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Travis Sanheim and Matt Niskanen lead the way on defense

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Analyzing defensive pairing performance for Flyers vs. Blackhawks

2019 NHL Global Series Challenge Prague - Chicago Blackhawks v Philadelphia Flyers Photo by Chase Agnello-Dean/NHLI via Getty Images

The Philadelphia Flyers won their season opener on Friday over the Chicago Blackhawks and there are plenty of reasons to be excited. The team looked a little quicker and alive under new head coach Alain Vigneault, while Kevin Hayes played a pretty good game in between Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek. We know the goals and saves that got us to the final score of 4-3, but let’s try to take a deeper look at some of the plays that may have gone unnoticed on Friday.

Line By Line will try to combine both the eye test and analytics. A deeper look at zone entries/exits, extended cycles, poke checks that started odd-man rushes, or whatever else actually happened during the game to illustrate how a certain player or team managed to do so well or poorly against the line they are facing that night. This, of course, will be a far from perfect exercise but not for a lack of effort. I’m going to use the play-by-play sheet from NHL.com as well as Natural Stat Trick for reference of the events, but I am rewatching the games and part of rewatching is making sure there aren’t obvious glares between the play-by-play sheet and what actually happened in the game. With each game I’m working on a way to organize these thoughts and numbers in the most concise, informative way possible. This article ain’t it, but let’s see how the lines and pairs performed.


Travis Sanheim - Matt Niskanen

65.22 unblocked shots-for percentage (15 for, 8 against)
64.29 unblocked shots-for percentage in home plate area (9 for, 5 against)
62.5 shots-for percentage (10 for, 6 against)
60 shots-for percentage in home plate area (6 for, 4 against)
Minus-1 icing differential (forced zero icings, iced it once)

There’s not much to complain about with this pairing after the season opener. They tilted the ice, they were on the ice for the team’s first goal, they drew penalties, and they weren’t on the ice for many high-quality chances against. While primarily matched up against Erik Gustafsson - Duncan Keith for most of their 15:48 together at 5-on-5, these two posted an astonishing 65.52 corsi for percentage and 66.79 expected goals-for percentage. On top of their impressive numbers above, this tandem only allowed one unblocked shot attempt for the entire third period and the last shot on goal they allowed came off Alex DeBrincat’s stick with 2:31 left in the second period. If this becomes a routine thing this team will be in good shape.

The Little Things

Travis Konecny could have had a hat trick on Friday thanks to a play started to Sanheim. With around three minutes left in the first period, the blue liner forced Jonathan Toews into losing the puck just inside the Flyers’ blue line before he gained control of the puck in the neutral zone moments later and entered the offensive zone. Sanheim put a shot on net that bounced into the corner for Carsen Twarynski, but the rookie lost a board battle and a clear attempt from the Hawks was gloved down by Sanheim. The d-man quickly moved it back down to Twarynski, who moved behind Corey Crawford’s net from left-to-right before he found Konecny in front for a miss that even fooled Jim Jackson.

Sanheim also drew a pair of penalties in the win. His first came just under five minutes into the second period, when he carried the puck from Philly’s blue line into the offensive zone and below the goal line before he was ultimately tripped by Keith behind the net. Sanheim also goaded Andrew Shaw into a cross-checking penalty after a Hawks’ scoring chance late in the second period.

One of Sanheim’s lone low points on Friday was when Brandon Saad beat him to the outside on a rush to the net for a chance that was denied a little over ten minutes into the game.

Niskanen was a steady presence all game and provided one notable play on each side of the puck. To go along with his knockdown on Olli Maatta’s clear attempt to set up Brent Seabrook’s delay-of-game call, Niskanen alleviated pressure during the game’s first penalty kill. Robert Hagg controlled the puck in the defensive zone and had an opportunity to clear it, but he managed to turn it over. Niskanen cleared up the situation by winning a board battle to initiate the zone exit.

Ivan Provorov - Justin Braun

52.63 unblocked shots-for percentage (10 for, 9 against)
71.43 unblocked shots-for percentage in home plate area (5 for, 2 against)
47.06 shots-for percentage (8 for, 9 against)
60 shots-for percentage in home plate area (3 for, 2 against)
Minus-3 icing differential (forced zero icings, iced it 3 times)

Although the numbers above look pretty decent, this duo has its fair share of struggles on Friday. On the ice for three Flyers’ icings, poor passing decisions, and bobbling pucks leading to turnovers highlight that not everything went smoothly for these two in the season opener. That said, this pair does still have the potential to thrive both offensively and defensively. If they can keep posting a 53.85 Corsi-for percentage and 52.24 expected goals-for percentage on a nightly basis while cleaning up some their mistakes they could help to form a respectable top four with Sanheim-Niskanen.

The Little Things

Both Provorov and Braun were the cause of an icing last week. After Provorov circled Carter Hart’s net he cleared the puck all the way down the ice just 2:07 into the game. Within the same minute Braun missed Jacob Voracek with a pass in the neutral zone.

