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Penguins-Flyers strategy: breaking down previous matchups, systems, and fancy stats

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How exactly will the Penguins utilize personnel matchups, previous results, and other advanced data during this playoff series with the Flyers?

NHL: Philadelphia Flyers at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Everyone, including die-hard Flyers fans and members of the Philadelphia sports media, has ridiculed head coach Dave Hakstol’s decision making processes throughout the 82-game marathon to the Stanley Cup playoffs. The choices he made in line combinations, opposing team matchups, defensive pairings, and so on have been brutally torn apart, and rightfully so given how those choices ended up turning out.

Things like:

  • Pairing his two most talented defenseman with third-pair (at best) defensive partners.
  • Giving his best veteran defenseman third-pair minutes while gifting the team’s worst defensemen with top-four minutes.
  • Botching the Flyers second round pick in Nolan Patrick for most of the season and not developing his game for what seemed like the longest time, even though that’s the very thing Philly hired him for.
  • Overseeing a penalty kill that has been awful for what’s now the third season in a row.
  • And lastly for the sake of time (because I could keep going), keeping Valtteri Filppula in a top-six role basically all season despite average on-ice production that did nothing but trend in the wrong direction after a “decent” start.

Thankfully, many of Hakstol’s biggest mistakes have yielded pretty outstanding results for the Penguins in the four times they faced the Flyers in the regular season, especially on the offensive side of things. Scoring chances and shot quality were abundant, proving that the Penguins offense was simply too much for the Flyers defense. To boot, Pittsburgh is first in the NHL with 34 shots on goal per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, and that was on display at all times — they netted a whopping 20 total goals in those four meetings. Pittsburgh also had loads of shot chances when they controlled the puck when entering the Flyers zone, averaging .80. For context, the league average is .66. Philly has yet to succeed in suppressing the Penguins in its defensive zone.

A series sweep is nothing to bat an eye at, and Pittsburgh enjoyed tons of success thanks to Hakstol’s strange strategies.

With all that fresh in your brain, let’s take a look back at some of the key things that lifted the Penguins to a 4-0 record against Philly, as well as discuss some systems and compare advanced stats.

Matchups

Sidney Crosby had a field day with these Flyers in every game against them. Philly didn’t record a single goal against him at even-strength, and it wasn’t very good at stopping him on the other side of the ice either. Crosby’s top line was responsible for scoring five even-strength goals in the four games the two teams met.

Let’s bring this back to Hakstol for a second. He decided to try Claude Giroux’s line against him, which makes sense. But then, we saw Hakstol throw Filppula’s third line at him for whatever reason, neither of which worked well at all. That’s right. Filppula was the golden child Hakstol thought could stop Crosby, and he tried that matchup on more than one occasion.

To make this all even more odd, Hakstol also purposefully made sure Andrew MacDonald was Crosby’s primary defensive opponent. A matchup Mike Sullivan was probably drooling over each meeting, as Crosby’s Corsi For percentage was into the 70-percentile (!) more than once and his scoring chances for percentage was through the roof, once at 100 percent (!), with MacDonald on him. It’s madness for Haktsol to think that was a good plan.

Finally, after realizing that was a stupid idea, Hakstol traded MacDonald’s minutes tracking Crosby’s number for the Flyers top line of Ivan Provorov and Shayne Gostisbehere, one of the best pairings in the league — which I assume will be what he goes with again in Game 1.

The Flyers have never properly hindered Crosby, and honestly, I can’t see it starting in the playoffs. This is where the Captain absolutely flourishes. So I imagine Philly will pick on Pittsburgh’s less talented forwards relentlessly, and more or less just attempt to keep Crosby at bay since it can’t stop him.

Depth

Moving on from Crosby, you’ll actually notice that the Flyers star power matches up decently well with the Penguins’, with Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, and Kris Letang putting up just about the same projected win value as Sean Couturier, Jakub Voracek, and Gostisbehere, which is crazy when you consider where Philly was projected to land at the start of the season with the same guys on the roster.

Then you consider the young talent, which both the Penguins and Flyers have. For every Jake Guentzel, Conor Sheary, and Zach Aston-Reese, there’s a Travis Konecny, Nolan Patrick, and Oskar Lindblom. There’s also Olli Maatta and Provorov canceling each other out.

