Flyers 4, Hurricanes 3: 10 things we learned from a tight win

Coming off an especially frustrating loss to the rival Penguins, the Flyers dug deep and came back from a 3-2 second period deficit to top Carolina.

Morning Observations is a feature where we break down the previous night's game with an analytical eye.

#1: On the whole a solid performance

It was obvious from the moment the schedule was released that Sunday night’s game against the Carolina Hurricanes was going to be a secretly-difficult contest for the Flyers. Coming at the end of a hellish five-games-in-seven-nights stretch, Philadelphia was already going to battling fatigue. Add in the fact that the previous night they faced the rival Penguins in what is always an emotional, exhausting game, and the fact that they had to travel to Carolina, and given that it was a 5 PM start following a 7 PM game the night before — the circumstances were against the Flyers in this one.

The Flyers persevered, though. They finished around break-even in key advanced metrics like score-adjusted Corsi and Fenwick (49.43% in the former, 51.71% the latter), and that was after a third period which saw the players clearly running on fumes. Carolina is actually a strong 5v5 play-driving team, so to control the game through two periods and still finish around 50% on the whole despite the circumstances of their schedule is pretty impressive. Most importantly, however, they earned a much needed win after giving away two straight games in which they dominated the underlying metrics.

#2: Goal luck lands in Flyers’ favor this time

Philadelphia’s losses this week to the Arizona Coyotes and the Pittsburgh Penguins were caused by a number of issues, but first and foremost was underwhelming goaltending. In both nights, Steve Mason allowed a few tallies that he is fully capable of stopping, and as a result, the Flyers’ territorial dominance was wasted. Last night, the goaltending luck swung in the other direction.

Michal Neuvirth was passable on the whole, but it was the play of Cam Ward that really swung this one. Philadelphia lost the all-situations “Expected Goals” battle 2.89 - 2.21, but they were able to outperform that projection by two scores while Carolina came in right at their mark. It’s easy to remember the two goals that Ward “should have” stopped — Shayne Gostisbehere and Radko Gudas both were able to slip point shots by the Carolina goalie. In both cases, Ward may have been dealing with screens, so it’s debatable how much blame he should shoulder, but what’s undeniable is that the Flyers finally got a little luck when it came to goal outcomes, scoring on two relatively harmless shots. It was a long time coming. Report & Highlights | Corsica.Hockey Game Recap Page | Recap | NaturalStatTrick Recap | | BSH Recap | Meltzer’s Musings

#3: Strong first period, two bad shifts

The Flyers may have been outscored 3-2 in the first period of Saturday night’s loss to the Penguins, but the ratio of good-to-bad shifts was heavily in their favor — the bad shifts just always seemed to result in a goal against. The first period against the Hurricanes was similar, except that in this case, their opponent could not capitalize on the scoreboard.

Yet again, the Flyers controlled the bulk of play in the period, looking effective on the forecheck and tight in the neutral zone. But the Hurricanes actually finished ahead on the score-adjusted Corsi charts when the period concluded. How did they pull that off? In fact, Carolina did the bulk of their damage on just two shifts. In both cases, the Flyers were scrambling in the defensive zone and unable to clear the puck successfully. The Hurricanes racked up an incredible 14 of their 22 shot attempts of the period on just those two shifts.

It was a classic example of why Corsi does not equal possession, as surely the Flyers would have won a clock-based puck control stat in the first period. But useful possession (ie. when it actually creates tangible offense) is far more important in driving positive results, and yet again, poor defensive zone play allowed the Flyers’ opponent to make up for the mistakes of the rest of their period.

#4: Neuvirth started and finished great, struggled in second period

Early on, it appeared that Michal Neuvirth was going to be the salve to the Flyers’ recent goal prevention woes. His performance in the first period was nothing short of stellar, as he made numerous tough saves, none more impressive than an early robbery of Jeff Skinner right in front. Over the game’s first twenty minutes, Neuvirth was one of Philadelphia’s better players.

He fell back into bad habits in the second period, however. Two goals in particular could be categorized as weak — a Skinner revenge tally midway through the stanza, and a Stalberg breakaway goal that saw the Carolina forward beat Neuvirth through the five-hole. Breakaways are always tough so it’s easier to forgive the Flyers’ netminder there, but the Skinner goal was a classic case of poor positioning, an issue that has plagued Philadelphia goalies this season.

But to Neuvirth’s credit, he rebounded in the third when the Flyers truly needed him. With his teammates clearly showing signs of fatigue, Neuvirth was peppered with shots, especially over the game’s final ten minutes after Philadelphia had taken the lead. He made 12 saves in the period, locking down the win. Considering Hakstol’s obvious frustration with Mason in his post-game press conference on Saturday, I wouldn’t be surprised if Neuvirth earned himself the start on Wednesday with this game, even if it was more of a 40-minute performance than a full 60-minute one.

#5: If you’re still complaining about Giroux, stop talking

There remains a section of the Flyers’ fanbase that seems to believe that if the team is struggling to win games, then Claude Giroux must be to blame, or at least is not doing his job as captain. Prior to this weekend, the faction’s main talking point was that Giroux had yet to score a goal, even if he was leading the entire league in assists. After scoring two goals this weekend, that weapon is now removed from their arsenal. Truthfully, the idea that Giroux was off to an underwhelming start was always ridiculous, but it looks especially dumb now.

