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Penguins 5, Flyers 4: Close, but no cigar in Pittsburgh

Some observations from the proceedings yesterday afternoon.

NHL: Philadelphia Flyers at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

A Wealy, wealy strong afternoon

The man who had just two assists in his past 16 games, which included a couple healthy scratches, broke out in a huge way when the Flyers needed it most on Sunday. Jordan Weal picked up two primary assists in the first period and added a power play goal late in the second period to nod things up at 3-3 heading to the third.

But not only was Weal effective in the box score, he looked like the player that the Flyers —and GM Ron Hextall— wanted from the Kings in that Vincent Lecavalier trade. Weal’s frustration over the last few weeks was evident in practice and during games, but the forward’s play has been trending upwards and he showed on Sunday that he can be a play generator from the bottom six that the Flyers sorely need.

On both assists Weal created zone entries with confidence, then showed the patience to allow help to develop and find it with tape-to-tape passes. Both Travis Sanheim and Brandon Manning were in perfect shooting position thanks to the passes from Weal and were able to beat Matt Murray as a result. If those passes are even off by a few inches there’s a good chance Murray has more time to react and make a save.

Given the way things have gone for Weal this season and lately, it was great to see him turn good metrics in results on the ice and on the scoresheet. The Flyers can never have enough secondary scoring and getting Weal going down the stretch would help solidify the bottom six for the push to the playoffs.

Flyers’ blue line assault continues

While a ton of (deserved) credit for the Flyers’ rebound in 2017-18 has gone to Sean Couturier, Claude Giroux and Jake Voracek, lost in the shuffle has been the high-scoring Flyers’ defense corps.

With first period tallies from Travis Sanheim and Brandon Manning, the Flyers now have 46 goals from defenseman on the year. Last season the defense contributed just 35 goals the entire season. The 46 goals also puts the Flyers second in the entire league in that category, trailing only the Predators’ blue line with 49. That’s pretty good company for Shayne Gostisbehere, Ivan Provorov and mates.

But these weren’t your garden variety, seeing-eye point shots either. Both Sanheim and Manning showed great awareness on their goals, which has been a knock on both the rookie and well Manning for his entire career.

Sanheim hopped off the bench with Jordan Weal carrying the puck and darted for open ice in the middle of the Penguins’ defense. There’s no doubt the rookie saw the open space and was clamoring to join the action from the replay. Next his pure talent and hockey sense took over, giving Weal a target with his stick on the ice and ripping a hard wrist shot past Murray’s glove side, looking up at the net just before releasing it. Plays like that make it hard to believe that Flyers coach Dave Hakstol essentially refused to keep this kid in the lineup.

Manning, often drawing (for good reason) the ire of Flyers fans, was equally impressive on his first period tally. Evgeni Malkin started the play with a bad fly by in the offensive zone that allowed the Flyers an easy clear and breakout. Manning carried the puck before dishing to Weal and then taking a look behind him to see if Malkin had caught up yet. Since Malkin was still lagging behind, Manning joined the rush and Weal gave him a drop pass on a tee that Manning fired past Murray. The awareness to make sure he had time to join the play by checking on Malkin behind the play was slick and it ended up being a huge goal in the hockey game.

Bad Jake

The Penguins don’t have the league’s best power play by accident. First, they’ve got high-skill guys like Sidney Crosby, Malkin and Phil Kessel. Second, they make their chances count and you can’t give them any more they they should have. As the Flyers have known for years in these battles, it’s nearly impossible to go penalty free against Pittsburgh, but cutting out the unnecessary penalties goes a long way in these matchups.

The box score will only show Pittsburgh going 1-for-2 on the man-advantage, but they also scored on a delayed call early in the second period to take a 3-2 lead. They were able to turn around 2-1 deficit after the first intermission in just 2:37 of game time thanks in part to a boneheaded penalty to Jakub Voracek just before the end of the first period.

Voracek was locked in a board battle with Carl Hagelin and appeared to take a slight elbow to start the altercation, but retaliated with a couple of cross-checks to the back of Hagelin in frustration. Hagelin drew the penalty and Voracek was off to the box for the final 12 seconds of the period and allowed the Penguins to start the second on the man-advantage.

