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Flyers 4, Hurricanes 3: 10 things we learned from a well-earned victory

This game probably shouldn’t have required overtime, but credit the Flyers for fighting back to claim a deserved outcome.

Kate Frese Photography

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

#1: Flyers dominated, actually got rewarded

Too many times this season, the Philadelphia Flyers finished with a substantial edge in terms of shots on goal yet were unable to come away with a victory. Some games, the shots advantage was a bit misleading due to poor quality created and allowed, but most of the time, the Flyers simply failed to finish on their chances while allowing the other team to do just that.

After 52 minutes last night, it appeared that the Flyers would be going down that same road. Jordan Staal’s power play goal gave the Hurricanes a late 3-2 lead, bringing Carolina all the way back from a 2-0 midgame deficit. Philadelphia never lost control of the game from a territorial standpoint — they held the edge in 5v5 score-adjusted Corsi in each of the three periods — but an inability to build on their lead and a few well-executed plays from the Canes put the Flyers behind the proverbial eight-ball.

On this occasion, however, Philadelphia finally made their own luck. On their 42nd shot of the night, they evened the score up again, as Travis Konecny threw the puck out in front with less than a minute remaining and watched it redirect off Brett Pesce and into the net. It was undeniably a lucky goal, but it’s type of puck luck that a team receives after outshooting their opponent 44-22, dominating even strength territorial play to the tune of a 60.99% score-adjusted Corsi, and winning the shot quality battle to boot (65.12% xG). For once, the hockey gods smiled upon the Flyers rather than sadistically torturing them yet again.

#2: Key players all performed well

It’s no longer pessimistic to view the Flyers’ playoff chances as an impossibility — it simply shows that you’ve accepted reality. Essentially, the team would have to win something like 10 out of their last 11 games to have a real shot at snatching the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference. Micah Blake McCurdy, for example, projected the Flyers for a 1% chance at the postseason entering last night’s game. For all practical purposes, the playoff dream is over.

However, that doesn’t mean that fans should be rooting for every game to end in a loss in order to improve the team’s draft position. While it’s undeniable that a higher draft slot increases the likelihood of finding an impact player, it’s not as if the front office can (or should!) pretend that 15% of the season simply didn’t happen when they break down their squad in April and May. Player performances do matter over the season’s final month, even when the games are meaningless. This is when guys like Claude Giroux and Shayne Gostisbehere can prove disappointing production in 2016-17 was at least partially due to lingering surgery effects. It’s when rookies like Ivan Provorov and Travis Konecny can keep developing and use late-season gains as a springboard for Year Two. And it’s when players who haven’t quite lived up to offensive expectations (Sean Couturier and Dale Weise, to name a few) can prove that they still know how to make things happen on the scoresheet.

That’s why this game was so reassuring — basically all of the above players stood out. Couturier finished with three assists, Provorov a goal and two assists, Konecny scored the game-tying goal, and Giroux led the Flyers with a 73.94% score-adjusted Corsi. Even the much-maligned Dale Weise added a tally of his own. It not impossible to imagine the Flyers losing lots of games in the stretch run if those players are performing well, but it would take a perfect storm of bad luck and bad goaltending for the team to pull it off. That’s why, in my opinion, it’s better to root for positive outcomes even though the games are meaningless from a standings perspective. If Giroux finishes strong, it’s much easier to imagine he bounces back next season and isn’t going into a age-related tailspin., just like great closes from the rookies and vets bodes well for their future play, as well. That’s what fans should be rooting for, not a full-on tank. Report & Highlights | Corsica.Hockey Game Recap Page | Recap | NaturalStatTrick Recap | | BSH Recap | Meltzer’s Musings

#3: What is wrong with the PK?

After a brief respite against the Penguins last Wednesday, the Flyers’ penalty kill has went right back to looking like a sieve. Joseph Blandisi scored against them on Thursday, and last night it was Jordan Staal’s turn. Sure, Philadelphia eventually fought back and won the game, but that PK goal against very easily could have been the game-winner. The Flyers’ 5v5 play (Devils game aside) has generally been solid in recent weeks, but a total inability to prevent power play goals has been one of the main reasons why the team hasn’t been able to go on a real run.

