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A seven-game series is full of adjustments and counters. Friday night, the Philadelphia Flyers made significant changes to their neutral zone strategy, both 5v5 and on the penalty kill, which took away the Penguins rush and forced the Penguins to (literally) fight for space.
Patric Hornqvist stood out among Penguins forwards because he naturally fights towards the front of the net for deflections and screens. Zach Aston-Reese also saw increased responsibility with an elevation to the third line with Derick Brassard and Phil Kessel.
However, the other Penguins wingers, such as Kessel and Jake Guentzel were limited in their effectiveness by the clogged ice.
Score one for the Flyers. The solution will be more gritty, simple hockey in Game 3, at least until the Penguins can crack the scoreboard and force the Flyers to open up.
The system can be used to clog the neutral zone and create an aggressive counter-attack. The following play was too indicative of the Penguins inability to crack the Flyers system. Here you see the “1”, Jakub Voracek forechecking.
Now, note the neutral zone coverage. Everyone is bodied up. Patric Hornqvist, who was the outlet pass, has two choices: Skate to the red line and dump it in, or try to create a controlled zone entry.
Justin Schultz came as the late wave through the neutral zone, which gave Hornqvist a good target and the Penguins speed through the middle. However, note Carl Hagelin (red circle) at the top of the screen and Evgeni Malkin (red circle) at the bottom of the screen. They are forced to stop or move laterally to say onside which blunts the Penguins rush.
Herein lay a microcosm of the Penguins game. The Penguins had offensive zone possession. They had someone with speed in the zone. And, they even got a shot from the circle. However, the Flyers had three defenders between Hornqvist (who is about to take the shot from the top of the circle) and the net.
The Penguins had no one at the net. The shot counts as a scoring chance, but it was not a dangerous one. Elliott can clearly see the puck. Rush, chance, play nullified.
Flyers Power Play Goal (1-0)
The Flyers desperately needed a confidence boost. If the Penguins got the first goal, the Flyers would have probably sunk in the Monongahela River. The series could have been over. Instead, the Penguins got soft. Their penalty kill did not do all it could to preview a goal.
Brian Dumoulin won a puck battle along the wall, and the puck dribbled to Kris Letang. You can see here, the Penguins collapsed the PK box but won possession. That was the good part. The bad part, Kris Letang had few options, and Sean Couturier attacked.
Perhaps Letang could have touched the puck to Carl Hagelin in front, but that is generally a dangerous play. In frame two, you can see Couturier attack but the Penguins are watching. Letang has only one choice–push it to the midwall for Carl Hagelin (red circle), which he did.
Here’s where it got interesting. Hagelin (red circle) was tangled up and fell to the ice, which gave the Flyers possession and space. Riley Sheahan (red line) sagged low and towards the wall. He could have held a more aggressive position and still been available for puck support.
The Flyers moved the puck well, to the far point. Sheahan and Dumoulin were both in position to block the shot. It was only a wrister from the point, not a 102mph slap shot, but neither did. The puck was deflected in front, and the Flyers had life.
Flyers Goal (2-0)
The Flyers second goal, in the first minute of the second period, was loose coverage and a bad line change. Stop me if you’ve heard that before… This looked like the mid-March Penguins, which is what PHN warned about in our pregame breakdown. Jake Guentzel was also a culprit as he never actually covered anyone on this play.
The Flyers spread the play wide and had a four-man rush. The Penguins have two late trailers via the poor line change. I believe Guentzel could take his pick–he could go wide to cover the open player on the right flank or hold the high zone to take away the Flyers trailer.
Instead, Guentzel found himself in the middle of nowhere, the Penguins coverage collapsed, and the Flyers had a few men open.
Kris Letang was able to neutralize the net-front presence, but Murray made a bad play on a weak shot. However, note the Flyers got inside position and beat the Penguins to the net.
Several layers of that play were avoidable. The Penguins could have, and perhaps should have, won the game–but that’s hockey. A couple of loose plays or a bad bounce against and the game changes.
The Penguins are well positioned for Game 3. The Flyers played their card; now the Penguins have a practice session and a day to decide to do the gritty work necessary.