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Off-day notes: Top line struggles, potentially no Game 2 lineup changes

Should there be a change in the lineup or in net prior to Friday’s Game 2? Plus, a brief look at the troubles the Flyers’ top line had on Wednesday night.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Philadelphia Flyers at Pittsburgh Penguins
Long night.
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

If you’re looking for one sentence that captures the way things went wrong for the Flyers in last night’s game, you could do a lot worse than “the top line failed to clear the puck on about half of its defensive zone puck touches”.

Via Corey Sznajder’s manual tracking (an invaluable resource; for numbers on last night’s game see here, here, and here):

At 5-on-5, the three guys who make up the Flyers’ top line — Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier, and Michael Raffl — had control of the puck in their own zone 15 times in last night’s game. Nearly half of those times — seven out of 15, to be exact — the player that had said control of the puck failed to get it out of the zone, instead giving it back to the Penguins. They exited the zone with control of the puck fewer times (five) than they turned it over.

For some context, the Flyers as a whole (per Corey’s numbers) failed to clear the puck on just 17 percent of their zone exit attempts in last night’s game. That’s actually a fairly reasonable number; while I don’t have the Flyers’ full-season figures readily available, I opened up the game summaries from five different Flyers games that Corey tracked in the month of March (3/10 against Winnipeg, 3/12 against Vegas, 3/15 against Columbus, 3/17 against Carolina, and 3/26 against Pittsburgh). In each of those games, the Flyers’ failed exit percentage was actually higher than the 17 percent mark that they were at last night.

So if you find yourself asking “why the hell did the Flyers fail to clear the puck so much last night?”: it’s not that they were doing that much more than average. It’s probably more that you remember them more clearly than usual, not just because they were leading to Pittsburgh goals, but because they were coming from guys we’ve grown to expect excellence from.

From the Philadelphia side, much of the discussion of this series pre-puck drop (including from yours truly) centered on whether the Flyers’ depth guys could hang with the Pens’. That still remains a question worth answering, as the battle between, say, the two teams’ middle-six forward groups still could shape how any given game in this series goes.

Yet last night’s game in general, and this factoid in particular, serve as key reminders of not only how difficult the task in front of the likes of Giroux and Couturier is, but also just how important it is that the Flyers’ top guns hold their own in this matchup and just how poorly things may go if they don’t.

I wouldn’t say anyone took for granted just how tough it would be for the Giroux line to match up with the likes of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin (Giroux and Couturier both spent roughly nine minutes against one of those two guys’ lines). But the confidence that Flyers fans had that said line could handle those tough matchups in this series is a testament to just how good Giroux and Couturier have both been this year. And it’s a similar testament to the guys on the other side of the ice that they just forced that Flyers top line into what was probably the worst game they’ve had all season.

I’m not expecting a performance that poor again tomorrow night, because those guys have earned the benefit of the doubt to the point that one bad performance should not and will not define them going forward. But as important as the Flyers’ depth guys are going to be, their efforts aren’t going to matter if the guys that we know can be great aren’t great.

While nothing was confirmed and things could change before Friday night’s game, early reports from Thursday’s practice suggest that there aren’t going to be any changes to the lineup following Wednesday night’s debacle:

There’s something of a balancing act that has to be achieved after Game 1 of a series goes as horrendously as the Flyers’ just did. If you’re going to go out after a game like that and say “it’s just one game”, and actually believe it, you run the risk of looking like you’re losing control if you go and throw your entire plan into the dumpster after said one game. On the other hand, if you can’t look at where your plan went wrong and know what has to be fixed to make it right, that’s arguably even more of a problem. It’s good to trust the process and all, but you need to be able to realize if your process sucks, y’know?

In the first vein, I’m fully OK with the apparent decision to keep Elliott in net. Hakstol came out before the Rangers game this past Saturday and said that he was their guy. Unless he’s since aggravated the injury that kept him out for almost two months, making Elliott the sacrificial lamb for Game 1’s piss-poor effort by everyone on the team does send something of a message of panic, particularly when everyone knows that the alternative is a guy who’s been routinely bad since being acquired back in February.

None of this is meant to excuse Elliott, who was dreadful in the first period of Wednesday’s game, and if he’s similarly bad in Game 2 then the question of “could we really do much worse?” becomes one that has to be taken much more seriously. But if you believed in him coming into this week, and if he’s healthy, you owe it to yourself to see things through for more than one game.

I have less patience for the decision to keep the lineup the same, since changes can be made there that can improve your chances to win without looking like you’re losing control of things. But mostly I just want to know why Travis Konecny isn’t back on the top line. That’s all. We’ll find out tomorrow if the lineups really are going to remain the same, after Dave Hakstol has had another night to sleep on it.