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Flyers 6, Sabres 3: 10 things we learned from a surprise onslaught of goals

In need of a win to kick off key stretch against playoff hopefuls, the Flyers’ goal scoring ability returned in full force.

NHL: Philadelphia Flyers at Washington Capitals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

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

#1: A rare display of 5v5 dominance

Entering last night’s game against the Buffalo Sabres, the Flyers’ goal-based metrics at 5-on-5 were nothing short of horrid. Their Goals For percentage of 41.74% ranked 29th in the NHL, ahead of only the Colorado Avalanche, and it’s been even uglier since the turn of the calendar year. Over their past 26 games, Philadelphia was outscored 26 to 50 during 5v5 situations, good for an eye-poppingly atrocious 34.21% Goals For percentage. No team has been worse in 2017.

It hasn’t been a shot volume or shot differential issue — instead, the Flyers simply hadn’t been able to convert on those attempts at anywhere near a league-average rate, and their goaltenders had delivered awful performances. Steve Mason may be on a nice little run right now (0.954 save percentage in last four games) but that did little for the scoring, which remained cold. On this night, however, the Flyers took control early and won both the shot volume battle and the goals battle on the scoreboard.

Period #1 followed the usual script — territorial dominance marred by scattered mistakes that prevented the Flyers from taking a lead into the intermission. Philadelphia replicated its edge in the middle stanza, only this time they were finally rewarded with a goal deluge that was months in the making. Radko Gudas, Claude Giroux and Jordan Weal all scored in the period, and the Flyers found themselves up 4-2 in goals and holding a 66.08% score-adjusted Corsi at the second intermission. The territorial battle tightened up a bit in the third (Philadelphia finished at 55.75% on the night) but the goals kept coming, with Chris VandeVelde and Travis Konecny joining the fun. In the end, the Flyers scored all six of their goals during 5v5 play, easily a season-high and only their second game with at least five in 2017.

#2: Interestingly, Flyers didn’t rack up tons of xG

Statistically-minded Flyers observers have often used Expected Goal models to help explain why the team has struggled to score this season. After all, Philadelphia has no trouble racking up shots by the bunch, but with tangible results totally lacking on the scoreboard, the theory that there was a “shot quality” issue was backed up by the models. Corsica’s placed the Flyers 24th in Expected Goals For per 60 at 5v5, a far cry from their fourth place ranking in shot attempts per 60 and 12th place in shots on goal per hour. The idea was that if the team could just create better shots, they’d score more goals, and the poor results were a combination of a lacking tactical approach and players who lacked shooting talent.

What was so interesting about this game, then, was the fact that the Flyers didn’t exactly light up the xG charts despite tallying six goals at 5v5. In fact, Corsica’s model put Philadelphia at 1.50 total Expected Goals during that situation (3.24 total, mostly on the strength of the team’s first power play). There’s a couple things to note here. For starters, this showcases the limitations of xG models in their current form. After all, Giroux’s goal was essentially a “999 times out of 1000 it goes in” tally considering the circumstances, and Weal’s wasn’t that far behind in terms of likelihood. But the model can’t account for high-difficulty passing plays prior to the shot (like Weal’s goal) or fat rebounds (like on Giroux’s), so both are graded as far less dangerous than they truly are. Deflection goals (Read and VandeVelde) also aren’t easy for the models to characterize. And then, there were the sniper tallies from Gudas and Konecny, both of which were very tough to stop but neither came from ideal shooting locations. It’s accuracy and velocity that made those shots dangerous, two variables that xG misses due to the fact the data simply isn’t recorded right now.

That’s not to say that these models should be tossed aside. Shot location due to tactics is almost certainly repeatable to a degree, and xG zeroes in on those trends with ease. It also recognizes contributing factors like rush chances and rebounds, albeit imperfectly. And most likely, the Flyers were indeed a bit fortunate to score six goals on the evening last night, which xG points out. But it’s also a nice reminder not to take the metric as gospel. Report & Highlights | Corsica.Hockey Game Recap Page | Recap | NaturalStatTrick Recap | | BSH Recap | Meltzer’s Musings

#3: Couturier was stellar

As someone who takes part in a weekly podcast, I’ll freely admit that Sean Couturier is an easy topic to add to a show that needs one more discussion point. There are other “controversial” players on the Flyers’ roster, but no one seems to divide the fanbase quite like the team’s youngest center. Couturier’s supporters cite his stellar play-driving metrics (his +4.7% CF%RelTM is solidly first line level), while his detractors argue that a player with not one 40-point season to his name can’t be considered a truly essential piece of the roster.

