Morning Observations is a feature where we break down the previous night's game with an analytical eye.
#1: Flyers actually fared poorly in this game by advanced metrics
The Flyers may have jumped out to a 5-0 lead by the end of the first period, and never saw their edge move to less than two goals, but they didn’t exactly dominate when it came to the territorial battle. Philadelphia was outshot on the night by a 41-30 margin, and posted a 38.1% score-adjusted Corsi at 5v5. They did a bit better by the weighted even strength metrics (43.90% xG) but still ended up below water compared to their opponent.
But simply looking at the Corsi and xG rates doesn’t provide a full understanding of how the Flyers came to win this game by such a commanding margin. They drastically outplayed the Islanders over the first twenty minutes, and while they probably were a bit fortunate to exit the stanza with five goals, they easily deserved at least two or three considering their ability to create quality scoring chances while holding New York to the outside. The final 40 minutes saw an Isles team desperate to keep their wild card hopes alive throwing everything they could at the Flyers, combined with the Flyers playing an especially conservative style in their own zone. That’s not to say that the metrics are invalid — this game is a classic example of why we “score-adjust” stats like Corsi — but that it was easy to predict that the Isles would come out on top in those categories considering the nature of the early blowout.
#2: Third line on fire, led by Couturier
The early surge by the Flyers in this game was driven primarily by one line — the “third” line of Sean Couturier, Brayden Schenn, and Dale Weise. All three goals from the line were scored shortly after controlled offensive zone entries, which the trio have been able to generate with ease in recent games. Hakstol specifically noted their quick-developing chemistry, and while I’m sure that does play a role, it seems to me that Couturier in particular is driving the success of the line. He now has 14 points in his last 14 games, while posting a 55.67% score-adjusted Corsi during that same stretch. Couturier has driven play at 5v5 all season, though — the big difference recently has been in his creativity in the attacking third of the ice.
Surely health plays a role there. Like Claude Giroux and Shayne Gostisbehere, Couturier has admitted that an injury (in his case, a November knee sprain) was still affecting his play even after he returned, and has just recently returned to full strength. It makes sense that his play-driving ability would survive despite his skating being hampered, as so much of that (for Couturier) is due to his off-puck positioning and ability to stop opponents’ attacks before they even begin, which comes naturally to him. Scoring, on the other hand, is a bit out of Couturier’s comfort zone, and therefore he probably needs to be close to 100 percent to thrive in that area of his game. However, he already showed that he can score at a high level during 5v5 situations last year (1.96 Points/60), and this run feels like nothing more than him getting back to that level.
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#3: Finally, a goaltender has a horrific game vs. the Flyers
Thomas Greiss may not have a high-profile name, but during his two seasons in an Islanders uniform, he’s proven to be a perfectly solid NHL starting goaltender. Last season, Greiss’ save percentage over 41 games was a stellar 0.925, and this year it’s a passable 0.913 over 49 contests. He’s not a world-beater, but Greiss is also no Ondrej Pavelec. So when the Flyers chased him after only eight minutes in net, it certainly came as a shock.
Just because Greiss wasn’t at his best, that doesn’t take away from the efforts of the Flyers. The Couturier line was moving through the middle of the ice at will, and were peppering the Isles goaltender with shots. However, Couturier’s tally (the Flyers’ second goal of the night) came on a ghastly rebound from a Brandon Manning shot, and Gudas’ goal that sent Greiss to the bench was just a point shot with traffic in front. It’s tough to fault him on the Weise goal, but the other two were preventable opportunities that Greiss simply misplayed.
It was especially surprising considering the Flyers’ tendency this season to make opposing goalies’ jobs very easy. In fact, this was the first time in 2016-17 that the Philadelphia Flyers actually chased an opposing goalie out of the net permanently for poor play. Some of that is due to the quality of shots that the Flyers were creating through most of the year, but there’s also an element of luck here as well. Sometimes, goalies just don’t have it on a given night, and the Flyers haven’t been the beneficiaries of that phenomenon very often this season. Last night, it was finally their turn.
#4: Puck luck was finally there, too
In tandem with good fortune in terms of the play of the opposing goaltender, the Flyers just straight up got lucky on a few of the goals that they scored last night. Couturier’s goal can be partially viewed as a bad rebound by Greiss, which it surely was. However, it was good fortune that allowed that bad rebound to end up right on Couturier’s stick, in the exact spot that he was already stationed prior to Manning’s original shot.
But it was the Wayne Simmonds goal that really can be attributed to the hockey gods finally smiling down on the Flyers. On a late first period power play, Shayne Gostisbehere blasted one of his deadly slapshots right into Wayne Simmonds (in front of the net, as usual), hitting his knee. Rather than the puck simply skittering off to a less dangerous area, it bounced off Isles defenseman Johnny Boychuk and right into the wide open right side of the net. Sure, the play doesn’t happen without Ghost’s rocket of a shot or Simmonds’ netfront fearlessness, but it’s also just dumb luck. And there’s nothing wrong with that — most players would agree that teams benefit from good fortune at times over the course of a season, although the Flyers’ 97.94 PDO (entering last night) at 5v5 implies that they’ve received less good luck than most teams. Last night was seemingly an attempt on the part of the universe to right past wrongs.
#5: Flyers peppered the net with scoring chances in first
The full-game advanced metrics may not look especially impressive for the Flyers, but they absolutely got the better of play in the all-important opening stanza. The Isles actually had a slight edge (17-16) in 5v5 shot attempts, but one look at the below heat map from the first twenty minutes tells the story — the Flyers were battling their way to the front of the net with ease, while New York was settling for shots above the faceoff circles with little chance of success.