Interestingly enough, the numbers imply that there isn’t a major issue. Philadelphia has been great at preventing shot attempts from opponents over the past few weeks and even months, ranking among the league’s best squads in those metrics. Yet the goals against keep on coming. Via the eye test, the biggest recurring problem seems to be the play of the defensemen, who are inconsistent at best in the crease and low slot area in terms of coverage. The numbers say that the Flyers haven’t done a poor job at preventing high-danger chances, but it sure seems like the the high-danger shots they do allow are especially difficult for their goalies to stop.

The shot prevention metrics imply that the PK’s structural issues are improving — they’ve totally bought into the adjusted 1-3 neutral zone forecheck that is new this year, and the forwards are now adept at the Czech Press in the defensive zone to pressure the outsides of the PP formation. In order to take the next step, the defense needs to be more sound in front, and the goaltenders also just need to stop more pucks. Staal’s goal last night seemed close-to-impossible to stop, but that hasn’t been the case with every goal allowed. I personally believe the penalty kill is on the right track, but it can be tough to accept that when they’ve been such a weak point recently.

#4: Couturier was flying

He’s had a couple poor games sprinkled in (against Toronto, for example), but Sean Couturier has mostly been playing fantastic hockey in March. Last night was no different, as Couturier kicked off the game with two high-quality scoring chances on his very first shift and didn’t stop there. He ended up with three assists, including a primary tally on Brayden Schenn’s game winner, during which Couturier showcased both his strength and (surprisingly) a high-end skating ability to blast around Teuvo Teravainen and create the initial shot that Schenn would clean up. After the three-point night, the team’s shutdown center now has nine points in nine games, boosting his full season production to 26 points in 55 games, a 0.472 PPG pace right in line with his 13/14 and 14/15 years.

Of course, this is still a dropoff from the 0.619 PPG pace that he delivered last year, a pace that had many in the fanbase excited that Couturier was truly taking the leap into high-end 2C territory. He’s finally looking the part now, but the naysayers will surely argue that production now doesn’t matter since the season is already over. That’s an unfair viewpoint for a number of reasons, but none more obvious than the fact that this Flyers team has not given up hope for a playoff run. In their eyes, this is the most important part of their season, and Couturier is coming up huge in the moment. Don’t marginalize the 24-year old’s play just because you don’t think the team should be thinking playoffs anymore.

#5: Provorov shows off what makes him special (again)

Also posting a three-point night was rookie Ivan Provorov, who opened the scoring with his sixth goal of the season and later added two assists before the game was finished, giving him 28 points on the season. The way he scored that goal was especially exciting, not just in terms of evaluating Provorov, but also as a preview of what the Flyers have to come from their pipeline. Taking a D-to-D pass from Andrew MacDonald, Provorov carried the puck deeper into the offensive zone, closer to prime scoring area, before sniping a top corner shot past Cam Ward. Right now, the Flyers have two defensemen (Provorov and Gostisbehere) who have both the physical ability and the instincts to make those point shots that Hakstol seems to love so much extra dangerous. But with dynamic blueliners like Travis Sanheim and Philippe Myers on their way, it won’t be too long before each pairing has at least one player who can shrink the attacking zone prior to shooting.

#6: Provorov-MacDonald pairing’s inevitable regression

When Ivan Provorov was first paired with Andrew MacDonald, the duo saw positive goal-based results occur on their watch. In fact, the Flyers outscored their opponents to a ridiculous degree (approaching 80% for stretches) with the pair on the ice, so it wasn’t exactly a major shock when Dave Hakstol fell in love with the duo and their apparent effectiveness. After all, Provorov passes everyone’s eye test and is apparently one of the most coachable rookies that any of the hockey lifers on the staff has ever met, while MacDonald appears to be a Hakstol favorite (in spite of his poor metrics). My concern was that the pairing’s poor play-driving metrics would eventually cause those strong goal differentials to crater. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened.

Last night, the duo was on the ice for both Hurricanes 5v5 goals, giving the pair a season-long Goals For percentage of 39.5%. In plus/minus terms, that’s a -9. What’s clear by looking at these results and the above chart is that the days of the Provorov-MacDonald pairing driving positive goal-based results are long gone. As it turns out, when two players are consistently outshot while on the ice over a long period of time, their goal differential starts to match it. Imagine that.

