Morning Observations is a feature where we break down the previous night's game with an analytical eye.
#1: The playoff chase is mercifully over
For weeks now, the “we’re still alive!” narrative has been peddled by coaches, players, and the local television networks when it came to the playoff chances of the Philadelphia Flyers. It was understandable for all parties to cling to that belief — the players and coaches because it’s their job to make lemonade out of lemons even if there’s merely a remotely chance of it happening, and the networks because hope within the fanbase equals higher ratings. But anyone paying close attention knew that the Flyers chances effectively died when Drew Stafford’s shot deflected off Brandon Manning’s leg and past Steve Mason in Boston over three weeks ago. Yes, the team technically could have recovered, but that regulation loss (combined with another defeat in Toronto two nights earlier) dropped their playoff chances to single-digits and would have necessitated a miracle comeback.
To their credit, the Flyers didn’t fall apart, and their recent four-game winning streak was actually their longest since the December run that briefly had fans so excited about this season. But this streak came with the unmistakable pall of inevitability, which finally came to fruition last night in a 4-3 loss to the New York Rangers. While the Flyers certainly didn’t have the roster of a worldbeater, the additions of Ivan Provorov and Travis Konecny alone seemed to guarantee a more talented and deeper squad than the one that made the playoffs last season. Instead, the team regressed, for a number of reasons that will be broken down here at BSH over the next few weeks and months. Now, just three meaningless games remain before the Flyers finally start a longer-than-expected offseason.
#2: Flyers outplayed, felt like a schedule loss
Over the past few weeks, Philadelphia has been backing up their improved win/loss results with solid underlying metrics, particularly at 5v5. Not only have the Flyers been outshooting their opponents for the most part, they’ve also been holding their own from a shot quality standpoint as well, which had been an issue for a large portion of the season. Last night, however, that problem reared its head yet again. Philadelphia posted a passable score-adjusted Corsi rate at 5v5 (48.44%) but were absolutely destroyed in terms of xG, allowing 2.75 and creating just 1.06 expected goals of their own for a 27.82% rate. The 4-1 deficit that they faced prior to the team’s two tallies after Anthony Stolarz went to the bench for an extra attacker was deserved.
It’s not like the Flyers were facing the Rangers under ideal circumstances, though. Philadelphia was playing their third game in four nights, with this the second game of a home/road back-to-back. In addition, both of their regular goalies were ill, forcing a rookie to appear in his third game in three nights. On the other side, the Rangers were off on Saturday and played at home on Friday night. It set the stage for an obvious schedule loss, but unfortunately for the Flyers, they could not afford even one defeat if they wanted to stay alive in the playoff hunt. Had they taken care of business in January, February and early March, this victory would not have been necessary, and that was the real issue here.
#3: Defense the problem tonight
The gigantic discrepancy between the Flyers’ Corsi and their xG may have you thinking that Philadelphia fell back into their bad habits of only blasting low percentage point shots at Henrik Lundqvist, resulting in a poor shot quality performance. But that’s not exactly accurate — the Flyers did continue to attempt to get the puck below the faceoff circles, which the Natural Stat Trick heat map shows. However, it also sheds light on the real reason for the poor xG rate, which was a total inability to keep the Rangers away from the front of the net at 5v5.
With Radko Gudas out of the lineup, the Flyers were left with pairings of Provorov-MacDonald, Schultz-Gostisbehere and Manning-Del Zotto. That’s two pairs with one major play-driving liability, and a third pair without a stabilizing presence. The result was consistently poor rush coverage and scrambly in-zone cycle positioning as well. The Rangers are already a squad with high-end forward depth, and giving them a tired, limited defense to attack was like putting a nice, juicy steak in front of a hungry dog. The outcome was predictable.
#4: What happens the rest of the way?
Now that the Flyers are officially out of playoff contention, there’s no reason why the team shouldn’t be willing to make some lineup adjustments in the spirit of experimentation and fact-gathering for the future. Don’t hold your breath waiting for one of the prized blueline prospects to earn a call — the Phantoms are in the midst of a playoff push and I highly doubt Ron Hextall will yank them out of Lehigh Valley just to give them a cup of coffee in the NHL now.
In fact, the Flyers might even lose a key contributor. Jordan Weal has already proven he is good enough to succeed at the NHL level, but he could be returned to the Phantoms in order to provide a boost to that club. That would open up a spot for Roman Lyubimov, Nick Cousins, or even Mike Vecchione, who will almost certainly appear in at least one of the three remaining games. What I’m really hoping to see, however, is some experimentation with tandems. Fans have been clamoring for a Provorov-Gostisbehere duo — why not see how it looks now that the games are meaningless? Maybe give Konecny a game at center to see if he can handle the increased puck moving responsibilities. This is the time to get creative, and see what you can learn about your players moving forward.
