Morning Observations is a feature where we break down the previous night's game with an analytical eye.
#1: Started strong, faltered, then recovered
Especially over the past two months, the Flyers have often not looked the part of a resilient team. It’s not that they’ve been bad all of the time — in fact, for long stretches of play in most of their losses, Philadelphia has won the territorial battle and made life difficult for their opponents. But all too often, the script seemed predestined — Flyers would fail to score despite all that pressure, give up a quick goal due to a breakdown of some sort, and then fall apart and allow the other team to take control of the pace of play. That’s exactly what happened last night against the Panthers, except in this game, Philadelphia refused to let the narrative end there.
They dominated the first period, winning the 5v5 shot attempts battle 17-7 and earning three power play opportunities, including an extended 5-on-3. But unsurprisingly, they could not score even one goal despite all of that pressure. They came out just as strong in the early portion of the second period, but started to sag a bit around the eight-minute mark. After just three minutes of that, Florida capitalized on the Flyers’ inability to sustain their dominance, and the rest of the period was all Panthers. Considering the fact that the players surely knew they had squandered a major opportunity by not scoring despite generating loads of shots and chances early, it would have been very easy for them to continue their sloppy play into the third period and not come with much of a push.
Instead, they played a classic “down by 1 goal” period, spending most of the session in the Florida end before tying things up midway through the period. They didn’t even let up after evening the score, outshooting Florida in terms of attempts 18-8 over the final nine minutes of regulation. This was something of a gut check game for the Flyers, battling against one of their rivals for that final wild card spot in the East, and to their credit, they came through when it mattered the most.
#2: Team still can’t score
The Flyers may have earned a much-needed two points last night, but the team’s continued inability to put the puck in the net reared its ugly head yet again. Philadelphia racked up 89 shot attempts, 49 shots on goal, and 4.69 Expected Goals on the night, yet could push just one past the Florida goalie tandem of Roberto Luongo (who left with an injury after one period) and James Reimer. It’s easy to scream “shot quality!” but 4.69 xG, 43 regular scoring chances and 20 high-danger ones tells a different tale, as does the shot chart.
The Flyers pretty much shot from everywhere, but the highest concentration is exactly where a coach wants it to be — right in front of the net. But even with shot volume and shot quality, Philadelphia still could score just once. There’s surely a talent element to this, as the team lacks true snipers, but to me, this is mostly just the season from hell. Yes, the Flyers can sometimes overuse low-to-high shooting strategies in the offensive zone that depress their scoring rates, but even on nights when they do generate tons of chances (like this one), the floodgates hold strong. Because I refuse to believe that a forward corps filled with players holding career shooting percentages over 10% simply forgot how to put the puck in the net overnight, I have to conclude that this is just a bizarre, fluky season for the team as a whole. It may not be the most satisfying answer, but sometimes the right answers aren’t.
#3: Filppula a strong debut
The goal of the Mark Streit-for-Valtteri Filppula trade was simple — acquire a useful 3C without expending any assets, aside from an expansion draft protection slot and $5 million in cap space next year. The Flyers tried numerous options in the 3C role this season, including Brayden Schenn and Nick Cousins, but never seemed fully satisfied with either. Since their best center prospects (German Rubtsov and Mikhail Vorobyov) are at least two years away, and the market for centers in free agency was looking extremely thin, Hextall apparently decided that Filppula was worth the risk.
But the move does come with risk, namely that Filppula will simply not be a useful third line center next season. Yes, his 5v5 scoring rates have jumped back into borderline first liner territory in 2016-17, but Filppula hasn’t driven play relative to his teammates since 2013-14, even if he’s generally stayed above 50% in terms of raw differential. You generally don’t want a top-nine center getting buried, but it remained legitimately possible that Filppula was grading out poorly simply because the top-end of Tampa Bay’s roster made him look unimpressive by comparison. On a team with less forward depth, maybe Filppula wouldn’t be a liability at all, yet would still be able to contribute solid scoring rates.