#7: Konecny’s ability to create his own shot

For the second time in a week’s span, Travis Konecny showcased the skating ability that sets him apart from the rest of the forwards on the Flyers’ roster during a scoring play. He was not rewarded with an assist, but it was his ability to separate from the defense while in the offensive zone that allowed for Dale Weise’s goal to even have a chance to occur. Philadelphia has some plus skaters up front — Voracek and Raffl come to mind immediately — but none have the ability to simply skate around the attacking third of the ice (as opposed to the rush, which allows a player to reach maximum speed before hitting an opposing defender) and leave opponents in the dust like Konecny. I’m not sure that he’ll ever be a true sniper in the sense that he’ll be able to pick the corners on NHL goalies, but he leads the Flyers with 15.03 shot attempts per 60 at 5v5 in his rookie year, and it’s easy to see how he racks up all that volume.

#8: Filppula line plays totally different style than rest of lines

From the start of Dave Hakstol’s tenure, the Philadelphia Flyers have been a heavy forechecking, dump-and-chase centric squad for the most part. There are some exceptions — Sean Couturier’s line usually does a decent job at hitting the offensive zone with speed, especially when he has at least one talented scoring winger with him — but there’s a reason why the Flyers under Hakstol have posted a team-wide Controlled Entry rate below 50% in both of his seasons. They play a north/south, “get the puck into the zone and then pressure the hell out of it” offensive style that isn’t always conducive to creative entry strategies. That’s why it’s been so odd to watch the line centered by Valtteri Filppula over the past few weeks, regardless of his wingers.

Unlike the other three lines, Filppula’s unit is very obviously playing a rush-centric game. Not only are they willing to rely on the counterattack at times, they also (led by Filppula) have engaged in far more east/west skating and passing plays in the neutral zone than the other units. I don’t view this as an inherently good or bad development — while it makes the “second” line more capable of creating high skill plays, it opens things up for the opponent as well. The controlled entry rates bear this out. In Filppula’s first five games, 58% of the Flyers’ entries came with possession of the puck, but 54% of their opponents’ entries (with Filppula on the ice) came with possession as well. Both rates are team-highs. At least from a raw play-driving standpoint, the formula hasn’t quite worked for Filppula yet (43.18% score-adjusted Corsi) but I also can’t deny that it’s been refreshing to witness a different approach than the Flyers’ norm.

#9: Flyers rebounded from last awful game versus Hurricanes

Philadelphia’s worst 5v5 game of the season came back on January 31st against these very same Carolina Hurricanes, as the Flyers were outshot 21-8, outscored 3-0 (en route to a 5-1 defeat) and posted a season-low 29.6% score-adjusted Corsi. Last night, the Flyers flipped the script, posting a strong 60.99% Corsi rate, and generally looked the better team throughout. I asked Hakstol after the game if the poor effort two months ago was a topic of conversation prior to this game, or if it was mostly ignored.

In response, the head coach did not deny that the game was discussed, but downplayed the “revenge” angle, stating, “We took some things out of that game that they did very well and we needed to counteract tonight. But for the most part, we didn’t spend too much time looking at that game, and more so what we have to do tonight. But you can always take some stuff out of that game where they played very well and gave us a lot of problems.” My guess is that while some of the players surely remembered the embarrassment of that game and wanted to redeem themselves, the more important vengeance factor was making up for the team’s awful game in New Jersey last Thursday.

#10: Time to make Del Zotto-Gudas the top pair

As the Provorov-MacDonald pairing (which again received the most minutes of any defense duo last night) continues to flounder from a results standpoint, the reunited top pair from last year is flourishing. Last night, both players finished with score-adjusted Corsi percentages over 70%, and helped the Flyers to win the scoring battle handily (7-1 in HD chances) despite receiving more defensive zone starts than offensive zone ones.

It shouldn’t be a huge shock that the duo is performing well — they were the de facto top pair for much of last year, of course. But what is truly interesting is that they’ve actually been better statistically this season than they even were in 2015/16. In 353 minutes this year, the duo has a 55.41% score-adjusted Corsi together, and an even-better 58.39% xG. Both are improvements over last season’s 54.01% Corsi and 52.97% xG. Now, I’m certainly not advocating for Michael Del Zotto to be re-signed — he’s been a defensive mess for the majority of the season. But it sure seems like this MDZ-Gudas pairing works, and if the coaching staff plans to keep using it through the remainder of the year, they might as well ride it as much as they can.