Capitals 2, Flyers 0: 10 things we learned from a costly Game 1 loss
The Flyers lost Game 1, but even more devastating to their chances at beating the Capitals was a potentially-series ending injury to key forward Sean Couturier.
Morning Observations is a feature where we break down the previous night's game with an analytical eye.
Observation #1: Washington with the edge at 5-on-5
Over the final two months of the regular season, the Philadelphia Flyers undeniably played fantastic hockey. Part of that was due to the transformation of the team's third and fourth lines into something other than a complete liability, but it was mostly a flawed team getting the absolute most out of their talent. It became clear while previewing the series that despite the Flyers' stellar late-season play, their roster simply didn't match up on paper with the Capitals if you compared them forward by forward, defenseman by defenseman.
The gap between the two clubs wasn't as dramatic as oddsmakers seemed to believe, but it certainly existed. And last night, the Flyers did look like a team just a little bit worse in every area. Philadelphia wasn't taken to the cleaners at even strength, but the Capitals won every meaningful category. Washington led in score adjusted Corsi (59.16%) and generated more quality shots (7-4 edge in high-danger chances). They even won the neutral zone, per my live tracking during the game. They created 49 offensive zone entries to the Flyers' 41, and had a slight edge in controlled entries as well (18-17). It wasn't a thorough beatdown, but it was a comprehensive one.
Observation #2: The Couturier injury is devastating
If the Flyers had simply lost Game One by this score and in this manner, it would be pretty easy to shake it off with a "we'll get 'em next time" mentality. After all, they did a lot of things right, drawing penalties and forcing the Caps to dump the puck repeatedly (36.7% controlled entry rate for Washington). But unfortunately for Philadelphia, the injury to Sean Couturier changes the entire complexion of this series.
Couturier took a clean hit from Alexander Ovechkin in the neutral zone during the second period, crashed into the boards shoulder-first, and never returned. After the game, CSN's Tim Panaccio reported that Couturier had suffered an AC joint sprain and would miss the rest of the series. It's impossible to overstate how big of a loss this is for the Flyers. There's a reason why Couturier was my No. 1 "Key to the Series" -- he's a fantastic player and the team's best hope to slow down Ovechkin at five-on-five. A real case can be made that Couturier was Philadelphia's top even strength forward this season, as he led the team with 2.04 Points per 60 and was their second-best possession forward after Michael Raffl.
Without Couturier, the Flyers' second line is a question mark, and the third line of Read-Cousins-Gagner that looked to be a matchup nightmare for Washington will probably have to be broken up. In many ways, the injury reminds me of when Kimmo Timonen was unavailable for the start of the Flyers-Penguins Eastern Conference Final in 2008 due to a blood clot. Like this year, the Flyers were playing a more talented team who may have held the edge even if Philadelphia had a healthy Timonen. But we never had a chance to find out if the Flyers could have pulled the upset with all of their key players in the lineup. I worry that the same might be true this postseason, as well.
Observation #3: Not getting Jake involved hurt PP
The Flyers did have a chance to impose their will on the Capitals early via their power play. Philadelphia drew three minors in the first period, the product of hard work gaining entry into the offensive zone at five-on-five. Unfortunately, Philadelphia came up empty on each opportunity, and later failed to capitalize on another chance in the second period. In the Flyers' defense, the Capitals do have a great penalty kill (2nd in the NHL this season), and it's been particularly incredible from a shot prevention standpoint since the start of March. Washington's F1 in their defensive zone PK formation (the highest forward in the zone, closest to the blue line) was especially disruptive, taking away time and space for Claude Giroux and Shayne Gostisbehere to make passes and take shots.
But the Flyers' top unit made life easier for the Capitals' penalty killers by completely ignoring Jakub Voracek on the right side, especially during the first few opportunities of the night. If the F1 forward is cheating over to prevent Gostisbehere and Giroux from creating shots, Voracek should be wide open on his side, and the Czech winger certainly isn't lacking for skill. Philadelphia did start to utilize Voracek more in their second period power play opportunity, so I wouldn't be surprised if the coaching staff pointed this out during the intermission. But even if the Flyers actively made the adjustment, they already had wasted 75% of their power play chances for the game. Against a penalty kill as effective as Washington's, that's a luxury that Philadelphia simply does not have.
Observation #4: Mason great, and he must stay great
With Sean Couturier probably out for the remainder of the series, it seems unlikely that the Flyers will have much of a chance to win the territorial battle at even strength. As a result, they'll need a Jaroslav Halak-esque performance from Steve Mason to make up for the expected gap in shots on goal. Last night, at least, he seemed up to the task. Mason made save after save in the second period, frustrating a Washington power play that was firing on all cylinders from the start. The goaltender was the only reason that the Flyers still had a shot at stealing Game One with five minutes remaining in the third period, despite being thoroughly outplayed from the start of the second until the final whistle.
Mason may have been charged with the loss, but a 0.936 save percentage on the night implies that he did his job and did it well. Unfortunately for the Flyers and Mason, his work isn't going to get any easier. If Philadelphia has any shot at coming back to win this series, it will probably be due to Mason carrying his team across the finish line. The biggest bright spot for the Flyers last night was that their goaltender did nothing to rule out that possibility.
