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A summarized look at some Penguins-Flyers matchup changes

A major theme of this series was line, well...mostly just putting Dave Hakstol’s decisions on blast. We discuss some of the changes from Game 1 to Game 4 here.

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Pittsburgh Penguins v Philadelphia Flyers - Game Four Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

One of the biggest discussions coming into this Penguins-Flyers Round 1 series was about what matchups Dave Hakstol would apply against Pittsburgh’s gargantuan top-three lines. Comparisons of depth and skill led the way, critiquing the Flyers inability to hinder the Penguins’ mighty advantage in both of those categories.

Most of the conversation steered in the direction of laughing at the decisions the Philly head coach made, and after delving into many of the situations in our four-game sample size, teasing him seemed like the way to go. On the flip side, we’ll also discuss what Mike Sullivan has been doing with the defensemen, as the defensive corps’ minutes have been rather lop-sided as of late.

Most of the data for these observations is coming from Tyler Durden’s recent piece at The Athletic.

For whatever reason, Hakstol has slowly upped the minutes of Valtteri Filppula against Sidney Crosby

Note: apart from both team’s first line powers being put head-to-head during this series so far, the second-most minutes are being eaten up by the Flyers newest, “make-shift” second line filled with the oddest matchup choices. That’s what’s piquing my interest here. So we’ll scrap Claude Giroux’s top line going against Sidney Crosby’s for 60 minutes of each game for now and focus on the rest.

After Selke finalist Sean Couturier got taken out at practice by teammate Radko Gudas, Hakstol opted to throw Nolan Patrick on Crosby and Fippula on Evgeni Malkin during Game 4. Those matchups actually worked pretty well. Other than Patrick allowing two goals against, he sported a 53.9% Corsi For vs. Crosby, and Filppula ended with a 71.4% Corsi against Malkin when it was all said and done.

However, advanced stats show the slow progression of minutes Fippula’s line of him, Travis Konecny, and Wayne Simmonds have been getting against the Captain’s top line. At even-strength, Fippula is tasked with an average of 20-plus minutes of ice time against Crosby, even though his assignment lately has been Malkin. That’s around a 25% increase from Game 1 to Game 4. Crosby has owned Filppula all year, and his accrued points thus far are evidence that he’s still owning him nightly. Simmonds has also been receiving an up in minutes when Crosby is skating, being gifted with 25.3 on average in Games 3 and 4 in comparison to the two prior tilts.

Now, take Patrick’s Corsi For successes and Fippula’s failures against Crosby, and what does Hakstol do? Well...this, apparently:

Patrick gets the shank, while Filppula is sitting pretty on the top line. Who knows what’s going through his brain, but trying to manage Pittsburgh’s top two lines can’t be an easy task.

Other tidbits I noted:

Michael Raffl has seen a drop in minutes against Crosby, and it’s probably due to his departure from the Giroux line after getting dropped down to the bottom-six — about an average 20% fewer minutes, to be exact. I’m not sure what Hakstol is seeing or what to make of this information, but it surely drew my attention. He must be giving Hakstol rhyme or reason to continue keeping him from his earlier top position role. Our Flyers cohorts probably know that better than I. Raffl is still on the third line (on the right wing this time) where it’s expected he’ll start Game 5.

Ivan Provorov and Shayne Gostisbhere, the Flyers best two defensemen, have seen a bump in TOI against Crosby as well. I have one thing to say about how well that’s going:

Sullivan has drastically dropped the average minutes of his bottom-pairing defensemen

Hooks touched on this in the Game 5 preview, but the top pair of Brian Dumoulin and Kris Letting is getting a crazy amount of minutes lately — even for Letang’s lofty averages. You’d think that in blowout wins like in Games 3 and 4, you’d try to cut down the huge chunk of even-strength minutes expected of that pairing, but Sullivan has done nothing but increase them. They ended up with 24:00 (Dumoulin) and 28:40 (Letang) in that commanding win, and it’s causing concerns for Sullivan’s trust in the rest of his defensemen.

Jamie Oleksiak and Chad Ruhwedel have barred the brunt of this minutes slicing, even though I personally think the two have played extremely well. I’m not a professional hockey coach though.

You’d expect this in close games or games on the road, but it’s definitely something to keep an eye on moving forward — especially if the Penguins make it to the second round and have to play more rugged teams like the Capitals or Blue Jackets. This kind of strain will catch up with him. Pouring insane minutes like this on your top two defensemenin the first round against a lowly opponent isn’t sustainable for the future, but I’m positive Sullivan knows that.