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Flyers 4, Penguins 0: 10 things we learned from an oasis in this Sahara Desert of a season

Following a three-game losing streak that likely put the final nail in the Flyers’ playoff hopes, they rebounded with a strong all-around performance versus Pittsburgh.

Kate Frese Photography

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

#1: Flyers hung in there and eventually wore down Pittsburgh

The Penguins didn’t exactly enter Philadelphia under ideal circumstances. After a four-game west coast trek, Pittsburgh flew into the City of Brotherly Love on Wednesday morning to close out the trip. Considering the travel arrangements, it was fair to expect that the Pens might not bring their ‘A’ game, or at the very least, might wear down as the game progressed. The latter proved to be an accurate description of the contest.

Pittsburgh came out strong early, particularly on the forecheck in the offensive zone, stymieing Philadelphia breakout attempts. Despite the territorial edge, however, the Flyers were able to mostly keep the Penguins from generating especially dangerous shots, and then slowly played their way into the game over the remainder of the first period. Things only got better from there. In fact, the Flyers trended up in terms of 5v5 territorial play with each subsequent period, going 42.85%/50.83%/54.68% in score-adjusted Corsi percentage in each of the stanzas. More zone time meant more chances to score, and the result was three even strength goals.

How much of that was Pittsburgh tiring out, and how much was Philadelphia legitimately playing a strong game? I’m sure both were contributing factors, as was a stabilizing performance in net from Steve Mason. My guess is that a full-rested Pittsburgh team wouldn’t have struggled as much to open up the game in the third, but the Flyers’ ability to turn the game in the second seemed more due to strong execution on their part.

#2: Flyers actually haven’t been bad against PIT this year

Philadelphia entered this game with an 0-2-0 record versus the rival Penguins this season, but they hadn’t been blown out in either of the losses. In 2015-16, the Flyers simply couldn’t keep up with the Mike Sullivan-coached Pens, but in both games in 2016-17, they skated right with Pittsburgh. In fact, Philadelphia outshot Pittsburgh 80-54 in the two defeats, and had a combined 55.45% score-adjusted Corsi at 5v5. The results didn’t come, but there had to have been a feeling in the Flyers’ locker room that they were close to breaking through against their cross-state rivals.

That’s exactly what happened this time around. Yet again, they won the shots battle (28-23) and also led in overall attempts in all situations. The big improvement they made, however, was in quality chance creation and prevention. In those first two contests, the Flyers lost the high-danger chance battle at 5v5 by 18-13 and 7-5 margins, squandering much of their raw shots advantage in the process. Last night, they were far more sound defensively, leading in 5v5 HD chance margin 10-8 and actually outperforming their 5v5 Corsi (47.37%) in terms of Expected Goals (53.44%). Philadelphia may not have dominated territorially (though they certainly held their own), but the edge in quality helped push them to that long-awaited win over Pittsburgh.

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#3: Penalty kill was a standout

After allowing seven goals in their previous 15 opportunities entering last night’s game versus the Pens, the Flyers’ penalty kill rightfully was under fire. The team’s inability to keep the puck out of their net was a major contributing factor to all three losses on their recent skid, particularly the defeat in Toronto and Monday’s disappointment against Columbus. Head coach Dave Hakstol remained adamant, however, that there was little fundamentally wrong with the PK.

Score one for Hakstol in this one. Faced with two power play opportunities, the Flyers smothered Pittsburgh on both, allowing just one shot attempt while creating three of their own. The Penguins could barely even get set up in their own zone, as they were continually frustrated by Philadelphia’s usual 1-3 neutral zone forecheck. Despite their poor goal-based results in recent games, the fact that the Flyers were capable of this time of performance shouldn’t have been a major shocker. As I noted yesterday, Philadelphia has iced the league’s best shot and chance prevention PK over the past ten games, and were being let down primarily by the goaltending. Last night, the Flyers just cut the goalies out of the equation entirely by not allowing even one shot on goal.