At least last night, that’s exactly what happened. Not only did Filppula score the game-tying goal simply by crashing the net and making himself a target for the puck (something Flyers players have struggled to do this year), he also was not a liability in terms of territorial play, finishing with a solid 56.53% score-adjusted Corsi, almost dead-even (-0.07%) relative to his teammates. Filppula’s plus puck-carrying ability was apparent, as he generated multiple controlled offensive zone entries at 5v5, sometimes doing so more than once on the same shift. His passing also stood out as effective in all three zones. There have been many examples of eventual disappointments getting off to good starts in Flyers uniforms (Ilya Bryzgalov and Vincent Lecavalier come to mind) so it’s best to hold to a wait-and-see approach when it comes to Filppula. But it was certainly an auspicious beginning.
#4: Mason shakes off situation, excels
Following the Flyers’ decision to lock up Michal Neuvirth to a two-year extension, the status of Steve Mason with the organization seems fairly straightforward. With Anthony Stolarz banging down the door for an NHL backup spot, and Neuvirth signed to a $2.5 mil AAV that seems quite expensive for a traditional backup role, the future in net for Philadelphia appears to hold no room for Mason, since his contract expires at the end of the season. However, that lame-duck status did not prevent Dave Hakstol from going back to Mason last night, fresh off a shutout of the Colorado Avalanche on Tuesday. And for the second straight game, Mason delivered, stopping 39 of 40 shots and making two big saves in the shootout to earn the victory.
What seems clear is that even though the front office has ostensibly committed to Neuvirth over Mason for the future, that doesn’t mean that Mason won’t have a chance to take the starting job and run with it during the stretch run, so long as his play warrants the usage. Mason may not be having a strong year at all (though it’s still been better than Neuvirth’s season!), but don’t forget that he delivered three straight years of better than 0.917 goaltending as a starter for the Flyers prior to the 2016-17 debacle. He’s fully capable of turning things around. And if he does, that will make for an interesting situation moving into the offseason, especially if Mason plays lights-out hockey the rest of the way.
#5: Constant offensive zone motion by forwards
One possible reason for the Flyers’ goal-scoring struggles this season is that they simply haven’t been creative enough in the offensive zone. The regular formula has been obvious — win a puck battle down low, get it back to the point, and then blast away with traffic in front, hoping for a deflection or rebound opportunity. Some of that is on the coaching staff, to be sure, but let’s not absolve the players, either. Low-to-high is an easy fallback strategy for them, as the point men are usually open for passes. Creative feeds are more difficult and hold an increased likelihood of turnovers, but also create far better chances when executed properly. All too often, the forwards have taken the safe route when on the attack, rather than the best one.
That’s didn’t happen last night, however. Both on rushes and in the cycle game, the Flyers players were in constant motion, criss-crossing with and without the puck in an attempt to confuse Florida defensemen and get open for passes. The Filppula goal was a perfect example — on a controlled entry, Jakub Voracek and Brayden Schenn essentially swapped spots in the high slot on a passing play, which served to open up the middle lane for Filppula and give extra space for Schenn to make a pass to a high-danger area. The Flyers may not be the Penguins in terms of raw skill, but they have more than enough talent to make plays like this on a regular basis. Last night, at least, they did so consistently.
#6: Giroux’s strong game at 5v5 overshadowed by awful turnover
Even when things go well for Claude Giroux this season, he seems to find a way to frustrate fans. Last night, Giroux’s and his wingers (Wayne Simmonds and Jordan Weal) were absolutely dominant at 5v5. In terms of raw shot attempts generated/prevented, the Flyers doubled up the Panthers with the captain on the ice, racking up 22 attempts and allowing just 11 in over 13 minutes of ice time. In addition, Giroux helped his team to create five high-danger opportunities while permitting not a single one to the opposition. The result was a team-leading score-adjusted Corsi (63.95%) and xG (85.93%) from Giroux.
However, all of that strong play was overshadowed by a horrific play in the second period that led to Florida’s only goal. Rather than carry the puck up ice, Giroux attempted a half-hearted pass to Brayden Schenn that was both off-target and lacking any real velocity. To compound his error, Giroux then was walked by Aaron Ekblad as he tried to prevent the ensuing shorthanded rush. To the captain’s credit, he took full blame for the goal, stating, “I’m pissed off and I have to be better and the team played a great 55 minute game and personally I gave Florida a point so it’s frustrating.” You can’t absolve him entirely for the play (it was, objectively speaking, an awful showing) but you also can’t ignore that he exerted his authority in basically every other shift of the game.
