Morning Observations is a feature where we break down the previous night's game with an analytical eye.
Continuing their recent run of “one good game, one bad game,” the Flyers put together an all-around solid effort against the Minnesota Wild, who currently have the second-most points of any team in the Western Conference. The Wild have an interesting method to their success at 5v5 — while they generally just break even in raw shot differential (19th in the NHL in score-adjusted Corsi), their performance by weighted shot metrics like xG are in elite territory, as Minnesota entered the game second-best in the league at 55.27%. So for Philadelphia to hold off the Wild, they not only had to avoiding losing the territorial battle, but also prevent their opponent from dominating in shot quality, which has been an issue for the Flyers this year.
On this night, however, the Flyers were up to the task. They finished with a slight edge in Corsi at 52.7% score-adjusted, and improved their mark in each period. But most importantly, they didn’t allow Minnesota to rack up tons of scoring chances, either. Philadelphia actually led in regular 5v5 chances (21-16) and high-danger ones (10-9), which helped them to a 51.21% score-adjusted xG. They did it despite a disastrous start filled with turnovers and other miscues, but after Zach Parise’s early goal, things stabilized. To the Flyers’ credit, they never really let off the gas after that, and the numbers show it.
#2: Narratives thrown for a loop in this one
There were two big stories bandied about in the media following Tuesday’s embarrassing loss to the Jets — a perceived “lack of heart” on the part of the players, and the fact that Steve Mason seemed to call out the skaters’ effort in the game. I had issues with both stories. I’m of the belief that critiques regarding a team’s drive to succeed are usually misguided, as poor execution leading to frustration leading to even worse execution can look a lot like poor effort even when that’s not the explanation. Of course no one looks like they’re “trying hard” when nothing is clicking — the team can’t even string together enough plays in a row to get to the point where trying hard becomes a factor. That’s what I believe Mason was actually trying to get at after Tuesday’s game, as “effort” can just as easily mean “poor play” as it can “not working hard enough.”
But Mason’s comments made for an easy narrative in this one — how would his teammates respond to being “called out” by their goalie? And I’ll be honest, I cringed when Mason allowed that weak goal to start the game, partially because of how terrible it was, but partially because of the looming onslaught of takes that I could see in the distance: “Mason calls out team then blows game” as the headline, complete with passive-aggressive comments from at least one frustrated skater. Instead, Mason locked it down and didn’t make another mistake the rest of the game, while the team played a high-octane game that should have convinced any of the skeptics out there that this team hasn’t quit on the season. Score one for the “sometimes a mediocre team just has bad games” theory to explain Tuesday’s loss rather than effort-related reasons.
#3: Fascinating to watch Wild’s offensive zone tactics
Watching the Minnesota Wild while on the attack in this game was like seeing an inverted version of the Philadelphia Flyers. As I’ve noted on numerous occasions this season, the Flyers have far too often resorted passing the puck back up to the point in order to jump start their shot generation, depending upon deflections and rebounds to create chances. Rarely have the Flyers tried a “behind-the-net” strategy (perfected by the San Jose Sharks in recent years) to create their shots. The Wild, on the other hand, owned the area behind the Philadelphia net, especially early in the game, and created a number of high quality chances in the slot from passes that originated there.
As for the shots from the point, it was obvious that Minnesota considered them truely a last resort. On a few occasions, rather than try to force a shot through, the defenseman up high even voluntarily dumped pucks into the corners, expecting that a forward would win the ensuing race and hopefully open up a teammate in a more dangerous shooting position. It’s easy to see why Minnesota’s xG outperforms its Corsi if this is the strategy they use on a nightly basis; it’s also easy to see how they can lose the territorial battle a fair amount, since they are so focused on generating good shots. My guess is there’s probably a middle ground between the Flyers’ style this year and Minnesota’s, but I’d also wager that ideally you’d want your offense mirroring the Wild more than the Flyers over the long haul.
#4: Perfectly boring third period
As hockey fans, an exciting, back-and-forth third period in a one-goal game seems like the most attractive possible scenario. But that only holds for games where the fan has no rooting interest. In games where the fan truly cares about the outcome, all that really matters is the win, and the style of play can be as choppy and dull as humanly possible. That’s what the Flyers were able to pull off against the Wild, clogging up the neutral zone with ease and disrupting the Wild in the offensive zone just enough to prevent their high-quality (but high-difficulty) chances.
Despite holding a one-goal lead throughout the stanza, the Flyers actually won all of the shot battles at 5v5 in the third. They led in total attempts 13-12, and even generated more scoring chances (7-3) despite the fact that they were protecting a lead. Their chances rarely felt threatening, but that wasn’t the point — the goal was to essentially play keep-away from the potent Minnesota offense, and they did just that. Sure, with about six minutes to go, the Wild finally created some sustained pressure, but that’s to be expected with the clock running down. On the whole, the Flyers executed well late and exited Minnesota with a well-earned win.
#5: Matt Read was a standout
This season, Matt Read has been a shining example of the “good start” phenomenon. When a player gets off to a strong start to his season, fans seem far more willing to forgive later struggles unless they become especially glaring (Brandon Manning fell into this category until he lost the Flyers the game in Boston). That was the case for Read, who since the hot start that saw him score five goals in his first five games, has gone back to being pretty much the same guy from last year. Don’t get me wrong, that means he’s been scoring like a bottom-sixer but driving play like a first liner, which in my book is extremely useful production. But that was the case last year as well, and he was regularly eviscerated by fans for it. I have to believe that the strong start changed the perception surrounding Read, allowing for some of his haters to recognize the little things that he does right on a nightly basis.
