Penguins 8, Flyers 5: RIP 2017-18
Some observations for your morning...
I guess that’s it, huh? The Flyers were eliminated last night and I’m sure we’re all at least a little bit sad about it. Are we ready to just take a peek on the bright side, acknowledge that they did a big thing to force a Game 6, and were able to close out with a much better performance in their last home game than in Games 3 and 4? It wasn’t perfect, but there was still a lot to like. Let’s talk about it.
All stats and graphics via Corsica.Hockey, HockeyViz, Natural Stat Trick, and NHL.com
1. That was a start!
Heading into the game, one of the bigger stories was that of “if the Flyers could just get the first goal, come out strong and convert on their chances, they can be in good shape.” It’s one that made a lot of sense—they’ve done some good work early in their games, but couldn’t seen to close on their chances. But that changed last night.
The Flyers came out of the gate with some very serious jump, putting up five shots in under two minutes and working well to set the tone. And then!
Cooooooooooooots puts the Flyers up 1-0 pic.twitter.com/jpcm2eWFsH— Broad Street Hockey (@BroadStHockey) April 22, 2018
Set up in the zone, the third line/Sean Couturier line was getting to work and looking sharp. It started with an initial shot by Wayne Simmonds that was controlled by Matt Murray, but was then allowed to trickle under him, and there was Couturier (more on him later!), right in position to knock the loose puck home.
And it is wild in the Wells Fargo Center! I cannot even hear myself think, but in a good way. The Flyers drew first blood and were looking like they were the sharper team, ready to collect some momentum…
2. …Aaand it’s gone
And, oh, would you look at that. That’s two goals in about 45 seconds. The Penguins are winning now. So let’s talk about how things went south so quickly.
This seems to have been the story of the series, right? The Penguins’ quick-strike offense doing just that, dropping the Flyers into a deep deficit in close to no time at all, and last night was no different. Pittsburgh notched one and then caught the Flyers still trying to regroup and burned them again. And that’s when things started to look like they might get very ugly. After another shift or two, the Flyers were back to being hemmed into their own zone, giving up chances that looked close to being the third unanswered goal, and struggling to hold onto the puck long enough to get a full clear out of the zone. There’s no other way to say it, they were scrambling.
And this was perhaps one of the more unsettling pieces of this series, was watching the team fall behind and just look rattled. And whether it’s just players getting too deep in their own heads, or a coach who hasn’t quite figured out how to get them to calm down when this happens, or a combination of the two, they’ll all have plenty of time to reflect on it and find a fix. Because, oh boy, do they need it.
3. Let’s check in with Neuvirth
In a not terribly surprising move, after helping the Flyers steal Game 5, Michal Neuvirth was given the start for last night’s return home. He was sharp on Friday, but it’s after that one sharp game that we tend to get a little worried about him. Can he keep it up? How far off will he fall? These are big questions, here. So, how’d he do?
He didn’t bring as much flash as he did in his first start, but, on the whole he did just fine. He gave up seven goals on 27 shots, which isn’t exactly a stellar figure, but his poor performance wasn’t the exclusive story of those tallies.
Four penguins goals all from about the same spot.— Micah Blake McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath) April 22, 2018
All game charts: https://t.co/RyqLiafQW2 pic.twitter.com/9UW65ogpwH
The defense in front of him, the support, wasn’t the soundest we’ve seen, and it left the netfront consistently vulnerable for crashing, the weak spots ready to be exploited (I mean, look at all that overlap!). But Neuvirth isn’t without blame, his positioning could have been better, he could have been sharper. Maybe the Carl Hagelin goal is the best example of the mix of breakdown that was happening—a lapse in coverage by Nolan Patrick left him open in the first place, but that type of below the red line originating play is exactly what the goalies were practicing stopping in practice on Saturday. So it’s a bit of cruel irony, too.
Where are we going with this? Wrap it up please? Okay. Neuvirth had a fine enough night, with more complete support in front of him, maybe things could have gone differently, but he also wasn’t quite on enough to steal them another game, either.
4. Sean Couturier was doing all the work
If we were to start looking for threads to trace through the season, one of the clearest would be that of “things may be bad right now, or even if they’re not bad, Sean Couturier is the biggest gem and we don’t deserve him.” He had a huge season, and he put up an equally huge game to close it out.
We talked about the first goal already, but there were even more to be had. Let’s look at the rundown.
SEAN COUTURIER. WHAT A FREAKING MOVE. FLYERS LEAD 3-2. pic.twitter.com/LdDYjIgW25— Broad Street Hockey (@BroadStHockey) April 22, 2018
Coots scores his 2nd career playoff hat trick. Flyers are within two. pic.twitter.com/Er0OvUaLjU— Broad Street Hockey (@BroadStHockey) April 22, 2018
Despite the result, the night saw Couturier notch five points, and his second career playoff hat trick. He led his teammates with five shots and registered 2.18 xG at 5-on-5, behind just Shayne Gostisbehere. Through nearly the entirety of the game, he was consistently one of the most noticeable players on the ice, working to create chances in droves.
