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In Game 2 loss, the Flyers were beaten by their own game plan

On zone entries and when they go badly.

Montreal Canadiens v Philadelphia Flyers - Game Two Photo by Chase Agnello-Dean/NHLI via Getty Images

So you watched the Flyers get positively blown out of the water in their 5-0 Game 2 loss to the Montreal Canadiens on Friday. It was not a pretty thing, and if it had you coming away feeling a little rattled, well, that’s more than understandable. This is the same Flyers team that finished the regular season with wins in nine of their final 10 games, and then rolled through the round robin, giving up two or fewer goals to the Boston Bruins, Washington Capitals, and Tampa Bay Lightning in each of their matchups. This was a team that looked flat out dominant just a week ago, and then they follow it up with that? How does that happen?

We watched the play-in round, and we saw the Canadiens making quick work of knocking off the Penguins, playing them pretty tight defensively and smothering them with an aggressive forecheck, not giving their offensive weapons much time and space to work with, and we had to expect that this is the same game they would bring with them into the first round.

And we might have expected this from the Canadiens, and just as much as the Flyers have faced pushback from them and have had this give them trouble, it’s also beginning to look like the Flyers’ own game plan may be ill suited for this matchup, and hurting more than it’s helping. We’re taking a deeper look here at the Flyers’ zone entries and subsequent offense generated in Game 2, and what they can do to get out of their own way.

Shot data is via Natural Stat Trick, zone entry data manually tracked by me.

5v5 Zone Entries

Period Entry Attempts Entries Failed Carries Passes Dump-ins Recovered Controlled Entry% Possession Entry%
Period Entry Attempts Entries Failed Carries Passes Dump-ins Recovered Controlled Entry% Possession Entry%
1 25 22 3 3 3 16 4 27.27 45.45
2 27 24 3 9 1 14 2 41.57 50
3 21 16 5 6 3 7 3 56.25 75
total 73 62 11 18 7 37 9 40.32 54.84

These numbers, in truth, shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. We know that throughout the regular season, the Flyers have tended to lean more heavily on dump and chase for their first period 5-on-5 zone entries, worked to wear down their opponents a bit, and then moved to playing a more complete transition style through the second and third periods, making more carry-ins and controlled entries, and this is exactly what we saw from them in Game 2. In the first period, we saw the vast majority of their entries being dump-ins, and then they moved increasingly towards carry-ins in the subsequent two periods.

And this may be something that works in certain settings, as the Flyers trust that their own forecheck will be strong and that they’ll be able to retrieve enough of those dump-ins to continue generating offense. But that isn’t what happened in this game. Indeed, in the first period, the Flyers were only able to recover four of their 16 dump-ins, only a hair more than their average on the whole game of 24.32 percent. Which is to say that their own skaters and their own forecheck weren’t the ones winning out, and more often when dumping the puck in, they were facing either an immediate clear or being put in the position of needing to force a turnover if they wanted to make anything of that zone time.

5v5 Shot Attempts

Period CF CF% SF
Period CF CF% SF
1 10 25 3
2 14 45.16 7
3 15 65.22 7
total 39 41.49 17

And we see this struggle with possession reflected in the shot and shot attempt numbers from this game. In the first period, when 72.72 percent of their entries were dump-ins, the Flyers were only able to register ten shot attempts and three shots on goal, despite seeing the most time at 5-on-5 (14:55) of any of the three periods. Their offensive game was next to nonexistent, and it seemed they spent more time chasing play in the opening frame than being able to establish anything in the way of offensive pressure or momentum.

It wasn’t until the second period and on, when they started carrying more pucks through the neutral zone and into the offensive zone that we saw their offensive game coming along as well. Obviously they weren’t able to turn that into anything really tangible, to get anything past Carey Price, but it was an improvement over what they started with, and that’s not nothing.

We know that correlation does not always equal causation, but in this case, there may well be smoke here—looking at the outcome of each of the Flyers’ 5-on-5 entries, we saw that on 14 or their 25 controlled entries (56 percent), they were able to generate, at the very least a shot attempt (and as an aside, that 25 controlled entry total includes a curious stretch of three carry-ins in a row where the puck was carried over the blue line and then immediately dumped into the corner, out of reach of any Flyers skaters, deferring possession). Compare this to the four dump-ins that resulted in a shot attempt, and it becomes pretty immediately clear which mode of entry was directly contributing to the Flyers being able to generate offense.

We have seen this periodic emphasis on dump and chase work for the Flyers, but in using it, you are undertaking a bit of risk—if you’re going to be playing that much dump and chase, that may well have merits as a game plan in certain matchups, but you had better make sure that you’re going to be the first in on those pucks, that you’re going to be the fastest and the most aggressive. That’s a bet that the Flyers made, and it’s one that hasn’t paid off so far in this series.

Now, there were other factors working against the Flyers in this one—their passing just wasn’t terribly crisp and that also makes it difficult to make plays and maintain possession and play a more complete transition style, and Montreal’s skaters were putting pressure on them in the neutral zone as they tried to make some of those plays. This is true, but to my eye, it wasn’t so much pressure to continually force the Flyers into a dump and chase style that they weren’t looking for. Even more often than they were forced to make a quick play because of pressure, they were simply targeting the dump-in as their primary play, and that feels more like game plan than anything the Canadiens are doing to force them into playing a game they don’t want to play.

So what, then, do we make of all of this? Is there hope for the Flyers yet?

Despite how ugly Friday’s loss was, tied 1-1 in the series isn’t a terrible position to be in. And part of playing in a best of seven series means that both sides have a chance to look for tendencies in their opponent’s game as well as what is and isn’t working in their own game, and to make adjustments accordingly. What the Flyers should take away from Game 2 is that they were getting absolutely torched in the first period when they leaned heaviest on trying to play dump and chase, and they got some of their best chances in the second and third periods when they were able to carry the puck into the offensive zone. Even if they weren’t generating something immediately off the rush, maintaining possession was key, it was their best hope of generating anything in the way of offense (remember, on only four of their 37 dump ins did they manage so much as a shot attempt).

The fix isn’t always as easy in practice as it is on paper, but this remains one the Flyers should look into making. It is something of a common denominator between when they were getting caved in in Game 2 and when they were not.

And besides, it’s not like it could make things much worse.