As Read showed last night, he’s still capable of (once in a while) doing the big things right as well. Placed with Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek on the top line, Read was shockingly the best player on the unit, and was rewarded for his efforts with an unassisted goal that proved to be the game winner. But while the goal was a bit lucky, his overall play was anything but, as Read was all over the ice, creating zone entries, winning puck battles and racking up scoring chances. Even acknowledging that Read isn’t likely to repeat this performance, I don’t hate him with Giroux and Voracek — he basically brings the same support play-driving skillset to the table as Michael Raffl, who has been a good fit with the Flyers’ two stars in the past.
#6: Mason’s rebound control was awful but he worked through it
Based on Zach Parise’s early goal, it looked like it was going to be a very long night for Steve Mason. Unable to corral even a shot that originated from the defensive zone, Mason put the team in an early hole and certainly wasn’t inspiring much confidence. The Flyers quickly improved their all-around play, but the Wild still were able to generate occasional chances, which required Mason to step up and keep his team in the contest. Throughout the game, his positioning on shots was generally fine, as making the first save wasn’t difficult for him. But it was obvious (especially in the game’s first half) that he was fighting the puck, resulting in big rebounds. Early in the second period, it appeared that Mason had simply given up on using the glove and was just resorting to blocking all shots with his body, rebounds be damned. It worked in the short term, but it felt like eventually, one of those loose pucks in front would come back to haunt him.
Instead, Mason settled in. His stop on Jared Spurgeon in the waning seconds of a second period power play was the first “big” save of the game that he simply smothered, and from then on, it was like he suddenly remembered that he has a strong glove hand. Scoring chances may have been less frequent for Minnesota in the second half of the game, but when they did attack, a newly-confident Mason was there to slam the door shut. It was a nice in-game turnaround from a goalie whose hasn’t exactly been at his best this season.
#7: Couturier-Schenn duo works, but...
Sean Couturier and Brayden Schenn hooked up for yet another goal, this time courtesy of an accurate pass on the rush by Schenn and a slick finish from Couturier. It’s become a talking point among Flyers fans that these two tend to play their best hockey when paired together, and it’s easy to understand why that narrative has taken hold. Over the last three years, the Flyers have a stellar 62.5% Goals For percentage at 5v5 with that duo on the ice at the same time. And it does make sense in a way — Schenn can score but struggles to push play in the right direction, while Couturier is something of the opposite.
However, despite the intuitive aspects of the pairing and the fantastic GF%, this may just be a small sample size-induced fluke. Over that same period, their Corsi For percentage together has been just 48.8%, far less impressive. It’s certainly possible that the Flyers win the shot quality battle with that duo together, maybe as a result of strong chemistry in the offensive zone. But it could also merely be caused by unsustainable, sky-high percentages and not be a combo that the Flyers should set in stone. I’d keep them together for the remainder of this season, though, and see if the true answer can be teased out.
#8: Manning-Gudas pairing predictably bad
One big concern entering the game was the new-look second pairing of Brandon Manning and Radko Gudas. The duo of Michael Del Zotto and Gudas had been stellar by all public metrics since the start of March, but Hakstol chose to bench Del Zotto in order to bring a newly-healthy Manning back into the lineup. Unfortunately, the new pair was nothing special, finishing around breakeven in Corsi (50% for Manning, 45.71% for Gudas) and underwater in xG (37.71% and 38.18%). I’m not sure why it was so essential to bring Manning back, and especially why the best performing recent pair had to be broken up in order for it to happen. But the win doesn’t take away from the fact that Del Zotto is a better defenseman than Manning, and is almost certainly a better fit with Gudas considering his superior puck-moving ability.
#9: Konecny’s ice time limited
Another surprise out of the pregame lineup was the fact that Travis Konecny, he of the high-end skating ability and gamebreaking offensive talent, would be starting the game with Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Chris VandeVelde. Konecny had skated with them before, but that was just after returning from a lower-body injury. It was justifiable to limit the rookie’s minutes as he worked himself back into game shape. This decision, on the other hand, was a bit more confusing. It wasn’t a temporary move, either; Konecny only received 9:43 minutes of total ice time last night, the least among Flyers players. The 20-year old’s recent play sure has seemed fine to me, and I wonder what I’m missing here when it comes to this decision. It’s hard to say with a straight face that Konecny wouldn’t provide more help to the Flyers’ top nine than Dale Weise, but the latter received 15:34 in the game, all of which came at 5v5.
#10: Top pair with a “good stats, bad eye test” game
With the Del Zotto-Gudas pair in the garbage apparently, the duo of Ivan Provorov and Andrew MacDonald took center stage yet again as the obvious top pair on the depth chart. And if you just looked at the numbers, it would seem like they did pretty well. Both finished with score-adjusted Corsi ratings over 60 percent, and the pair was on the ice for one goal for and no goals against. Even their xG ratings were strong.
However, they sure seemed mistake-prone by the eye test. Provorov wasn’t quite his usual smooth self with the puck, and MacDonald had a couple obvious blunders, including a coverage fail in the first period that ended with him accidentally plowing Steve Mason over as the goalie tried to bail out his defensemen. I was surprised to see that the numbers looked upon their play so favorably, but they did spend a great deal of time backing up the Giroux line, which was clearly Philadelphia’s most effective trio. Maybe they did a little piggybacking off the forwards’ success.