After being outshot 14-6 and giving up multiple odd-man rushes, the Penguins and coach Mike Sullivan were going to have to regroup always so why give them a cheap power play like that? No doubt frustration sets in, but a veteran like Voracek has to understand the game situation there with his club playing solid hockey and avoid retaliate and suspend their momentum.

Of course the Penguins got a power play goal from Patrick Hornqvist 37 seconds into the second to fish out Voracek and steal momentum back. With that momentum on their side they’d force another penalty and score on the delayed call to take lead within three minutes of intermission.

Matching Pittsburgh’s tempo

Claude Giroux spoke of how the Flyers have struggled in recent games to match the Penguins’ speed and tempo, but that wasn’t so much the case on Sunday afternoon. Well not early on, at least.

The Flyers’ top six can skate with anyone, as can their first two defensive pairs as well, but the Penguins roll four lines with speed and have some of the more mobile defense pairs in the league. The presents a slew of problems in the transition game, especially for a team like the Flyers that doesn’t have a ton of speed in their bottom six. Many games in this matchup have seen odd-man rushes galore for Pittsburgh, but the Flyers were able to turn the tables early on in this one.

NBC’s broadcast had the Flyers with five odd-man rushes as opposed to two for the Penguins through the first 20 minutes. While the Flyers were beneficiaries of a few gap breakdowns from Pittsburgh, they also kept things relative tight most of the afternoon to cut down on the chances the Penguins got in transition.

The downside is that the Penguins still score five goals and controlled the puck for long periods in the offensive zone, but at the end of the day they are the better team and are built to do just that. What the Flyers did in other games this year was make gap mistakes and bad pinches that led to cheap odd-man goals for Pittsburgh. Controlling the tempo allowed the Flyers to keep the game close and earn a key point in the playoff race.

Hit me with your best shot

via NaturalStatTrick

If you look at the box score you’d swear that 41 shots would net a better result that the Flyers ending up getting on Sunday. The problem is that while getting all those shots is great, it also matters where they’re coming from on the ice. Most NHL goaltenders will stop 98% of distance shots they can see, and the Flyers attempted a slew of them on Matt Murray in this one.

The caveat is that both Sanheim and Manning did beat Murray from distance, but both were goals that the Penguins’ netminder would like to have back considering a lack of net presence on either one really. But while those two did sneak in, none of the others did as Jordan Weal’s power play market came inside of the left circle for the third goal and Sean Couturier was right in Murray’s lap for the tying goal.

The Flyers wanted to simplify their game this time around against Pittsburgh and did just that, but perhaps got too simple when shooting the puck. At times guys were blindly firing pucks at the net without even propping their heads up. The result wasn’t all that great, save for Shayne Gostisbehere’s late shot that found Murray’s pad and then Couturier’s stick with 42 seconds left.

Perhaps the Flyers were playing extra safe in an effort to not get beat back the other way on those odd-man rushes that burned them before, but the defense wasn’t overly active after Sanheim and Manning’s goals and was more content to throw pucks blindly at the net than to pinch in and create. The forwards were just as guilty, peeling off rushes and differing to the defense, which was credited with 19 shots on goal.

As most of us know the Flyers can get passive sometimes and while it can be equally as frustrating to see them not shoot the puck, it can be just as bad when the shots aren’t of much quality.

Bonus: Playoff litmus test

The Penguins —for better or worse—are the back-to-back defending Stanley Cup champions, and the Flyers hung right with them on the road for 60 minutes. The Flyers got the first punch, got knocked down early in the second but battled back late in the period. Then Crosby punched them down again but they didn’t quit and worked through a very tight-checking third period without going down two goals before finding an equalizer with less than a minute left.

Sure, the overtime session was ugly, but those things don’t happen in playoff hockey. Apart from that the Flyers more than held their own in a tough road test against a Cup contender. The bad news is that the Flyers couldn’t find a way to get the win, but they did build some confidence here in a tough spot before heading out to Dallas and Colorado before coming home for another test in the Bruins.

Pittsburgh didn’t get off to a good start, but the Flyers took their best shot in the second and third period and hung right there with the champs. It wasn’t quite the playoff atmosphere just yet, but the Flyers showed better than a lot of people would have thought in this one and that bodes well down the stretch in the playoff push and perhaps into the playoffs.