The two also played a crucial role in Nylander’s goal against. Provorov was pressured by Patrick Kane in the neutral zone and turned it over to Nylander, who started the scoring play the other way. With Nylander in the slot, Braun managed to both give the forward enough space to shoot while also blocking Hart’s sight line and failed to block the shot while doing so. A painful combination of one of Provorov’s glaring issues early last season and an issue with a stay-at-home defenseman.

Both Provorov and Braun made the same mistake later in the game, but luckily they occurred on different plays and neither resulted in a goal against. After a lengthy cycle in the offensive zone, Provorov bobbled a puck at the blue line which led to a Kane-Kampf 2-on-1 the other way against Niskanen. The newly acquired d-man was able to time a diving block to break up a cross-ice pass to end the odd-man rush against. Braun screened Hart without blocking the shot or taking away space from the shooter again on Kane’s goal. He battled Shaw in front of the crease and eventually moved in front of Shaw while the gritty forward moved slightly to his left to create an even bigger screen in front. Kane was able to put one through Braun’s screen and past Hart to make it a one-goal game.

This duo also made things hard on themselves with a little over six minutes left in the first period. While pressured on a puck retrieval, Braun launches a pass past Lindblom on the boards at the right point and into the neutral zone where the Hawks retrieve the puck in the defensive zone. On the ensuing rush, Provorov bobbled a Gustafsson clear off the glass in the neutral zone and had the puck knocked loose by Toews. Nylander grabbed the puck and carried it into the Flyers’ zone before he glided it to a streaking Kane entering the zone. Kane caught Braun flatfooted and put a decent chance on Hart.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom for this pair, as Provorov flashed some of his offensive upside in the win. On Lindblom’s power-play goal Provorov entered the zone with steam and dished it to Konecny at the right point before he drove to the net. His drive to the net created a lane for Konecny to hit Lindblom with a cross-ice pass for the goal. Later in the second period, Voracek pulled up just inside the blue line after a zone entry and hit Provorov, who just flew into the zone, for a blast in the right faceoff circle that hit Crawford’s shoulder.

Shayne Gostisbehere - Robert Hagg

57.14 unblocked shots-for percentage (12 for, 9 against)
71.4 unblocked shots-for percentage (5 for, 2 against)
52.94 shots-for percentage (9 for, 8 against)
66.67 shots-for percentage in home plate area (4 for, 2 against)
Minus-2 icing differential (forced 1 icing, iced it 3 times)

The tandem of Gostisbehere and Hagg did pretty well on Friday, as they were on the right side of most the underlying numbers. Aside from a 46.43 Corsi-for percentage in 12:28 together at 5-on-5, Gostisbehere-Hagg posted the numbers above and a 50.41 expected goals-for percentage with most of their work coming against DeBrincat-Strome-Shaw. In the long run this usage of Gostisbehere will become a topic of discussion. Starting a lot of his shifts in the offensive zone makes sense (these two were the only d-men to start 75 percent or more of their shifts in the offensive zone), but if he isn’t able to jump up as much and create chances the main appeal of Ghost as a player is lost.

The Little Things

It wasn’t a flashy offensive play, but Gostisbehere did a fair amount of work to get the Flyers puck possession on a sequence halfway through the first period. After he stepped up on Maatta at the Hawks’ blue line to end one potential breakout, Gostisbehere then pressured Zack Smith near the Flyers’ bench to force the puck free in the defensive zone where the blue liner grabbed control of the disc.

As for additional notes, the only points I had outside of things that haven’t already been mentioned are a few icings involved with these two. Each player was the cause of an icing, as Gostisbehere carried the puck over the red line onto the Flyers’ half of the ice before winging it past JVR for an icing on the man advantage and Hagg (unforced) fired one all the way down the ice behind Hart’s net with under five to play in the period. They also played a hand in earning an icing for Philly, as Twarynski and Laughton pressured Kampf into a glass and out in the Hawks’ zone that the pair beat Kubalik to at the other end of the rink.

Pairs on the Fly

81.82 unblocked shots-for percentage (9 for, 2 against)
66.67 unblocked shots-for percentage from home plate area
71.43 shots-for percentage (5 for, 2 against)
50 shots-for percentage in home plate area (2 for, 2 against)
Minus-2 icing differential (forced zero icings, iced it twice)

Just like the forward lines these defensive pairs held their own when things got messy. Sanheim and Provorov were on the ice for a lot of action, as they were on the ice for two Flyers’ unblocked shots to one from Chicago. They were also on the ice for Konecny’s second goal and DeBrincat’s tally. Provorov-Gostisbehere (one shot in home plate area) and Sanheim-Hagg each saw a pair of Flyers’ unblocked shots and nothing against while Sanheim-Braun saw a shot on goal from the home plate area for both clubs. Provorov was on the ice with both Hagg and Niskanen for a miss from the home plate area.