#4: Flyers won the battle of the centers

There are also lots of unique little battles from game-to-game, but the vast majority of Flyers-Penguins contests in the recent past have come down to a simple question — can Philadelphia successfully match up with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin? Generally, the Flyers have attempted to combat the superstars by fighting fire with fire, tasking their top two pivots of Claude Giroux and Sean Couturier with holding their own against Crosby and Malkin. When it works (see: 2012 playoffs), the Flyers have usually gotten the better of the games. But when Crosby and Malkin are allowed to roam free, the contests unsurprisingly can get ugly.

Last night saw the Flyers come out on top. Couturier received the bulk of his minutes facing Malkin (9:10 out of 14:34 at 5v5) and absolutely took him to the cleaners, posting a 53.46% score-adjusted Corsi and most impressive, winning the high-danger scoring chance battle against #71 by a 5-0 margin. Giroux’s minutes were a little more spread out, but he still faced Crosby for 6:46 of his 14:07 of 5v5 ice time, and the Flyers captain also defeated his counterpart, leading in score-adjusted Corsi (52.58%) and in scoring chances. When Giroux and Couturier can outplay Crosby and Malkin, generally Philadelphia is going to beat their rival, and that’s exactly what happened last night.

#5: PP1 structure showed flashes of success

After a brief hiatus, the Flyers returned to the “new look” PP1 that they tested out a few weeks back. Jakub Voracek slid down to the second unit, while Ivan Provorov was placed with Giroux, Wayne Simmonds, Brayden Schenn and Shayne Gostisbehere. This 3F/2D structure has Provorov up top in Ghost’s usual spot, with Gostisbehere himself replacing Voracek on the right side of the 1-3-1 formation. While the unit at times struggled on zone entries and getting set up, they did produce a huge goal in the second period as Simmonds pounced on a Gostisbehere rebound and pushed it past Matt Murray to give his team a 2-0 lead.

There are positives and negatives to this structure. The biggest gain is that Gostisbehere’s dangerous shot is more likely to make it through to the net coming from the faceoff circle rather than up at the point. Ghost has legitimately had trouble getting his shot on net during power plays this year, and the blistering, accurate slapper has been a dynamic that the team has missed. The negative is that “4 forward” PP units seem to find it measurably easier to generate zone entries than do the 3F/2D variety. The real question here is whether you consider Gostisbehere’s skillset on the PP to be equivalent to that of a high-end NHL forward. If so, maybe this 3F/2D power play unit is basically a four-forward unit in disguise, since Gostisbehere doesn’t result in any major dropoff in zone entry prowess while making that right side far more dangerous from a shooting standpoint.

#6: Sean Couturier back to looking good again

Last week against the Buffalo Sabres, Sean Couturier had maybe his strongest game of the season, factoring into three Flyers goals and looking dangerous on basically every single shift. Unfortunately, he then followed it up with an underwhelming performance versus Toronto that included a bad turnover immediately resulted in a goal against. Couturier did drive play in that game (and in the two games following), but anyone who was hoping for the dominant player from the Buffalo game to reappear during that key stretch of the playoff push was likely disappointed.

The guy from the Sabres game was back last night. Not only did Couturier score a goal and add an assist, he racked up eight shots on goal, was second on the Flyers in score-adjusted Corsi percentage (63.41%) and outplayed Evgeni Malkin all game. The critics will surely find plays to nitpick — specifically two instances in the third period when he passed up good shooting opportunity — but anyone fairly evaluating Couturier’s performance last night could come away with just one conclusion: the “checking” center was far more than just that versus the Pens.

#7: Steve Mason delivers all-around solid game

It’s not often that a goalie shuts out the highest-scoring team in the league, and his performance that night didn’t feel like the no-brainer #1 star of the game. But while Steve Mason was undeniably very effective against the Penguins last night, it certainly didn’t feel like he “stole” the win for his team. Mason faced just 23 shots and 1.94 expected goals from the normally powerhouse Penguins. There wasn’t much in the way of highlight reel saves — just good old fashioned expert positioning and a total absence of weak goals, which has obviously plagued the Flyers all year. It feels unfair to Mason to simply say that he didn’t let his team down, but not only does it seem like the most accurate way to describe his game, the value of a game like that shouldn’t be understated, especially considering the goaltending that Philadelphia has received in so many games this year.