I tend to fall with the former crowd — while the scoring frustrations are justified (especially on the PP), I can’t ignore the fact that Flyers players do a better job of both outshooting and outscoring their opponents at 5v5 when playing with Couturier than they do away from him. The raw point totals may always be lacking, but it’s because he’s often the guy who starts a play that ends up as a goal, and not the one who finishes it. Last night, Couturier’s ability to “do the little things right” was on display all game, and if you didn’t take notice, there’s a good chance that you just might be unfairly biased against him.

He finished with two assists but deserved one on the Flyers’ first goal as well, as it was his neutral zone takeaway of Jack Eichel that allowed for the rush to begin in the first place. Couturier owned the middle of the ice all game long, cutting off passes and halting rushes in their tracks, which helped contribute to his 65.48% score-adjusted Corsi. But the +3 rating and two points throws a wrench into the “he’s just a fancy stat hero” argument, at least for one night. Couturier had a little something for everyone.

#4: Special teams only big negative

Considering the Flyers’ season-long ineptitude at 5v5, a game in which they allowed two power play goals while scoring none of their own seemed like an obvious loss. Instead, Philadelphia played a fantastic game at even strength and cruised to a win. However, the special teams’ struggles can’t be brushed aside entirely. The Flyers’ PP actually got off to a great start, generating chance after chance on their first opportunity. But on subsequent Sabres penalties, the top unit could barely enter the offensive zone, let alone get set up and actually create chances.

The penalty kill was simply plagued by individual mistakes. On goal #1, there was a miscommunication between Gudas and Brandon Manning, as no one picked up Sam Reinhart in front of the net as he set a perfect screen for an Evander Kane snipe. Then, goal #2 saw Wayne Simmonds be fooled entirely by Eichel, giving the dangerous youngster extra time in the slot to create a high-quality chance.

Buffalo possesses a fantastic power play, so I’m more willing to forgive the Flyers’ PK units than their PP, which really should have been able to dominate the Sabres’ limited shorthanded personnel. Instead, a number of unforced errors on entry attempts forced the Flyers to rely solely on even strength production. Last night, that worked, but if this season is any indication, it’s not a good formula to depend on.

#5: First goal was ideal Hakstol play

I’ve outlined my issues with the Flyers’ tactics on multiple occasions this year, so it’s only fair to note when the team’s tendencies do succeed in producing the ideal outcome. Sometimes, goals are simply showcases of skill and/or luck, but Philadelphia’s first tally last night was a direct result of Dave Hakstol’s preferred style of play. To initiate the sequence, Sean Couturier challenged Eichel at the red line (adhering to the team’s aggressive tendencies in that zone), forcing a turnover and sending the puck the other way. Then, after a missed shot and successful puck retrieval, Nick Cousins sent a pass back up to the point to Radko Gudas, who immediately blasted a shot towards the net. Matt Read was in perfect position for the deflection, turning a low percentage shot into a dangerous one, and creating the circumstances necessary for a goal.

I do believe that the Flyers utilize the low-to-high passing strategy to create far too many of their shots, but a team capable of deflecting a higher-than-average percentage of those shots should be able to extract value from it. So far this year, Philadelphia hasn’t been able to do so, but my guess is that it’s not for a lack of trying. As for the neutral zone aggressiveness, I’ve long praised the Flyers under Hakstol for that mentality, and while it certainly has its risks, the rewards are obvious as well, and were on display on Read’s goal last night.

#6: Giroux trending in right direction

Claude Giroux’s 12-game scoring drought finally came to an end last night, as the captain gobbled up a rebound from a Michael Del Zotto shot and easily deposited it in the back of the net. The was mostly due to good fortune — though of course, Giroux needed to get to that spot in front of the net in order to be in position for the loose pick — but the luck was well-earned. Giroux led the team in score-adjusted Corsi last night, finishing with a 74.64% rate. Per Corey’s tracking data, the captain was also a standout, generated four controlled entries and zero dump-ins (100% controlled entry rate) and not failing on a single zone exit attempt while facilitating exits with possession on seven of nine opportunities (77.8%). He was all over the ice.

