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Capitals 5, Flyers 3: They never win that game anyways

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The first game back from the All-Star break had some promise, but ultimately the Flyers came up short due to some familiar pitfalls.

Philadelphia Flyers v Washington Capitals Photo by Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images

If you were to be asked “what’s the most 2017-18 Flyers way to lose a hockey game?”, you could do a lot worse than to simply list off the key facets of the Flyers’ 5-3 loss in Washington last night. To wit:

  • The team would get out to a fast start and a lead that it would ultimately relinquish. (The Flyers scored two goals before we hit the second commercial break and headed to the locker room up 2-0; that lead would turn to a deficit by the second intermission.)
  • The team’s offense would pretty much all come from its top-6 or top defensive pairing. (The goal-scorers were new second-line center Nolan Patrick, recent first-line winger Travis Konecny, and NHL assist leader Jakub Voracek.)
  • The penalty kill would be bad. (It was bad.)
  • Your favorite scapegoat would have at least one moment on either a goal against or a missed opportunity at a goal that would make you extremely frustrated by his presence on the ice. (Who’s your favorite scapegoat? Trust me, he did something infuriating tonight. It’s not just you.)
  • The goalie would let in at least one inexplicable goal against. (Chandler Stephenson’s first goal was the product of an inexplicable mistake by Michal Neuvirth, who finished the night with five goals allowed on 20 shots faced.)
  • And for good measure, they’d do it all against a good team, prompting every fan to wonder for a while just how good the Flyers really are until they come crashing back down.

It’s ... well, a tough loss may not be the right word. Again, Washington is one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference, and while losing to them obviously stings given that we know it’s a game the Flyers can win (they’ve beaten Washington twice already this season), this is probably not the loss that we’re going to look back on if the Flyers miss the playoffs by two points.

But it’s certainly a frustrating one. On aggregate, this was a pretty even game. The Flyers got their licks in in the first period, and in parts of the second and third, but the Capitals would pretty well respond to most of those in kind, and the real difference was that most of the big mistakes were made by guys in orange. It was certainly a game within the Flyers’ grasp, one undone by some inopportune gaffes that just make you shake your head. Taking both of the two games right out of the gate post-All Star break was always going to be tough, but dropping this one puts a little more pressure on the Flyers to bounce back tonight in Newark.

[BSH Recap] [BSH Radio Reaction]

Two key numbers:

10 — Wednesday night was the 10th time this season in which the Flyers have given up at least two goals on the penalty kill (c/o Natural Stat Trick). That’s the second-highest total in the league; only Edmonton, with 11, has done this more frequently.

And what was noteworthy about last night’s failures on the PK was just how efficient they were. The Caps needed only three power plays — and a total of 4:20 of ice time — to pot those two goals. That’s the sixth time this season a team’s dropped two or more power play goals on the Flyers despite having less than five minutes of power play time; again, only Edmonton (with seven) outdoes them.

Nothing here is news; that the Flyers have a subpar penalty kill is not exactly a secret, nor has it been for the past three or four seasons. But it’s also worth pointing out that the struggles that the unit had last night were entirely a product of the “second” group. Robert Hagg, Valtteri Filppula, and Jori Lehtera were on the ice for both Capitals power play goals, while Brandon Manning and Andrew MacDonald shared the honors in the fourth spot.

On the first goal, Andre Burakovsky just gets inside position at the net on Manning, essentially getting unmarked about two feet in front of Michal Neuvirth for what would be an easy deflection after Lars Eller got a pass through Hagg. And on the second one, Hagg was lost without a stick, and Lehtera made a rather feeble attempt at covering T.J. Oshie before the pass got to him and he wired it past Neuvirth.

If you’re going to roll with a group of penalty killers that aren’t the exactly burners in terms of skating ability, they need to be positionally sound and aggressive in the right moments. The Flyers’ second penalty kill unit was neither of those on Wednesday night, and that’s a problem.

Minus-11 — The Flyers’ scoring chance differential at 5-on-5 (again, c/o Natural Stat Trick) with Valtteri Filppula on the ice. Filppula, the nominal third-line center with Nolan Patrick’s promotion up the lineup, played almost exactly as much (12:22) at 5-on-5 as Patrick did (12:25), but that time did not go well for him and his new linemates, Michael Raffl (minus-10) and Jordan Weal (minus-9); all three of them were on the ice for two Washington goals and no Flyers goals.