Did the Flyers deserve to come away with four even strength goals in the first period? That might be a bit of a stretch, as they clearly did benefit from puck luck and poor goaltending. But the process was sound, in that they were creating chances off the rush and even fighting their way to the low slot while on the cycle (Jordan Weal’s goal the perfect example). Don’t let the Flyers’ shell of the final 40 minutes of last night’s win overshadow the fact that the team dramatically outplayed the Islanders — who entered the game with a far better chance at the playoffs than Philadelphia — right from the opening faceoff and only let up after taking a mammoth five-goal lead.
#6: Jordan Weal remains super effective
The front of the net may be Wayne Simmonds’ office during the power play, but clearly Jordan Weal got a good deal on rent in the area at 5v5. Despite being a diminutive 5’10’’, 172 pound forward, Weal is seemingly always camped out right in front of the opposing goalie, ready to receive a pass or collect a rebound. He scored yet another goal last night with that modus operandi — collecting a Simmonds pass for a high-danger chance, and then recovering his own rebound to beat Jaroslav Halak.
You have to respect Weal’s fearlessness. Even for bigger players, the front of the net isn’t exactly a fun spot to park, as most opponents will fight for that territory fiercely. It’s possible that other teams are underrating Weal in the low slot and that’s why he’s finding himself open so much there, but I think it’s more than Weal is a high-motor player with a low center of gravity and plus hockey sense. It’s unclear whether he’ll be able to continue this style of shot generation over a full NHL season, but the Flyers would be foolish to pass on the opportunity to find out if he can.
#7: Mason an underrated game
If not for the fairly weak goal that Mason allowed with a little under four minutes remaining in the game, I’d feel confident in calling this a stellar performance on the part of the Flyers’ netminder. But even accounting for that mistake, Mason still stopped 38 of 41 shots on goal, and came up particularly huge in the second period when the team was thoroughly boatraced by New York. The Isles peppered Mason with 22 shots on goal during the middle stanza — a full game’s workload in a matchup against the Devils — yet he stood tall and allowed just one Islanders goal. November Steve Mason would have given up three or four in the second period, creating a nail-biting situation for the Flyers. Instead, he held down the fort when the team sagged, giving them time to right the ship just enough in the third to hang on to their lead.
#8: Uncontrolled exits in second period
So what exactly was the problem in the second period? To my eyes, it was a complete abandonment of a key aspect of the Flyers’ gameplan, which had helped them race out to their lead in the first place. Rather than attempt to methodically move the puck up ice with control, making counterattacks far easier through the neutral zone, the Flyers resorted to blind clears out of their own end. The logic behind the constant uncontrolled entries was obvious — dump-outs are safer in the moment than creative passes, which require expert execution in order to avoid backbreaking defensive zone turnovers.
I’m not necessarily opposed to adjusting the internal cost/benefit analysis of controlled vs. uncontrolled exits when holding a large lead. However, while the needle might be moved a bit more onto the “exits without possession are acceptable” side than usual, I highly doubt the correct position is anywhere close to where coaches (and players) believe it should be. A complete absence of risk-taking with the puck in the defensive zone results in predictably awful outcomes. In last night’s case, it caused a massive 22-3 shot discrepancy in the period.
#9: Fourth line still ineffective
Even in a game where the Flyers were dominated territorially for the final 40 minutes, the fourth line of Bellemare, VandeVelde and Konecny found a way to stand out in an especially negative way. All finished below 26% in terms of score-adjusted Corsi, and the Flyers didn’t generate a single shot attempt with VandeVelde on the ice until late in the third period.
You have to feel bad for Konecny, who continues to toil down on the fourth line with little hope of creating anything with his offensively-challenged teammates. He received a team-low 7:34 minutes at 5v5 last night. Especially with the top line struggling as well (the Giroux line’s play-driving metrics were only a bit better than those of the Bellemare unit), it seems like an easy fix to swap Konecny and Read. That is, if the goal here is truly to maximize win likelihood.
#10: Third period player usage had fans up in arms
If you stumbled upon the rabid Flyers fans corner of Twitter near the end of the third period of last night’s 6-3 game, you’d have come away convinced that the team was on the losing end of that score rather than closing out a comfortable victory. In particular, it was the deployment of Chris VandeVelde that seemed to infuriate the populace. He received 5:51 minutes of even strength ice time in the third period, more than every forward on the team with the exception of Filppula and Simmonds, as the Flyers tried to clinch a victory. In addition, VandeVelde was on the ice for 2:20 of the final 2:45 minutes in regulation, as Hakstol gave him shift after shift to help close things out.
Let’s be honest — there’s a vocal contingent of Flyers fans who believe that if VandeVelde receives even one shift in an NHL game, that’s too many, so there’s definitely a heavy amount of bias here. And while it certainly felt like VandeVelde was on the ice constantly, his 10:33 minutes of total 5v5 ice time ranked 10th on the team among forwards, ahead of only Bellemare and Konecny. I do agree that the Flyers had better defensive options to be getting that late-game ice time, such as Matt Read (who didn’t see the ice in the final five minutes). But the team has suppressed shots, scoring chances and goals slightly better with VandeVelde on the ice than they have with him on the bench this season, so it’s not totally outlandish to use him in a defensive role late. This strikes me as a coaching decision that was more “mildly annoying” rather than worthy of a full-scale fanbase meltdown.