Thursday, April 21, 2016

Let Me Defend Claude Giroux For A Minute (Plus Flyers Lineup Volume 9)

First of all, before we even talk about anything on the ice, thoughts and prayers to Scott Laughton. I would hope that we get a positive update from the Flyers about his overnight stay at Jefferson, and that the only prescription he needs is a lot of rest this summer.

The team went out and won for Scott (and Mr. Snider) last night, and avoided the embarrassment of having Wristband Night be part of a first-round sweep. Shayne Gostisbehere scored his first career playoff goal, and Andrew MacDonald scored a playoff game-winning goal on a laser from the point.

Captain Claude Giroux assisted on Ghost's goal, as he has so often this season. But he's getting a lot of shit, most notably from Sons Of Penn's Bill Matz (who I usually like).
Bill ranted - for quite a while - about how Giroux is being outplayed and how he just simply isn't good enough. It was the usual argument you hear from dumb Flyers fans, and it normally ends with "we should make [someone else] the captain." The core of the argument is Claude only has one assist, and the Washington trio of Backstrom-Ovechkin-Oshie has been lighting up the box score.

I have two problems with that idea. First, and most important, he's been largely holding his own at even strength in terms of shot generation. Second, which will follow this lengthy game-by-game breakdown, is the line combinations which Dave Hakstol used at the start of the series.

Game 1: Thursday 4/14

Giroux played 10.8 of his 21.7 total minutes at 5-on-5 (5.5 more on the power play, 2.9 shorthanded, 1.0 at 4-on-4). At 5-on-5, the Flyers generated 11 shot attempts - but 6 of them were blocked. You'd hope for more offense generated from the top line, especially this game when it was made up of Giroux, Simmonds, and Voracek.

But this was a low-scoring game at even strength, and it was never going to be a barnburner. The Flyers finished with an xG of 0.72 at even strength, and the Caps finished at 1.04. The Flyers happened to  get shut out by Braden Holtby. Jay Beagle happened to score a goal off of a turnover on an aggressive, trailing-late-in-the-third-period move by Jake Voracek and an inexcusable misjudgment by Shayne Gostisbehere in his first NHL Playoff game.

So yes, Washington outplayed Philadelphia here, but no they did not dominate even strength play in any sense of the word.

On the power play, the Flyers generated 9 shot attempts (6 unblocked) with Giroux quarterbacking, and nearly matched their even strength xG for the whole rest of the game with 0.65. Holtby had one of the best games any goaltender has had against the Flyers all year, but the pressure was there from G's unit.

The problem for the Flyers was the penalty kill, which pressured the Caps into using John Carlson as their number one option, and did not effectively mitigate Carlson's ability to score from the point. The on-ice unit at the time of the goal was Bellemare-Vandevelde-Streit-Schultz. Fore more on this, check out Charlie O'Connor's deep dive into the PK struggles early in the series.

But Carlson scored, Voracek took a risk, Gostisbehere was too focused on getting directly off the ice, and that was all she wrote for the Flyers. And for the people blaming Giroux for not picking up Beagle on his nail-in-the-coffin goal, shut the fuck up. That's on Voracek and Ghost, and he needed to trust his instincts more than he needed to remember his coach's instructions. He'll be fine.

Game 2: Saturday 4/16

Giroux played 14.8 of his 20.7 minutes at 5-on-5 (plus 1.6 on the power play, 1.2 on a 5-on-3, 0.2 on the penalty kill, and 1.4 at 4-on-4). At 5-on-5, the Flyers created 18 shot attempts with Giroux on the ice and allowed just 8.

However, the shots were of a much poorer quality than in game one, and the Flyers' xG with Giroux on the ice at even strength was just 0.41. By comparison, the Cousins-Laughton-Read-Gudas-Manning unit was all in the 0.9-1.0 xG range.

For what it's worth, for the second game in a row the Flyers were held off the scoreboard at 5-on-5 play. The Capitals scored twice at 5-on-5 (one each for Nick Backstrom and Jason Chimera), and both goals came against the Flyers' bottom six forwards.

Again, the penalty kill ruined any chance of the Flyers stealing a win in Washington. The Caps had 1.3 minutes of power play time, generated just 2 unblocked shot attempts, and had a xG of only 0.1. But they scored twice, and Holtby again denied the Flyers at 5-on-5 (their xG was 2.5 but they scored just once) and on the power play (first unit was 1.0, second unit was 0.2, neither scored).

