanced and manually tracked) and he’s helped to turn the Giroux line back into a legitimate scoring and play-driving threat. Last night wasn’t Weal’s best game by the metrics (45.23% score-adjusted Corsi) but to my eyes, he remained one of Philadelphia’s best forwards.

The biggest improvement I’ve noticed in Weal’s game this time around versus his stint with the Flyers last year is his strength. No longer is he getting bullied in the corners, or being forced to play a perimeter game due to an inability to navigate the bodies in front. Instead, he’s using leverage and positioning to protect the puck down low, and exhibiting a fearlessness in front that allows him to create scoring chances. This loss may have delivered a crushing blow to the Flyers’ playoff hopes, but one of the few things that will be truly interesting for fans the rest of the way is to see if Weal can keep this up and fight his way into the future plans of the organization.

#7: Couturier follows up strong game with weak one

Aside from Weal, there’s a strong case to be made that Sean Couturier was the Flyers’ best player in Buffalo on Tuesday night. It was a classic “do all the little things right” game for Couturier, which resulted in the shutdown center being a key part of three even strength Flyers goals. But just when the Couturier fans had something to hit the doubters over the heads with, their favorite player followed up his stellar game with something of a dud. It wasn’t all bad — Philadelphia did carry play with Couturier on the ice (61.25% score-adjusted Corsi) — but that felt more the result of strong games from Matt Read, Nick Cousins and (later) Travis Konecny. Couturier was fighting the puck all game long, and it was his turnover that directly led to Tyler Bozak’s second period goal. Considering the quality of their performances, it felt to me like Weal and Couturier probably should have swapped Corsis in this one.

#8: PK fell apart

The Flyers’ penalty kill really hasn’t been a disaster in recent months, fan sentiment aside. Over the past 25 games, Philadelphia ranks fourth in the league in fewest shot attempts allowed per 60 minutes on the PK, and second in high-danger chances permitted. But on this night, you can throw those metrics out the window, because the penalty kill was a disaster. It allowed two goals, one to William Nylander and the other to Mitch Marner. The latter’s goal was most egregious, as both of the Flyers “top” penalty killing forwards (Bellemare and VandeVelde) got caught on the other side of Toronto’s formation, and were incapable of pressing down on Marner to take away time and space for his shot. Instead, he was able to just casually walk down low and pick his spot. For a penalty kill that has shown signs of statistical improvement this year, it was painful to see them fall apart at such a key moment of the season.

#9: You make your own luck, and the Flyers haven’t

I’ve noted on multiple occasions in these columns this season that the Flyers haven’t exactly been a “lucky” team in 2016-17. By the metrics, Philadelphia should have scored more goals this season considering the location and quality of their shots, and there was no reason to believe their goaltending would be this bad when the year began. However, it’s hard to have too much sympathy for them considering the way the season has played out.

The Flyers sit five points out of a playoff spot, a deficit that is probably too much to overcome. But it’s really just two wins and one loser point picked up at some point in the season. What I keep coming back to is this — is it really that ridiculous to think that the endless parade of questionable lineup decisions may have made up that difference? Neuvirth starting over Mason last night was just the newest in a long line of “why?” choices by Hakstol and the organization. Maybe if the team ices a fourth line capable of scoring a goal once in a while (and it sure looks like Jordan Weal can do so) for the full season, they pick up an extra win or two. Or if the weird scratchings of guys like Raffl, Konecny and yes, Shayne Gostisbehere, might have cost them a point here and there. It’s something I want to look into at the end of the season, especially if the Flyers miss out on the playoffs by just a few points.

#10: Credit Hakstol for sitting the fourth line late

With their playoff hopes essentially on the line and down just one goal, you half-expected the Bellemare line to be on the ice constantly. After all, it has been a major criticism of Hakstol from the coaching staff all season, that in close and late games, the fourth line somehow finds its way out for pivotal shifts. In this case, however, Hakstol had the unit right where it should have been — stapled to the bench. Even if you believe that Bellemare and VandeVelde provide value at 5v5 due to their forechecking ability and defensive acumen, that’s not much use to a team down 2-1 in the third period, and their usage reflected that. They received just two shifts at 5v5, which is reasonable considering the fact that the top three lines do need to reset on occasion, but that’s about the extent that you want to see a line with almost no scoring punch playing in that situation.