#5: Heart again not the issue with the Flyers
After looking the part of a tired, overmatched squad for 57 minutes last night, the Flyers found a way to make things interesting late. In fact, they came within a vintage King Henrik glove save of a Claude Giroux one-timer and sending this game to overtime, despite being down 4-1 with three minutes left in the contest. Some of that is luck, of course — there’s always a degree of it once a team pulls their goalie and is just blasting away shot after shot. But it also should help to disabuse anyone of the notion that the team “gave up” in this game. For all of the Flyers’ issues (and there are a lot), a lack of fight is not one of them. Sure, they had games where the energy wasn’t quite there, but every team deals with that. This is still a squad that likes each other and has each other’s back at all times, and one that won’t throw in the towel. There may be talent-related issues with the core, but I see no issues with the leadership in the locker room. Even in defeat, I think you saw that last night.
#6: Stolarz was decent given the circumstances
By the numbers, Anthony Stolarz would seem to have had an especially poor game, stopping 24 of 28 shots for a save percentage of 0.833. But it’s hard to be too down on the youngster, as he was thrown into a very difficult situation. Not only was Stolarz playing in his second NHL game in two nights, he also started the Phantoms game on Friday, making this three appearances in three days. The AHL does schedule “three games/three nights” runs, but it’s basically unheard of at the NHL level. Stolarz did make some tough saves in the first half of the contest, before defensive breakdowns put him in impossible situations later on. In fact, out of the four goals, only the first one (from Zibanejad) is one that I really wish he could have found a way to stop, and even then, he was dealing with an uncontested screen. This game isn’t on Stolarz.
#7: Jordan Weal a bright spot as usual
As has become a regular occurrence over the past few weeks, Jordan Weal yet again found a way to stand out statistically last night. Not only did he add a primary assist on Valtteri Filppula’s first goal of the game, Weal also led the team in score-adjusted Corsi at 5v5 with a 60.34% rate. If Weal’s NHL season has now come to an end (since he can be returned to the AHL to help in their playoff push if the Flyers so choose), he will close it out on a five-game point streak, and with just as many 5v5 points in 21 games as Dale Weise could manage in 61. To me, it’s a no-brainer for the Flyers to lock up Weal to a cheap one or two year deal in the offseason and give him a chance to prove that this 20-game stretch was no fluke. But that decision will be left to general manager Ron Hextall, one of many he’ll have to make in the coming months.
#8: MacDonald especially poor
It’s no secret that I’ve been critical of the Flyers’ usage of Andrew MacDonald this season, particularly his heavy minutes at 5v5 despite being the defense’s worst play-driver and the fact that he’s been attached at the hip to rookie Ivan Provorov. MacDonald is the worst on the defense in CF% RelTM, second-worst in Corsi Rel, and third-worst in on-ice Goals For percentage. MacDonald had his good games, to be sure, particularly a stretch in late November that saw his underlying metrics surprisingly spike. But all too often, the Flyers were pinned in the defensive zone with MacDonald on the ice this year, relying on blocked shots and good goaltending rather than their own ability to push the play up ice. Last night, in the final meaningful game of the season for the Flyers, it’s perhaps appropriate that MacDonald delivered a clunker, coughing up a ghastly turnover on his very first shift and not getting much better from there.
His underlying metrics (47.01% score-adjusted Corsi, 38.50% xG) probably understate the extent of his struggles, simply because Ivan Provorov made a number of strong plays with the puck on the night to get play going in the right direction while MacDonald was simply a passive observer. What this season made clear is that as long as Andrew MacDonald is on an NHL pair, that pair will struggle to break 50% in terms of shot differential regardless of the talent of his partner, and in turn, be hard-pressed to drive a positive goal diffferential. It doesn’t matter how many talented young prospects the Flyers add to the lineup — the pair with MacDonald will remain a weakness as long as he’s penciled into the lineup nightly. At age 30, that’s simply not changing.
#9: Giroux ineffective through most of the game
Claude Giroux’s play over the past month-and-change has seen a noticeable uptick, obvious both in his scoring rates and via the eye test. He simply looks faster than he did in the first half of the year, and it’s easy to attribute that to the captain finally feeling recovered from offseason hip surgery. But last night, he looked like the Giroux from early January — making bad decisions with his passes and playing too much perimeter hockey in the offensive zone. The result was a poor 23.67% xG even while flanked by Jakub Voracek and Travis Konecny. Giroux certainly brought the intensity late once Stolarz came off for the extra attacker, and his blistering one-timer with seconds left almost sent the game to OT. But for too long in this key game, Giroux was invisible due to an inability to execute even simple plays, and it was disappointing to see in the last “big” game of the year.
#10: Observations the rest of the season
Even though the season is essentially finished, my “10 Things” column will still run through the final three games. However, my focus will now primarily be on next year, and how certain players perform in adjusted roles and what that might mean for the coming offseason and beyond. Game outcomes no longer matter, but player performance and coaching decisions still do, so expect far more of those evaluations over the next week. Even with this being an especially frustrating Flyers season, it’s been great interacting with everyone this year in the comment section and on Twitter, and I don’t expect that to change throughout the summer.