But this is where things start looking less even; the playoffs will chew you up and spit you back out if you don’t possess one crucial thing: depth. The Flyers are undoubtedly stacked up top and will be able to compete with Pittsburgh’s top-six...but what about the remaining 15 players? That’s how the Penguins will win. Their bottom-six is nightmare fuel for opponents — especially ones like Philly, who don’t have anywhere near the depth the Penguins do to complement each player all the way down the roster. Adding Konecny to the third line with Wayne Simmonds was a good idea, but from there down, the Flyers suffer.

It’s a total mismatch. There’s a canyon between the skills of a top-three forward group and an average one, and the Flyers bottom-six is a part of the latter.

Team Stats/Advanced Data

Naturally, advanced stats are going to come into play when we’re breaking down a playoff matchup, and this time around is no different. However, to avoid me blabbering on about how basically all the Penguins stats, save maybe one or two categories, are better than the Flyers, here’s a couple easy to read charts including all the pertinent 5-on-5, season total metrics, including Corsi For percentage, expected goals percentage, and goals percentage, right in front of your eyes for you to study and refer back to whenever you need:

Of course, for clarity’s sake, I also made a graph depicting the comparisons in PDO, save percentage, and shooting percentage. This is where Philly tends to eclipse the Penguins a bit, but the numbers are still extremely close. Pittsburgh has been notorious for its terrible puck luck, so it’s no surprise the Flyers have the edge in PDO. But with Crosby batting in (literally) highlight-reel goals in back-to-back weeks, I’m not too concerned about it.

Systems

Philadelphia

One of the most intriguing things I discovered when delving into fancy stats and metrics was the amount of shots the Flyers elect to take from the left and right points, rather than down low in the slot or near the goal crease. I dug around and found out that this is actually done on purpose and a system Hakstol implemented when he arrived. He’s used it for the past two years. Last season, it blew up in the Flyers face. This season, it’s been slightly more successful, but it’s still not great.

Basically, Philly uses an improvised dump and chase tactic on the off chance they can get one of their bigger bodied guys in front of the net to cause trouble and punch in loose rebounds after the puck is cycled back up to the blue line. It urges them to win puck battles and make clean breakout passes. This makes sense, as the team’s defensemen, namely Radko Gudas, takes a plethora of shots during the duration of the game. Plus, the Flyers really only have four or five useful forwards. The problem is, it gives your opposing team’s net-minder opportunity to grab and freeze the puck after the initial dump, plummets your shooting percentage and expected goals stats to a dead average, and also makes your heat map look wonky as hell, like this:

via HockeyViz

For Pittsburgh to stop the Flyers from generating chances up top at the points, it’ll have to forecheck them mercilessly and avoid getting too aggressive when Philly brings the puck down low and/or behind Matt Murray. Otherwise, their defensemen will pepper him all night and eventually get a few to fall from 40 feet away — something we saw happen twice in the most recent meeting between these two teams. The Penguins will need to pressure the Flyers a ton up top and pin them against the boards when possible. This is good to note though, because the Pens won’t have to worry too much about protecting the slot.

Pittsburgh

The Penguins shots are a lot more evenly spread out, with a ton of focus around the net (hello, Patric Hornqvist), plus a good amount of shots taken from the point. Pittsburgh runs a variation of the 1-2-2 forecheck, an aggressive style that allows for tons of offensive zone pursuits (i.e., chasing down loose pucks, attacking the puck carrier with speed, and cutting off any outside or weak side outlets). The Penguins execute this stifling method perfectly, and it causes chaos for their opponent trying to break out of its own zone and get up ice. Philly runs basically the same type of forecheck, with little differing details pertinent to the situations their team usually faces.

Recently, we’ve seen Jamie Oleksiak launching pucks on net off slap shots, just hoping it’ll ricochet somehow or tip off a teammate’s stick, and Letang finally taking shots regularly on the powerplay. Pittsburgh is also finally getting some bounces to go their way, which is just another facet of this matchup that hurts the Flyers.

via HockeyViz

I’ll settle with a beat red heat map swarming the goal crease and a bit of red up top as well a million times over taking all your shots from the point. Controlling high-percentage opportunities equals goals. It’s quite simple.

Summary

This is the Penguins series to lose, and the Flyers have their work seriously cut out for them. Pittsburgh has completely shed its early season skin and looks more like the team that won back-to-back Cups, and that’s bad news for Giroux and company.

Philly will be battling an uphill climb every night, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it can steal a game or two. The Flyers just don’t have the depth, the coaching, or the goaltending to defeat Pittsburgh four times, and that’s the bottom line.