#8: Bellemare usage works, still not a great plan

It’s no secret that Dave Hakstol is an admirer of Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and what he brings to the table. If his usage of the French forward as a temporary shutdown center earlier this year versus Connor McDavid didn’t convince you, the recent contract extension given to him by the organization should have sufficed. That knowledge aside, it was still a bit of a shock to see Bellemare skating alongside Claude Giroux and Wayne Simmonds on the top line in the third period of a 2-0 game, trying to help preserve the lead over the Flyers’ biggest rival. He received 5:21 minutes of 5v5 ice time in the final stanza, double his allotment over the first two periods.

The move wasn’t totally without merit, and it actually ended up working out for the team. Bellemare was skating well all game long, and led the team in score-adjusted Corsi on the night at 73.66%. In addition, he even earned a primary assist on Giroux’s late goal, even if that was mostly due to Justin Schultz momentarily rediscovering his Edmonton era self and passing the puck right to Bellemare on a breakout. The problem is that Bellemare lacks anything remotely resembling a scorer’s touch, which he also showed last night in missing an open net on a two-on-one. There’s a reason why no NHL forward over the past three seasons at 5v5 (with at least 2000 minutes) has a worse Points/60 mark than Bellemare. Assist aside, the problem with using Bellemare in a “move up the lineup, shutdown role” in close games is that it measurably decreases the possibility that the Flyers will extend their lead, rather than merely holding it. That puts extra pressure on the goalie to be perfect and the other lines to provide some semblance of dangerous transition offense to try and put the game out of reach.

#9: Cousins draws two more penalties

Nick Cousins drew back into the lineup last night due to a last-minute lower-body injury suffered by Jordan Weal. But rather than put Cousins back on line four, Hakstol chose to give him a shot with Giroux and Simmonds on the “top” line. Truthfully, he wasn’t that impressive (36.83% score-adjusted Corsi), with the exception of two legitimate contributions. Cousins drew two of Pittsburgh’s four penalties, and it could be argued on both that he sold them. The boarding call on Ian Cole looked especially egregious to me, as it seemed like fairly minimal contact with Cousins’ back that resulted in the forward launching himself into the boards to ensure a penalty call.

The fact of the matter is, Cousins’ tactics seem to work. He now has 15 penalties drawn at 5v5 this season, which ties him for second on the Flyers with Travis Konecny, and those extra PPs are surely valuable. My only question is whether he’ll earn a reputation among officials in the near future. Cousins definitely seems to fall down easily in the event of a borderline call, and eventually, I suspect officials will take notice. Flyers fans often complain that Claude Giroux doesn’t receive “superstar treatment” from officials in terms of drawing penalties, but I’ve heard from multiple people around the game that it’s partially due to Giroux gaining a reputation for exaggerating contact as a young player. Cousins obviously will never have Giroux’s high profile, but I’m still curious if he can sustain his penalty drawing over the long term and avoid the rep.

#10: Dale Weise finally gets some points

Just as Cousins checked back into the lineup versus Pittsburgh, so did Dale Weise, who essentially replaced Roman Lyubimov. But Weise also avoided fourth line duty (Matt Read was dropped down with Bellemare and VandeVelde), and instead spent the bulk of his time with Sean Couturier and Brayden Schenn. Given the responsibility of heavy minutes against Malkin, Weise stepped up and had the kind of game that Ron Hextall surely envisioned would come on a semi-regular basis when he signed Weise to that four-year contract in the offseason.

He won puck battles, crashed the net, and even had a two-point night, primarily due to some fortunate bounces. But a player has to be in the right spot in order to get those bounces, and too often this year, Dale Weise has been far from the play in the offensive zone. Last night was a big night for him, and if there’s one bottom-sixer that could really use a decent finish to the season just to prove that he hasn’t totally fallen off a cliff from a talent and production standpoint, it’s Weise. After all, the team still has to pay him for three more years, regardless.

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