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Flyers 3, Senators 2: 10 things we learned from a fun but probably meaningless win

The Flyers are making tangible improvements to their play, but it’s almost certainly too late to save their season.

Kate Frese Photography

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

#1: Even territorial game, but Flyers with edge in shot quality

In a battle between one playoff lock and one team with almost no chance at making the dance, the Flyers and Senators played a back-and-forth, relatively even game at 5-on-5. In almost 49 minutes at 5v5, Philadelphia managed 48 shot attempts while Ottawa created 46 of their own. The eye test backed up the numbers — it never felt like one team had an obvious edge on the whole, and any extended spurts of territorial dominance by one club were quickly matched by the other squad. In games where the shot volume is fairly even (the Flyers exited with a 49.31% score-adjusted Corsi), it comes down to the quality of chances created to determine which club truly “outplayed” the other. And in this instance, it was Philadelphia who engineered the more dangerous shots.

They held a 2.37-1.48 edge in Expected Goals (61.56%) at 5v5 on the night, and led by a similar margin (3.69-2.45) when accounting for all situations. The Flyers simply were doing more with their puck possession than did the Sens, who generated a large portion of their shots above the faceoff circles in the Flyers’ end. If anything, the Flyers probably should have won this game in regulation, as they hit a few posts and missed on some golden opportunities — Travis Konecny would have easily beaten Craig Anderson on one play had he been just a little more patient in holding onto the puck before shooting. The skills competition may be a crapshoot, but this was a deserved outcome for the Flyers.

#2: Jordan Weal continues to be outstanding

I’m nearly at the point where I’m going to stop beating the “small sample size!” drum when it comes to Jordan Weal. He’s now played 18 games with the Flyers — over 20% of a full season — and his performance has been nothing short of outstanding. He’s far and away been the team’s more efficient scorer at 5v5, posting a first-line caliber Points/60 of 2.18. His 5v5 score-adjusted Corsi is 59.88%, with the Flyers performing +10.42 percentage points better with Weal on the ice over the 18-game span versus when he’s sat on the bench. Weal’s xG% is even better at 60.52%, and Corey Sznajder’s microstats describe a player who is creating lots of controlled offensive zone entries and helping to create shots at 5v5 on a comparable level with Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek. It’s hard to find a statistical hole in his game.

Last night was an especially strong game for Weal, even by the lofty standards of his previous 17 NHL contests. Weal led the team in score-adjusted Corsi at 63.79% even though both of his linemates (Valtteri Filppula and Wayne Simmonds) have struggled by the metric this season. He also scored the game-tying goal on a fantastic individual effort, baiting Anderson via an aggressive forecheck into passing the puck through the center of the ice, then knocking down that pass and depositing it into a wide-open net. He closed the deal by potting the only goal for either team in the shootout, clinching a Flyers victory.

It’s hard to imagine that Weal is truly this good. Out of all NHL players with at least 200 minutes at 5v5 this season, only Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand have score-adjusted Corsi rates better than that of Jordan Weal, and no one would honestly argue that he’s on their level. In addition, he obviously won’t hold a 20% shooting percentage at 5v5 forever. But I don’t believe a player “lucks” into 18 games with stats as impressive as the ones that Weal has posted. Even if Weal’s true talent level is 70 percent of what he’s shown this season, that would still make him an above-average middle-six forward at the NHL level. To me, it’s a no-brainer for the Flyers to lock him up to an extension prior to July 1st (as long as he’s willing), and essentially guarantee him a spot on the big club to start next season. Not since Ville Leino have the Flyers stumbled upon this kind of pleasant surprise at the forward position, and you’d hate to see him jet off to greener pastures before seeing if he can replicate it over a full year.

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#3: Flyers cutting down on low-to-high play

Over the course of the season, the Flyers have been (rightfully!) criticized for their shot selection in the offensive zone. Dave Hakstol has bristled at times when asked if the team has settled for point shots too often, but the charts don’t lie — they’ve taken far more shots than the average team from up top and far less in close. Corey’s data also backs up the assertion that a higher-than-ideal percentage of Philadelphia’s shots at 5v5 this year have originated from low-to-high passes, meaning that the primary pass assist came from low in the zone and the ensuing shot was generated by a defenseman blasting away at the point.

