The Flyers lost this game for a lot of reasons. You could say they lost it because they couldn’t win a skills competition, or that they lost it because they quite simply were unable to out-score their opponent, or that the world was simply not going to allow the Flyers’ winning streak to continue any longer. Two seasons of missing the playoffs after winning ten straight games would just be too much; for them, for us, for the rest of the league trying to figure out what the Flyers actually are. So it didn’t happen. The streak was snapped at eight, and one of the main reasons why they lost was their inability to do anything good in the neutral zone with consistency.
When it comes to the Flyers’ play in the neutral zone last night, their problems started early and persisted through the entirety of the game. The Kings utilized a few different neutral zone formations throughout the game, but primarily ran a somewhat rare 1-1-3 — a set-up that the Flyers never came close to figuring out how to beat for more than just a couple of shifts.
Even with the team’s top line of James van Riemsdyk, Claude Giroux, and Travis Konecny on the ice, the Flyers choose to turn to the tip-in to gain entry to the zone rather than trying to attack the line with speed. Radko Gudas hits Konecny with a slap-pass for him to redirect into the zone, and they get the puck deep. However, they’re unable to beat Drew Doughty to the puck, who proceeds to flip it right back into the neutral zone.
On their next attempt, coming just about 30 seconds later, the Flyers look towards the same play to grant them entry into the offensive zone; the tip-in.
It’s once again Gudas making the pass, this time to Wayne Simmonds, and the result is the same as before; the Kings retrieve the dump-in and are able to send the puck out of the zone — this time with control. Once Kyle Clifford beats Simmonds to the puck, he sends it along the boards to Sean Walker (#61), who then finds Michael Amadio (#10) further up the boards, who then makes the beautiful exit pass to Austin Wagner (#51). Full disclosure, I had to look up the Kings’ roster just to figure out who those three were. They’re not exactly household names burning the Flyers here.
Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice shame on me, fool me three times, well, that just means we have a problem. And that we did.
The good news is that this wasn’t the exact same scenario, but the bad news is that it led to the same result. On this entry attempt, the Kings’ neutral zone formation resembles more of a 1-2-2 rather than a 1-1-3, but the Flyers still go for the tip play, with this being the least successful of the first three. Scott Laughton’s redirect doesn’t have enough power behind it, Doughty is essentially gifted the puck, and he then goes on to start the breakout that leads to the Kings’ first goal of the game.
We now have a goal allowed directly following one of their failed tip-in tries, but that doesn’t stop them from going right back to it just about six minutes later.
After Ivan Provorov’s pass fails to get to Simmonds, Provorov gets the puck back and looks to Robert Hagg to start the breakout. He hits Laughton at the red line, and Laughton sends the puck around the boards and behind the net, where Jonathan Quick is able to gain control. Now, this play actually works in the Flyers’ favor, and Quick goes on to mishandle the puck and the Flyers are almost able to capitalize. However, had he handled the puck better, or just let his defenseman who was strides ahead of Nolan Patrick retrieve the puck himself, the Kings would’ve been able to start another breakout. While it almost led to a goal, you’d be jumping through hoops to consider that a “successful” entry when in reality it was just a bad play by the goaltender.
Now, before we move on to the second period, it should be made clear that the Flyers did have successful entries, with the majority of them being counter-attack rushes.
Once Sean Couturier intercepts Dustin Brown’s neutral zone pass, the Flyers immediately go on the attack and are able to enter the zone with relative ease, outside of Voracek’s almost-fumble, and it leads to a decent scoring chance for Provorov. The Kings had no time to set up their neutral zone trap, and the Flyers were able to enter the zone with control.
They were able to do this again later in the period, and it once again led to an offensive possession.
In this instance, the play begins in the Flyers’ own defensive zone when Robert Hagg blocks a point shot. Hagg is then able to find van Riemsdyk with an exit pass, who then hits Giroux with a pass as he darts up the middle of the ice. The only reason they have as much space as they do to work with it because of their quick transition from defense to offense. These types of quick-strike transition plays were the only chance the Flyers had at entering the zone with control in the first period, and it didn’t happen nearly enough.
However, early in the second period the Flyers began to show signs of being able to break through the Kings’ 1-1-3.
It all starts with Anze Kopitar traveling just a little too deep into the Flyers’ zone, leading to a manageable 3-on-3 rush for Couturier, Jakub Voracek, and Oskar Lindblom. With Voracek trailing him, Couturier simply hits the blue line, leaves the puck behind him, and forces Alec Martinez further into the zone. Voracek is able to find Provorov, who is left open partially because Lindblom is able to push Carl Hagelin in towards Quick, for the chance. Once the puck got beyond Kopitar, the trap was all but nonexistent.
They were able to find success on their next entry attempt as well, and it led to their first goal of the game.
Giroux sends the puck from the Flyers’ defensive zone all the way to an already moving Voracek at the opposing blue line. He’s able to use his moment to beat Derek Forbort to the puck once he chips it in, and they begin to cycle the puck. Of course, the cycle doesn’t last for long as Giroux makes an incredible diving pass to find Couturier for the goal.
At this point it looked like the Flyers had finally found a way to beat the Kings in the neutral zone. They were hitting the blue line with speed, making quick passes, and had begun to string together a few positive shifts in a row.
However, after a failed attempt to carry the puck into the zone early in the third period, the tip-in would re-emerge, and the results from earlier in the game would come with it.
Just like before, the Flyers basically give Doughty the puck here, as Couturier’s attempt to direct the puck deep into the zone fails, and the Kings re-gain possession. This attempt stands out in particular not only because the Flyers are a down a goal with ten minutes remaining in regulation, but also because of the five players currently on the ice in Travis Sanheim, Provorov, Giroux, Couturier, and Voracek. With those five on the ice, down a goal in the middle of the third, the focus should be on attacking the line with speed and generating chances off the rush. Instead they turn the puck over and the Kings head the other way.
In-fact, had Couturier held onto the puck, there was open space in the middle of the ice to send the puck towards, which in-turn would have allowed Giroux to hit the line with speed.
Following an unsuccessful dump-in by Patrick, the Flyers get back to trying to enter the zone with control, and while it wasn’t by design, they end up being successful in doing so and it almost leads to Lindblom tying the game.
They’d run the tip-in play once more, with just under three minutes remaining in the game, before they pulled Anthony Stolarz and were able to score 6-on-5. While their play in the neutral zone wasn’t their only problem, it was their biggest. And had more focus been placed on attacking the Kings’ neutral zone trap with speed, they likely would have turned the puck over less, generated more chances, and maybe even walked away with their ninth straight victory.