While his two wingers have certainly had better games, it was still Filppula who seemed to be lagging behind the play most. He continues to be at least a step or two behind the play, and his hockey sense isn’t nearly enough to make up for that fact at this point in his career. And while it’s a little surprising to see a line with Raffl (a noted positive driver of play) struggle this much, it shouldn’t be, given that those two even struggled to work well together with Jakub Voracek back in December.

In Filppula’s defense, potentially compounding matters here is the fact that about half of his ice time was spent with the Flyers’ worst play-driving defensive pair, Robert Hagg and Andrew MacDonald. That probably doesn’t help matters, and Dave Hakstol should probably stop putting all of those guys on the ice at once.

But the Filppula problem remains no matter who he’s centering or playing in front of, and if performances like this are going to become the norm, simply moving him down the lineup may not be enough. Hakstol may be recognizing this — Filp’s 14:19 of total ice time was well below his average so far this season — and it’s crucial that he not turn a blind eye to the struggles of a player that he clearly likes.

Three Flyers of note:

1. Brandon Manning

We talked a bit about Manning as it pertained to the penalty kill above, and his work against Andre Burakovsky in front of the net on the Caps’ go-ahead goal was surely uninspiring. But that wasn’t his only glaring error on the evening; on replay, it was pretty clear that the biggest reason Chandler Stephenson broke free for a breakaway opportunity on the Caps’ tying goal in the second period was that Manning peculiarly drifted over to the opposite side of the ice, leaving so much space on the near side that Stephenson could’ve driven a horde of Zambonis through it.

And while the high-level possession numbers at first glance don’t point to a bad game for Manning — he was plus-5 in on-ice shot attempts, second among Flyers defendemen behind only Provorov — it was not a good night for him in terms of suppressing shot quality, and that backs up what any observer could’ve seen. He was a minus-3 in scoring chance differential, and minus-2 in high-danger scoring chance differential.

Halfway through the third period, Manning dropped the gloves with Washington’s Alex Chiasson, taking both of them out of the game for five minutes. In the moment, that decision by Manning appeared to be a product of a hit that Chiasson had thrown on him seconds earlier. But is it possible that, more than anything, Manning was trying to get his coach’s attention? Manning played just 12:32 on Wednesday, easily a season-low for him. And while some of that is a product of him voluntarily removing himself from the ice for five minutes, it’s hard not to discern a trend when you consider that his previous two lowest single-game TOI totals this season both came in the Flyers’ last two games before the All-Star Break (13:49 against Detroit, 13:59 against Tampa).

In sending Travis Sanheim back down to the AHL a week and a half ago, the Flyers seemed to be committing to playing Brandon Manning in their lineup for the foreseeable future. But his average ice time has deservedly taken a significant tumble since that happened, and it’s tough to say for certain what their read is on this situation. They like Manning, but also don’t find him to be teflon — he was a healthy scratch several times earlier in the season. And while plus-minus, in my opinion, isn’t a terribly useful statistic on a game-by-game basis, it’s one that the Flyers themselves seem to care about, and Manning’s been a minus in each of his last three games. We’ll have to see how the Flyers handle Manning in the next few games, because if there is a breaking point for them with him, you have to believe that we’re pretty close to it.

2. Travis Konecny

We’ve been kind of downers so far (which, I mean, is reasonable, considering the blown lead and two-goal loss and all). So let’s get positive for a moment here. The way things are going for Travis Konecny right now, pretty soon we’re going to reach a point where his strong performances aren’t news, but expectations.

We’re not quite there yet, though, so it’s worth pointing out just how good the Flyers’ current top-line right wing was last night. Konecny potted a goal for the fifth straight game, this goal coming thanks in part to Sean Couturier making a great drive to the net and Christian Djoos laying an offensive-lineman-on-a-screen-style block on his own goalie. Beyond the goal, though, he was one of the most dangerous Flyers throughout the evening. His six shots on goal led the team, as did his four high-danger scoring chances. And any 5-on-5 on-ice metric that you pick for him was well in the black, despite spending a healthy majority of his ice time against the Nicklas Backstrom line.

Konecny has 13 points in 14 games since the Christmas break ended, and the Giroux/Couturier line looks as dangerous with him as it has with anyone this season (and that’s saying something, considering how it looked with Voracek). He’s here now, and if the Flyers are going to make the playoffs, he’s going to be a significant reason why.