To the Flyers’ credit, however, it’s clear that over the past few months, they’ve made a conscious effort to cut down upon resorting to the point shot. Last night was a perfect example — on numerous occasions, a defenseman with the puck up top would dump it back down low rather than immediately blasting away, as he would have likely done in December. At times last night, the Flyers looked unrecognizable in the offensive zone, as much of their pressure was coming from the half boards and from behind the net.

The numbers back this up. In March, the Flyers have averaged 2.55 Expected Goals per 60 minutes at 5v5, which ranks 12th in the league over that span. Compare that to their 2.30 xG and 24th league ranking over the full season, and it’s obvious that the Flyers have done a better job recently in creating dangerous shots. If you’re looking for a reason to stay on board with Dave Hakstol despite this disappointing season, here’s one — it seems obvious that he and his coaching staff correctly identified a problem and fixed it, rather than simply burying their heads in the sand. You can argue that it should have been fixed sooner (and that might have saved the season), but the changes do show a coach willing to adapt his tactics.

#4: Gostisbehere looks completely back

Jordan Weal had a great game, but to my eyes, the most effective player on the ice for both teams was Shayne Gostisbehere. I was something of a skeptic of the “the hip surgery caused his sophomore slump!” theory, partially because his play-driving numbers were still great even in the early season, and partially because it just seemed like a convenient excuse for fans rather than accepting the fact that scoring regression was inevitable after a rookie season where every bounce seemed to go his way, but it’s obvious to me now that the recovery process slowed him at least a bit. It’s most noticeable in Ghost’s lateral skating ability and acceleration. At least five times last night, Gostisbehere used his quick stop/start burst at the point to elude an oncoming checker and create space for a pass, shot, or to move even further down into the offensive zone.

But it wasn’t just Ghost’s offense that was impressive. He’s back to cutting off passes in the neutral zone, and initiating transition rushes with creative feeds to his teammates. It’s no surprise that his play-driving metrics on the night (57.14% score-adjusted Corsi, 75.81% xG) were so stellar. Some of the improvement is probably simple confidence — he’s not looking over his shoulder anymore worried he’s going to be benched, and every single mistake of his isn’t ending up in the back of the net like it was during the season’s first half. But physical ability breeds confidence, and I’m sure it’s reassuring to Gostisbehere knowing that he can pull off all of the moves in his arsenal yet again.

#5: Power play shows signs of life

After an especially awful recent stretch, the once-potent Flyers power play finally showed some signs of regaining its former glory. After two failed early opportunities, the top unit finally cashed in late in the first period as Brayden Schenn deflected a Gostisbehere bomb past Craig Anderson to tie the game. While the Flyers failed to score on their final PP chance late in the second period, the shot and chance generation totals were fine overall, especially for the top unit, which averaged 150 shot attempts per 60 and 10 Expected Goals per 60 during their power play minutes.

The Flyers have been dealing with some bad luck recently on the PP. In March, they would be “expected” to score 10.62 goals considering the number and quality of their chances, but they’ve only been able to pot four of them. Still, the team’s shot generation metrics on the PP are down in March (89.50 CF60 versus 101.69 over the full season), so there has been a legitimate regression in terms of process. My opinion is that it all goes back to their offensive zone entries — once they’re set up, the top unit remains lethal, but their true periods of struggle come when they can’t even get into the zone in the first place. Last night, their entries were crisp and clean, and they were rewarded with a goal.

#6: Michael Del Zotto remains an enigma

By the advanced metrics, Michael Del Zotto was one of the Flyers’ most effective defensemen last night. He posted a strong 57.79% score-adjusted Corsi and an even-better 72.69% xG, despite heavy minutes against the severely underrated Mike Hoffman. On a number of occasions, he utilized his physical strength combined with plus puck skills to engineer high-difficulty zone exits, and more than held his own in the corners. But even in a game where everything seemed to be clicking for Del Zotto, he found a way to (nearly) become the goat. On Cody Ceci’s third period goal that gave the Senators a late lead, Del Zotto did this.

