The subtle brilliance of how the Flyers have played this year
So, the Flyers may be really, really good.
To set the stage, it’s a little past two in the morning.
The only sounds emanating from the street, heard via an open window, are the gentle patter of raindrops on the glass, and the gentle din of cars passing by on the road. I’m sitting in my bedroom, upright resting my neck on the headboard, watching the Flyers take two points away from what ended up being a nerve-wracking shootout victory in Boston. Just as Carter Hart patiently out-witted David Pastrnak, forcing his movement wide along with the puck, the culmination of the Flyers’ past four wins hit me.
This team has managed to win in a multitude of different ways. Against Carolina, in unusual fashion, the Flyers lost the possession battle and never really had control of the game at 5-on-5 (as evidenced by the below game-flow chart).
However, they managed to doggedly fight their way into the game, thanks largely in part to their excellent fore-checking and consistent pressure on the Hurricanes. The Flyers never allowed them to get settled, and as such, were able to score on the counter-rush against the run of play.
Comparatively then, with the last two shootout wins against Toronto and Boston, the Flyers won easier despite a lack of control, and have won the past two games in different but similar fashions. Against the Maple Leafs, the Flyers roughly split the percentage of possession with their opponents (50.98 CF% 5-on-5 for the Leafs vs 49.02% for the Flyers). The Flyers also were able to generate the majority of their scoring chances in front of the net in the slot, which, sigh of relief, has been a trend for them this year. Though the Leafs were able to crawl back into this game and tie it in the third period (largely due to Auston Matthews being Auston Matthews), the Flyers nearly won it in overtime and managed to stay cool in the shootout to take all the points.
Against Boston however, despite the Bruins tying the game in the third period, the Flyers absolutely dominated for the majority of regulation.
Until the third, when the true talent of Boston’s top line was on display, the Flyers didn’t allow the Bruins even a hint of momentum. They were constantly disrupting play in their own end and in the neutral zone, weathering some dodgy hits from the Bruins (that weren’t called because of course they weren’t), and above all, Carter Hart looked spectacular on some key saves late on. In those first two periods, the Flyers made the Bruins look like an AHL team.
The Bruins have six shots on goal? That's it?— Charlie O'Connor (@charlieo_conn) November 11, 2019
Though despite this, Marchand’s late goal tied it, and no team managed to score in overtime. This time, it was Joel “Go-al” Farabee who played hero as he scored the only goal to bring the Flyers’ win streak to four games.
So, what’s been so special about this string of victories? The simple answer would be the process to which they are playing, but it goes deeper than that. The theoretical approach this team under Vigneault is taking has proved to be fruitful, yet the empirical evidence shown by the execution of the tactics has been even better. Let’s take a look at that:
Especially in last night’s game against the Bruins, the Flyers have been all over their opponents and have disrupted offensive play by having active sticks in their own zone. This was no more evident than last night when Kevin Hayes managed to block a pass through that would’ve resulted in essentially an empty net goal for the Bruins’ top line. Especially with how skilled NHL skaters are at receiving and dishing passes, having active sticks to break up rushes and passes is possibly the most important defensive skill a hockey player can have.
As evidenced by the Hayes play, it’s not only the defensemen that have improved on disrupting play with an active defensive stick. While they obviously were already good at doing so, these types of plays have been much more noticeable from the likes of Hayes, Sean Couturier, and Oskar Lindblom. The stick work on part of the more defensively skilled/oriented forwards has led to a lot of chances on the counter-attack for line-mate Travis Konecny, and has led to the Flyers getting pinned in their own zone far less often than we were used to in the past.
Hyper aggressive on the fore-check
Not only do the team look better defensively in their own end and in the neutral zone, but they’ve completely revolutionized how they fore-check in that they’re no longer passive! Forwards are, say it with me, actively pressuring the player with the puck and are forcing turnovers to the third high forward. Yes, that is a mouthful.
This style of fore-checking is no more evident than with the Couturier line. They’re using this “2-1-2” style perhaps the most dynamic and effective way. It usually starts out with either Lindblom or Couturier as the first forward in to put pressure on, usually to a puck-carrying defenseman. The other forward between the two then either receives the puck or assists in winning it back.
At that point, we’ve most commonly seen the puck worked back to the point. However, especially when the Sanheim-Myers pair is out with the Couturier line, this style of fore-checking works so much better due to both Myers and Sanheim’s ability to step into the play and actually make a play.
This was most noticeable when Myers scored the Flyers’ second goal last night. The Flyers fore-checking were able to win the puck behind the net, play it up and out to Myers, who beat Halak with an excellent shot.
We’ve also seen Couturier and Lindblom work the puck back to Travis Konecny, who’s usually stationed in and around the circles or in the slot. He makes sense as the third high forward due to both Lindblom/Couturier’s strength of two-way play, and that Konecny’s shot is easily the best of the trio. The many options that this style of fore-checking gives to these skilled players has made the method incredibly effective and fun to watch.
High danger chance creation in front of the net
I have mentioned this before, but the Flyers are focusing on actively shooting from high-danger areas this year. This doesn’t mean they won’t shoot from the point. In fact, they still do and it’s led to some goals on re-directions and screens. However, they are no longer solely focusing on shooting for shooting’s sake.
Currently, the Flyers as a team sit 9th in the league in High Danger Corsi-for percentage with 52.36%. Individually, James Van Riemsdyk is the 9th ranked forward in the entire league for HDCF%, with Scott Laughton coming in at 22nd. Travis Konecny and Sean Couturier are second and third in the entire league in all around CF%.
If this doesn’t tell you that the Flyers have hardily improved their offensive strategy, a simple eye test will do that for you. The Flyers offensively look like a team on a mission with how effectively they work the puck into high danger areas. This is in no part due to players making smart decisions while still playing fast hockey, which leads to goals, and therefore, wins.
Not afraid to match teams stylistically
This was one of my biggest take-aways from the Bruins game. Boston came out playing a physical game, finishing checks and taking any opportunity to body a Flyers’ skater. This resulted in some rather dubious hits that weren’t called, yet instead of being rigid, the Flyers decided to accept the Bruins challenge and refused to be intimidated. Case in point: Claude Giroux.
Giroux was notedly more physical than he would normally be. This was very noticable on his hit in the third period on Torey Krug that felt like retribution for Chris Wagner’s late hit earlier. It’s nice to see the Flyers have some sting about them this year instead of letting themselves get intimidated physically by other clubs.
It may be an old adage, but the Flyers aren’t just working hard, they’re working smart. I believe it was our own Bill Matz who said that the Flyers are finally playing a full 60-minutes of hockey and are keeping up the compete level. This could not be more true, yet it goes beyond compete level. The Flyers have been able to nearly perfect doing the “little things” right, which in turn, has led to more noticeable “big things”, like say...goals! It is a welcome sight to see, and has me incredibly excited for the future of this hockey club.