#7: Power play great early, liability later
A brief look at the shot generation metrics for the top unit would lead one to believe that they had another “good process, bad result” game. After all, each member of PP1 finished with a Corsi For per 60 over 180 (anything over 100 is very good), so on the whole, they definitely had their chances to score. However, the vast majority of those shots occurred on the very first power play of the game, which saw Philadelphia blast away at Roberto Luongo with eight shot attempts during a shift in which they kept the puck in the offensive zone for over a minute.
Their other PPs were less than inspiring, though, and that was including 1:05 of a 5-on-3 that mustered two unblocked shots and no goals. Things got even worse in the second, as Giroux’s consecutive mistakes ended up directly resulting in an Ekblad tally. To be sure, Florida’s penalty kill unit is very good (2nd in the NHL in success rate, 1st in shot suppression), primarily due to how aggressively they challenge puck carriers. Still, the Flyers are an elite shot creation unit, so you would have liked to have seen them build off that strong early PP. Instead, they faded.
#8: Couturier line matched heavily against Barkov
With Michael Raffl now of the lineup for the foreseeable future and Dale Weise scratched to make way for Roman Lyubimov, Sean Couturier lost both of his linemates from the previous game in one fell swoop. Given the opportunity to provide Couturier with scoring wingers, however, Hakstol instead decided to try and replicate the spirit of the past line by placing his young center with Matt Read (a play-driver) and Nick Cousins (a strong transition player). That’s not much scoring help for Couturier, but it is a trio that can be reasonably expected to push play in the right direction.
A play-driving line that doesn't bring much offense to the table is probably best suited for shutdown duty, and that’s exactly how Dave Hakstol used the Couturier line last night, giving them heavy minutes against Aleksander Barkov, Jaromir Jagr and Jonathan Huberdeau. In 10:25 minutes at 5v5 versus Barkov, Couturier held a strong 55.54% score-adjusted Corsi, and helped to prevent Barkov’s unit from generating even one high-danger chance. His line also thrived against Vincent Trocheck and his mates, a matchup that took up the remainder of Couturier’s ice time. In fact, Couturier led all Flyers centers in 5v5 ice time, a testament to the faith that Hakstol placed in his unit last night.
#9: Strong start for Ghost, some later struggles
For the first 25 minutes of the game, Shayne Gostisbehere was maybe the most dynamic Flyers player on the ice. Particularly in the offensive zone, Ghost was a handful for the Panthers, using his mobility to open up shooting lanes and carry the puck down to the faceoff circles in order to create more dangerous shots than simple point blasts. In fact, he led all Flyers players last night with 11 shot attempts and 7 shots on goal, and ranked third in individual Expected Goals with 0.47, implying that his shot creation wasn’t of the low quality variety. In that sense, it was truly a standout performance from the Ghost Bear.
But as the team started to sag midway through the second period, Gostisbehere’s play dipped as well. The worst moment was one horrific shift that saw Ghost’s attempted ice-length pass be intercepted and turned into an immediate Florida scoring chance, and then a second high-difficulty breakout pass become an icing. The remainder of the game was a mix of strong offensive plays and turnovers, as he looked like a player who had supreme confidence in his puck skills in the offensive zone but jumpy in his own end. The numbers pick up some of that — he posted a solid +1.94% score-adjusted Corsi relative to his teammates, but was -13.89% relative to those teammates in xG, implying that his mistakes were leading to high-quality chances. On the whole, I want Ghost taking risks, but on this night, he made a few too many errors for my liking despite his clear contributions on offense.
#10: Flyers aren’t awful at shootouts this year
Now that Philadelphia has made it through over 75% of their season, it can be safely noted that the team’s historically awful shootout performance hasn’t carried over to the 2016-17 season. Last night’s victory was the Flyers’ sixth shootout win of the season, against four losses. For those that view the shootout as essentially a coin flip driven by random chance, this year has just been an example of the luck finally going the team’s way (appropriately, in a season where all of the Flyers’ luck in other situations has been horrific). Others might attribute the improvement to the play of the goalies, who have stopped 79.49% of all attempts this year, or to Jakub Voracek, who has scored on five of his nine shots after being only an occasional option for Hakstol last season. Regardless of the reason, fans rightfully aren’t dreading shootouts this year, a dramatic shift from their past thoughts on the skills competition.