How can you praise a guy for a strong game when he essentially slide tackled his own teammate on what could have been the game-winning goal? Last year, Del Zotto’s play was consistent and sound, but this year, we’re all seeing why so many good coaches have wanted little to do with the talented blueliner. For all of his skills, they simply can’t depend upon Del Zotto to avoid back-breaking mistakes at key moments.

#7: Konecny bumped up in the third

After two periods primarily spent alongside Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Chris VandeVelde, Travis Konecny was finally freed last night. Okay, it wasn’t on every shift, and it was likely driven by Konecny’s creation of a dangerous scoring chance with Couturier and Weise during a shift directly following a Flyers power play (so Schenn was catching his breath). But regardless of the reason, it was great to watch Konecny skate alongside Giroux and Voracek for a few shifts rather than being tied to the PK specialists. It will be interesting to see if Hakstol liked what he saw enough to keep Konecny up with the big guns for Thursday’s game.

#8: Read top line experiment should probably end

I’ve been more open to the “Matt Read with Giroux and Voracek” experiment than most. While Read lacks the bulk strength of Michael Raffl, he brings the same play-driving ability as the Austrian. Giroux and Voracek really should provide enough offensive zone firepower to free up Read to simply “do the little things” rather than carry the load in terms of scoring, which is something that he can’t fairly be expected to do at this stage of his NHL career.

However, Read had an especially underwhelming game last night. The top line was by far the team’s worst in terms of play-driving, and Read himself finished with a team-low 29.87% score-adjusted Corsi. By the third period, Konecny was taking regular shifts with the top line, and looking very effective in doing so. It’s the end of the season, so it’s not like this decision is going to move the needle much either way, but flip-flopping Read and Konecny seems like a logical move from a “trying to win games” standpoint, and last night just provided additional evidence.

#9: Still severely unimpressed with Ottawa

I noted this on BSH Radio a few weeks back, but the Ottawa Senators strike me as this year’s “wait, how are they in the playoffs again?” team. They have high-end talent, to be sure — Mike Hoffman and Mark Stone are severely underrated, and Erik Karlsson is the best hockey player who plays the defenseman position in the NHL today. Derick Brassard is fine, Kyle Turris and Zack Smith are good role players, but past them, I’m hard-pressed to find many standout skaters. Half of their defense (Dion Phaneuf, Cody Ceci, Mark Borowiecki) is outright bad, and Chris Kelly is the Chris VandeVelde of their team (how has he started every game?).

Essentially, the Sens (to me) are basically the Flyers — good high-end players, half of an awful defense, inexplicable love for barely-NHL talent — but with better goaltending this year. In a weak Atlantic Division, I guess that’s enough to be a playoff lock. However, I doubt it’s a formula that gets them out of the first round.

#10: Flyers look like a playoff-caliber team now, but it’s too late

The Philadelphia Flyers club that has shown up for the past few weeks worth of games would not seem out of place in the postseason. The star players (Giroux and Voracek) are producing points, the second tier is stepping up (Couturier, Schenn, Gostisbehere), and they’re even getting production from unlikely sources (Weal, Weise). The underlying numbers are positive as well — since March 1st, Philadelphia has a 51.48% score-adjusted Corsi and a 55.05% xG at 5v5, ranking 11th and 3rd respectively in both categories. When looking at all situations, they’re even better in the latter category at 58.20%, behind only the Minnesota Wild.

The process finally appears sound. The Flyers are outshooting their opponents without sacrificing quality and one of their goaltenders has even gotten hot (Mason has a 0.919 save percentage in March). I believe that this team, as they are playing right now, would be a tough out in the postseason. Unfortunately, the Flyers blew their chance at the playoffs due to poor results in January and February, and a few bad periods versus Toronto and Boston a few weeks ago. The team’s turnaround might bode well for next year, but that’s not much consolation to the frustrated fanbase, which understandably expected much more out of this club in 2016-17.

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