And is that not enough, all on its own? Let’s add to it the fact that he disclosed after the game that he had done all of it on a torn MCL. Just take a moment with that. Couturier was the best Flyer on the ice, and he only had one good leg. And, to be clear, this isn’t a knock on the other Flyers, but just a way to underscore how good Couturier was. He did all he could to keep his team in the game, to give them their best chance to get back in it, despite his own personal struggle, but the pushback was just too great, and the support wasn’t all there.
5. Killing penalties
You know this had to be coming right? We couldn’t close out the season without one more of our perennial “killing penalties” sections. It’s been quite the trip talking about the Flyers’ penalty kill this season, now let’s wrap it up.
With the game tied up late in the first period, and Laughton taking an interference penalty, the Penguins had a very good chance to pull back into the lead, and the Flyers needed their PK to come up big. And they did.
Now, to be fair, they had some outside pieces working in their favor—the fact that the power play would be split between the periods, and the fact that the Penguins just couldn’t seem to keep the puck onside—but the work they did remained sound. They were more aggressive in getting after the puck, and they were rewarded for it, as it allowed them to kill the penalty itself, as well as set up Couturier for a breakaway goal just as the penalty was expiring. So the first look was a good one.
And, oh, that’s the end of the story. That’s all the penalty killing that the Flyers had to do for the rest of the game. Where, earlier in the season, they were getting killed by taking too many penalties, they were able to buckle down and only take one non-concurrent minor. And it’s a move that you could read in one of two ways—a night of restraint and discipline, a step in the right direction, or a step that just came too late.
6. Scott Laughton!
If we’re looking for sweet storylines for this end of the season, well, this one’s just ripe for the taking. This season’s been a weird one for Laughton—it saw him finally brought back to the Flyers as a regular, dropped into the bottom-six, on a line that dominated territorially but couldn’t score, bumped to wing, then scratched at the end of the season. But he capped off his season in pretty spectacular fashion.
Scott Laughton puts the Flyers up two with his first career playoff goal! pic.twitter.com/2eBJc70wHQ— Broad Street Hockey (@BroadStHockey) April 22, 2018
With a beauty of a breakout goal (again set up by Couturier), he pushed the Flyers into a two goal lead, and put a nice little exclamation point on his season. He’s been more or less quietly very solid across the season—averaging an adjusted 50.48 CF% at 5-on-5—and had an equally sound game (with a 10.68 CF% Rel) but it was nice to see him add a bit of flash, in closing it out.
7. Losing steam
And now we’ve hit the point where we talk about the early part of the third period, and when things started to look like they might get very ugly. With Jake Guentzel’s goal just 30 seconds into the period to put the Penguins up by one, this is where you might expect to see the Flyers start to lose a bit of jump.
And we did see some of this, where the Flyers struggled to get anything going, in response. And while part of this was just watching them recede into themselves while they tried to regroup, the even bigger hindrance was an inability to move and sustain play outside of the neutral zone. This was a two sided affair, as the Penguins were equally frustrated through the early part of the third, as we watched both sides get caught in the middle of the ice, chipping away at pucks and breaking up attempts to put together plays. And maybe this makes it a little easier to swallow (maybe?) that they were at least defending well enough over that little stretch of time, but they still needed to do more—to be shut down like that when they really needed the big pushback hurt.
8. The power play
Also in that vein, we should also touch on the other side of the special teams equation. The Flyers had about one and a quarter proper power plays, and then a bit more time with a 4-on-3, and the chance to use them to really put themselves back in the game with them. And they just… couldn’t.
It’s not a new story, that of a bit of pressure mixed in with some trouble getting set up to start, and an ultimate lack of results—indeed, it’s been the story of much of the series and tail end of the season. And you understand part of it—Pittsburgh’s penalty kill is very good and didn’t make things easy for them, and you can’t expect to get much out of the second unit which has Dale Weise filling in for earlier fixtures like Jordan Weal and Oskar Lindblom—but you eventually reach a point where you just need something. And that something just never came. And now I guess it means waiting until next season to see how (and if) they’re able to shape up.
9. Loose ends
Maybe you guessed this was coming, maybe not, but we have a few stray thoughts to touch on before we close this out.
First, a real bright spot! With the Flyers having closed the scoring deficit to two late in the third, and with the goalie pulled, both Patrick and Travis Konecny saw themselves put on the ice to try and help them spark something. And we’ve grumbled about Hakstol’s reticence to just play the kids all season, and, hey, he finally did. But, you say, the game was effectively over by that point, so it didn’t matter. But it could have. And the kids were given a chance.
Second, Claude Giroux upending Hagelin and then drawing a roughing call on Phil Kessel was pure poetry. Absolute magic. I need all of that.
And lastly, let’s take a moment to appreciate that this is, in all likelihood, the last time we will have had to watch the BRandon Manning-Radko Gudas pair for the rest of, well, forever. They’ve been a mess all series, but last night was a particularly ugly showing for them. But, hey, it’s over.
10. The only damn thing I know
Welp, that’s it folks. That’s all she wrote. We’ve reached the end of our very last Flyers observations article of the season. I’ll still be around during the offseason (you can’t get rid of me that easily!) but this is it for this section.
So we’ll do this one more time.
The only damn thing I know: this wasn’t the ideal result, but this season’s been about a ride and a half, but it was a real treat to spend it with you all.