3. Nolan Patrick

When you’re a highly-touted rookie, a second overall pick from seven months ago, and you’ve struggled mightily in your first couple of months in the NHL, that’s tough to deal with. And when your coach finally puts you in position where you have to succeed, one that involves playing on a line with the NHL assist leader and a 30-goal scorer, there can be some pressure on you to get it done quickly.

Purely in that sense, it’s hard to come up with a better first act of Nolan Patrick, Second-Line Center than the one we saw last night. The game was barely more than a minute old when a pass up the boards sprung Wayne Simmonds on a 2-on-1 with Patrick, and the rookie finished off his chance alone in front for his fourth goal of the year. He’d add an assist later in the game on Jakub Voracek’s late-game tally, giving him his first ever multi-point game in the NHL.

Patrick was fine by other measures, as well — he was a slight positive both overall and relative to the team by most on-ice metrics at 5-on-5. But Patrick’s play-driving numbers have been trending in the right direction for a month, and we still hadn’t really seen the scoring numbers accompany them. Last night, we did. Make no mistake, he’ll need more nights like this to keep this role, but so far, Patrick has shown that the pressure and expectations that come with playing alongside two elite wingers aren’t too much for him.

Four leftover thoughts:

  1. In the first game back following a long break, it’s always easy to get tied up in narratives about what rest can do to a team, positively or negatively. If a team wins, it’s because they were well-rested; if they lose, it’s because they were rusty. It’s easy, and often kind of lazy. So know that I hate myself for saying this, but man, Washington was extremely rusty in the first period of this game, and the Flyers clearly had the jump on them from the outset. In addition to the two goals on odd-man breaks, the Flyers had a number of other chances on the rush that wouldn’t go, and it took Washington most of the frame to get much of anything going. The Flyers led in essentially every on-ice measure in that period, even if just by a bit. It’s a shame that they weren’t able to take advantage of it in the other 40 minutes.
  2. In one of the more easy-to-go-unnoticed oddities of the evening, the Flyers’ fourth line played a fairly solid game at 5-on-5. Tyrell Goulbourne (90%), Jori Lehtera (80%), and Scott Laughton (69.23%) were actually the Flyers’ three best players in on-ice Corsi For percentage on the evening. This effort largely came at the expense of their fourth-line brethren, as Jay Beagle, Devante Smith-Pelly, and Alex Chiasson were kicked up and down the ice in terms of possession for most of the game. The Caps still have a ton of firepower at the top of their lineup, but after some changes this past summer they’re not quite as deep of a team as they used to be. If they can be had, it’s at the bottom of the lineup, and the Flyers’ bottom-of-the-roster guys tried their hardest to take advantage. Of course, this being the Flyers and all, that line wasn’t able to actually take advantage of that zone time for any goals. So it goes.
  3. Strange night for Flyers goalies. Neuvirth’s first goal, as mentioned at the top, was a stinker, as a Lars Eller shot along the red line ended up fooling Neuvirth for long enough that Stephenson could poke it past him. None of the other four Washington goals were particularly gruesome ones for Neuvirth to allow, but five goals on 20 shots faced isn’t a great look no matter what. It was after the fifth goal that Alex Lyon finally got a chance to make his NHL debut, and he’d stop all five shots that he’d face in the game’s final 8:02. Then, after the contest, Hakstol suggested that Neuvirth said he wasn’t feeling great after the first period, a product of an illness that’s kept him under the weather lately. Given what we know (Neuvirth’s illness + poor performance last night, back to back today), it’s hard to imagine Lyon doesn’t make his first NHL start tonight, but you never can say it with confidence given how this team handles its goalies.
  4. And we end with some quick hits: Whoooooole lot of E-A-G-L-E-S chants out in that crowd in Washington, eh? ... Giroux was turned aside by Holtby twice on Grade A chances early in the second period, not long after the Caps had tied things up, and NBC Sports Network’s unofficial tracker had him down for four chances in that period. Let’s not get in a tizzy over Giroux going eight games without a goal; he’ll be fine ... Down by a goal, the Flyers started the third period absolutely on fire. Controlling the puck throughout, getting chances, doing all sorts of good things. Naturally, this ended when Nolan Patrick took a penalty and the Capitals would immediately score on their first shot attempt of the period. If one of those early shots goes in, though, we could be talking about a whole different game ... Lastly: Man, NBCSN seemed determined to talk about any sport that wasn’t hockey during this one. Some dude from NASCAR that I do not know was between the benches for the first period, there was lots of Super Bowl talk, there was Olympics discussion ... it’s OK, we didn’t really want to hear them talk about hockey anyways.

(go birds)