Observation #5: Defensive zone exits were an issue
The Flyers did a lot of things right at even strength last night, but one area that they can certainly clean up is their defensive zone exits. Far too often, Philadelphia attempted to blindly fire the puck around the boards in a desperate attempt to clear the zone while under pressure, and invariably it was kept in by either a Washington defenseman or the high forward. To be clear, there are set exit plays that involve an intentional pass around the boards to a waiting forward up high in the zone, but the Capitals appeared to be sitting on those designed breakouts all game long.
Philadelphia under Dave Hakstol has generally done a solid job in engineering controlled defensive zone exits, even while dealing with an opponent's forecheck. They certainly aren't Montreal under Michel Therrien, a team that has no philosophical issue with mindlessly flipping the puck out to center ice. As a result, I do believe this will be an area that they clean up for Saturday's Game 2, likely by using the middle of the defensive zone a bit more via carry-outs.
Observation #6: Sam Gagner was a standout
Even accounting for his bad third period double-minor for high-sticking, Sam Gagner was Philadelphia's most effective forward last night. In his first playoff game of a nine-year NHL career, Gagner appeared excited to make up for lost time, generating two scoring chances and leading the Flyers with a strong 68.18% Corsi For percentage at five-on-five. He was one of the few Flyers who seemed capable of moving the puck through the middle of the ice with speed and possession, a task usually best suited for players like Jakub Voracek and Brayden Schenn. It will be intriguing to see if Gagner's role is expanded in the wake of Sean Couturier's untimely injury.
Observation #7: Flyers' PK simply must be better
We knew going into the series that Washington's power play would be dangerous, but I can't say I expected them to be quite so efficient against the Flyers considering Philadelphia's late-season penalty kill improvement. Instead, Washington took apart the Flyers with the man advantage, with only stellar play from Steve Mason holding the Capitals to one power play goal. In about eleven minutes on the power play, Washington created 27 shot attempts, 13 shots on goal, and 13 scoring chances. It was truly a shooting gallery, especially during their first four opportunities. Philadelphia's penalty kill did show signs of improvement during the Gagner double-minor, so if you're looking for positive signs for Game 2, that would certainly be one. But on the whole, the Capitals had their way on the power play, and if the Flyers repeat their inability to suppress shots throughout the rest of the series, the scores could get pretty ugly.
Observation #8: Questionable officiating in the third
The officiating in last night's game was actually pretty even on both sides, until an eighty-second period late in the third period when everyone seemed to lose their respective minds. It started with Tom Wilson boarding Andrew MacDonald on the forecheck, an obvious penalty. Wayne Simmonds then engaged Wilson, and the two appeared to have dropped the gloves simultaneously before squaring off. It was a dumb play by Simmonds, who appeared to have taken himself off the for the ensuing Philadelphia power play (boarding minor and fighting major for Wilson, fighting major for Simmonds). But the officials instead chose to give Simmonds an extra roughing penalty, odd for what seemed like a pretty standard brawl between two willing combatants.
Seconds later, the officials missed two obvious penalties committed against Michael Raffl, both of which could have sent Philadelphia to a late power play down only one goal. First, Raffl had his stick held and eventually taken out of his hands while on the forecheck, and later in the same shift, he dumped the puck in and then was knocked down as he attempted to chase it, an clear interference penalty. But both were missed, and two minutes later the Capitals put the game on ice with a Jay Beagle tally. The Flyers certainly didn't deserve to win this game, as they were thoroughly outplayed. But it would have been nice to see what could have happened if the Philly power play had one last shot for a game-tying goal.
Observation #9: No clear edge in bottom-six play
Prior to series start, we identified the battle of the third and fourth lines as an area where the Flyers might have an edge. After one game, let's call it a push. As I suspected, the Philadelphia third line of Matt Read, Nick Cousins and Sam Gagner gave the Capitals fits through the first half of the game, before they were scattered due to the Couturier injury. Appropriately, the Washington third line of Jason Chimera, Mike Richards and Marcus Johansson was the team's weakest line in terms of shot attempt differential.
But the Capitals made up for their third line's relative struggles via a surprise performance from the fourth unit on their depth chart -- that of Daniel Winnik, Jay Beagle and Tom Wilson. They had the game that the Flyers' "Untouchables" line wanted to have, executing a punishing physical forecheck and even chipping in with a late goal courtesy of Beagle. To sum it up, Philadelphia won the battle of the third lines, but Washington delivered the knockout blow via their fourth line checkers. It's disappointing that we won't get to see these same bottom-six units battle it out over the course of a full series, as the Cousins unit likely gets broken up due to Couturier's absence. But it was nice to see that the Flyers' talented depth forwards proved how underrated they are, for at least one game.
Observation #10: Impact of Couturier injury on lineup
Assuming that Sean Couturier truly is out for the rest of the series, Dave Hakstol has some tough lineup decisions to make. During the game, he chose to move Brayden Schenn to the center position and bumped Sam Gagner up to second line wing. But given the ability to dress a new forward in place of Couturier on Saturday, Hakstol will have a wide variety of options open to him. I suspect that Scott Laughton comes into the lineup, just has he did during the final week of the season when Nick Cousins sat for a game.
The real question is whether Laughton will slide right into Couturier's spot as 2C, or if Hakstol will keep Schenn in the role. I'd lean towards the latter decision, even though I'm not a fan of Schenn at center. I just believe that Laughton's style of play is far more effective at wing, since he can use his speed to stretch opposing defenses on breakouts rather than helping to kickstart them down low, which is part of a center's job. Schenn isn't a fantastic defensive forward either, but I'm confident that he's more reliable than Laughton and probably will make fewer mistakes.