Despite Giroux’s recent scoring slump, the improved underlying performance really isn’t anything new. Over the past eight games, the captain has a 54.38% score-adjusted Corsi rate and holds a 53.4% xG rate, both significantly positive relative to his teammates. Part of this is due to a clearly successful partnership with Jordan Weal that began five games ago, but it’s also because Giroux has simply looked faster and more assertive over the past couple weeks. His zone entry metrics support the eye test — over that same span, he has a 58% Controlled Entry rate and has averaged 28.05 Entries/60. Prior to this stretch, he was at 52%/17.69 over 31 tracked games, so there does appear to be a clear improvement. I hate to turn to the injury excuse, but it’s fair to note that Giroux did have offseason surgery, and there has been some lignering speculation that it could be hampering him. Maybe we weren’t watching a Giroux in clear decline in 2016-17 — maybe he just wasn’t healthy and is just now getting his legs back.

#7: Flyers’ defensive zone passing cut up Sabres

During the first two periods, Philadelphia went through the Sabres like a buzzsaw at even strength, with only Buffalo’s stellar power play keeping the game from becoming a total blowout. The key to that dominance was the ability to effectively transition the puck from defense to offense, starting in their own zone. By the numbers, the team’s zone exit game wasn’t dramatically better than average (47.96% controlled entry rate versus a season average of 45.50%) but my guess is that most of that was due to a more conservative exiting strategy used in the third period. Two of the Flyers’ goals (Weal and Giroux) were directly a result of efficient transition offense, and tons of their chances were caused by it as well. Buffalo simply could not execute an effective offensive zone forecheck, which allowed the Flyers to make passes cleanly and minimize the team spent defending.

#8: Jordan Weal has been very good

Last night was Jordan Weal’s “breakout” game, but his play since being recalled has been building to this for a while. He had certainly passed the eye test during his seven games with the team, but for a player that is viewed as a “top-nine or bust!” type forward by the organization, only one point in those games simply wasn’t going to cut it. One goal and one assist later, and now Weal is starting to post the production that his underlying numbers hinted was coming.

It’s difficult to find an advanced metric that doesn’t look upon Weal favorably this season. He has a 65.8% score-adjusted Corsi and a 69.09% score-adjusted Expected Goals rate, which are +15.62% and +20.2% relative to the team respectively over that eight-game span. His 11.13 Shots/60 at 5v5 is a team-high, and after last night, he also leads the club in Points/60 at 1.96. Microstats love Weal as well, with his 60% Controlled Entry percentage, 24.04 Entries per 60, and 28.16 Primary Shot Contributions (shots and primary passes that lead to shots) per 60 all ranking near to top of the Flyers’ forward charts. It’s impossible to know if Weal can keep this up, but he’s been a true difference maker so far for the Flyers over the past few weeks.

#9: Filppula line again doesn’t drive play

The general consensus surrounding the play of Valtteri Filppula has been positive, and it’s not unwarranted — Filppula provides a middle-six center option that truly “looks the part,” which the Flyers have lacked all season long aside from Sean Couturier. Filppula’s controlled entry style of play in the neutral zone has been obvious, and through three games, he holds a stellar 67% rate in that area. However, it’s fair to note that in two of those three games, his line has been dominated territorially. After being trapped in the defensive zone on a number of occasions against the Caps, the same issue popped up last night, as Filppula and his linemates hovered around the 35% score-adjusted Corsi mark. For a player with a recent track record of not driving play well relative to his teammates, it’s a minor yet lingering concern.

We are talking about a very small sample size, of course. In addition, you can’t let Brayden Schenn and Jakub Voracek (Filppula’s linemates) off the hook either. Schenn has been a play-driving disaster at 5v5 all season long, dragging down almost every single one of his linemates. Voracek, on the other hand, looks noticeably less dynamic than he did in the early season, and I’m starting to wonder if he may be dealing with an injury. In any case, that doesn’t totally absolve Filppula, who likely will get credit for the team’s improved recent play when a large portion of it is actually due to big steps up from Giroux and Couturier. Considering Filppula’s puck skills, I do believe he’s capable of driving play given the right situation, but I’m not sure this line is it.

#10: Not terribly concerned about Konecny on line 4

Fans have been especially critical of Dave Hakstol this season, and in many case, that frustration has been justified. But in the case of Travis Konecny right now, I’d advise caution. Since returning from ankle and knee sprains last Saturday, the dynamic rookie has skated primarily on the fourth line with Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Chris VandeVelde. Obviously, that’s not an ideal usage of Konecny’s talent over the long-term. But in the short term, with Konecny coming back early from his injury and still trying to get back to 100%, I have little issue with it. Hakstol can still give the 19-year old occasional shifts with more talented forwards, and playing on the fourth line allows for his minutes to be limited. This shouldn’t be a permanent line, of course. I’m intrigued by the potential of a Konecny-Filppula-Voracek line or even a Konecny-Couturier-Read trio. But in the here and now, it’s not worth much fuss.