Following the conclusion of last night’s game, Giroux was tied for the league lead in scoring with 12 points (2 goals, 10 assists). But it’s not just the counting stats that make Giroux look good. He’s at a 53.30% score-adjusted Corsi, +2.85% relative to his teammates. He’s quarterbacking a power play that is averaging 131.92 shot attempts per 60 while he is on the ice, up from last year’s (still great) 125.89 rate. He’s even one of the few Flyers forwards who isn’t getting totally buried in terms of on-ice high danger chances, as he’s right around break-even (48.89%) there. Regardless of the team’s record, Giroux is doing about all he can to help the Flyers win, and fans would do well to remember that the next time he misses a shot or gets charged with a minus.

#6: Provorov not a great game

It won’t get the same press that his performance against the Chicago Blackhawks did two weeks ago, but Ivan Provorov definitely struggled in this one. While his final on-ice attempt differentials actually didn’t look too bad (he finished with a +1.77% score-adjusted Corsi Rel), this was not the confident Provorov that we’ve watched over the past few games, at least defensively. He directly contributed to two Hurricanes goals, first on Faulk’s tally by knocking into Neuvirth as he set up to make the save, and second by getting stripped of the puck while retreating through the neutral zone to allow Viktor Stalberg a breakaway opportunity.

It wasn’t all bad for Provorov, as he continues to look more comfortable offensively with each passing game. He’s rushing the puck up ice more, and has noticeably increased his willingness to activate in the offensive zone on the cycle. But defensively, this was not one of Provorov’s better performances.

#7: No way Manning leaves the lineup when Del Zotto returns

With Michael Del Zotto set to return later this week, the Flyers will have to make the decisions regarding their defense that they originally expected to make at the end of training camp. At the time, Manning was the most likely candidate to be sent down to the Phantoms, as Andrew MacDonald was being praised up and down by coaches and Nick Schultz was a lineup lock. But after three weeks of meaningful hockey, it’s impossible to imagine Brandon Manning getting sent down or even being benched at all.

Last night, given increased PK responsibilities in the third period due to an Ivan Provorov penalty, Manning turned the entire game. He charged up ice when a Pierre-Edouard Bellemare rush stalled, collected a pass through the neutral zone and then sniped one past Ward for the game-winning goal. Manning’s offensive development has been one of the early season’s biggest surprises for the Flyers, and it’s turned him into a lineup staple. His play really should make this an easy decision for the Flyers when Del Zotto returns — MacDonald gets sent down to the Phantoms because he won’t be claimed, and Schultz becomes the 7th defenseman. We’ll soon see if they make that seemingly-obvious call.

About an hour before game time, news broke that beleaguered defenseman Andrew MacDonald would be returning to the lineup in favor of Nick Schultz. It wasn’t a massive shock — after all, the Flyers lost on Saturday night, which usually sparks lineup changes, and Hakstol does seem to appreciate what MacDonald brings to the table. His performance on Thursday was so bad that the only rational response was to sit him down, but you didn’t get the feeling he would be a permanent exile from the lineup.

Fans were ready to jump on every mistake MacDonald made, and it’s a testament to his generally-solid game that social media was mostly silent regarding the 30-year old vet. It wasn’t that MacDonald was especially impressive — his 44.61% Corsi For percentage speaks to that — but more that he avoided the mind-numbing mistakes that plagued him against the Coyotes. Most likely, this performance will keep him in the lineup for this week, at least until Michael Del Zotto returns and a new round of decisions will have to be made.

#9: Bottom-six actually not that far from optimal

Dave Hakstol has received a fair amount of criticism so far this season for his lineup decisions as they pertain to the third and fourth lines. And at first glance, last night seemed to be no exception, as many of the biggest “issues” still seemed in place -- Bellemare was still functioning as the nominal 3C, Chris VandeVelde was still in the lineup. But taking a closer look, these lines were really just one tweak away from being optimal from a statistical standpoint.

Everything makes more sense if you approach the Read-Bellemare-Lyubimov as the fourth line rather than the third, and the ice time split between the two lines was pretty close against Carolina. In that case, the only issue with the Cousins unit is the presence of Chris VandeVelde, who (in theory) could be easily replaced with Michael Raffl once he is healthy. That gives us a bottom-six of 12-25-22 and 24-78-13, which certainly looks like passable depth scoring at first glance. But would Hakstol actually bench VandeVelde? That remains the biggest question.

#10: Flyers might really have something in Lyubimov

He hasn’t shown up on the scoresheet as of yet, but Philadelphia may have dug up a legitimate play-driver in Roman Lyubimov. He led the Flyers in Corsi For percentage on the night with a 60.23% score-adjusted mark, and that’s been par for the course thus far this season. In seven games, Lyubimov has a 60.19% Corsi, which is +8.07% relative to his teammates during those contests.

Most impressive is that he’s doing this with his two most common linemates being Bellemare and VandeVelde, far from play-driving stalwarts. In fact, Bellemare has a 61.02% Corsi with Lyubimov and a 36.92% away from him, while VandeVelde is 58.18% with and 27.08% without the Russian forward. I’m not seeing a ton of offensive creativity from Lyubimov, but he’s resembled a lesser Michael Raffl so far — physical, smart, and constantly pushing play in the right direction. Even if he doesn’t score often, that’s a great asset for the bottom-six. It will be interesting to see if he can keep this up.