But it's tough to blame the power play woes on Giroux here either, as they generated 9 shot attempts (7 unblocked) and statistically expected a goal with his unit on the ice.

If we're keeping track, that's two games that we're blaming on Holtby and the penalty kill, and zero that we're blaming on Giroux.

Game 3: Monday 4/18

Extracurricular activities aside, this was a bad game to watch. 6-1 final score, more than two dozen minutes played on special teams because of all the penalties, fans throwing debris onto the playing surface, the PA announcer getting fed up with everything, and the home team's alternate captain calling the whole situation "fucking embarrassing" on the bench.

But guess fucking what: at 5-on-5, this was a 1-1 game. Michael Raffl scored early, Alex Ovechkin scored halfway through, and the rest of the Caps' damage was done on the power play.

Going into the third period, it was 2-1 Capitals and the game was within reach if the Flyers could continue their decent 5-on-5 play and maybe draw a penalty and finally kick their power play into gear. I think it's been buried from the history book because of what happened in the third, but after forty minutes the game was a very good one.

I was at the Wells Fargo Center for that fateful final twenty and there's no excuse for what that group of fans did. Booing was fine, and I would say it was certainly deserved for the penalties that were called. By the time Pierre-Edouard Bellemare boarded Dmitri Orlov, the game was out of reach for the Flyers and the fans (and Radko Gudas and Brandon Manning) knew it. Do these look like two athletes who are planning on mounting a comeback?
Looking back on it, the bracelet thing was terrible. But in the moment, it just kind of happened. The referees continued to call (huge homer bias coming here, sue me) questionable penalties on the Flyers, and the toothless penalty kill was picked apart by Kuznetsov, Carlson, Ovechkin, and Beagle.

By the time the minor penalty for delay of game was within reach, the game was over and the players had seemingly given up. So down came more bracelets, and the penalty announcement was met with the largest cheer of the second half of the game.

Throw the whole fucking toothless, dickless, heartless penalty kill out the window. At 5-on-5 play, though he received less than 10 minutes of it, Giroux was an even possession player and just barely lost his xG battle (0.4 to the Caps' 0.5). On a team level, Philly generated an xG of 1.5 to Washington's 0.9 at 5-on-5.

It was an ugly night on Broad Street, but it was not the fault of the team's even strength play and it certainly was not the fault of the captain who was only able to play 9.5 minutes of full-strength hockey.

Game 4: Wednesday 4/20

I had to think long and hard about whether I wanted to see this game in person. After the poor showing from the fans on Monday, I wouldn't have blamed the players for packing it in and sending a "fuck you" message to fans by not really trying.

And then my man Joe from Phans Of Philly decided to give me a great deal on his tickets and I went. My logic was simple: the leaders of the team weren't going to let the boys quit, and the fans in attendance were going to go out of their way to support the boys, win or lose. I was so confident in the crowd on my way to the stadium that I would have been okay with a second wristband light show (in retrospect, definitely a good move to not do that again).

The script totally flipped in game four. The Flyers, who had been out-generating the Caps in terms of Expected Goals, fell in that battle 2.9 to 1.5 at 5-on-5 play (in all situations, it was 3.1 to 1.5).

But the Flyers scored a power play goal early (courtesy of Shayne Gostisbehere, set up by a nice head fake from Giroux) and added a second goal that felt like a power play (courtesy of Andrew MacDonald with help from the Giroux-Schenn-Simmonds trio). Then they basically held on for dear life, got the puck deep when they could, and rode Michal Neuvirth to the finish line.

In addition to actually scoring a point, Giroux's line generated nearly twice the full-strength shot attempts as the Caps when they were on the ice. He was trapped in no-mans land on TJ Oshie's goal, I can't deny that, but part of aggressively attacking the puck carrier is taking yourself farther away from potential rebounds. The aggressiveness stifled the Caps' power play, and that unit was finally held off the scoreboard.

The Flyers 3-1 hole in the series can simply not be blamed on Claude Giroux. He's been one of the most effective forwards at even strength, and that's even considering he has played about 19 of his 50 full-strength minutes against the Backstrom-Ovechkin-Oshie line and about 30 minutes against the Niskanen-Alzner pairing. That leads me into my second problem with people like Bill blaming Giroux for this deficit.

Dave Hakstol's Line Combinations

During the crazy run that allowed the Flyers to sneak into the playoffs, the top six was split into a Giroux line and a Voracek line. G was flanked by Brayden Schenn and Wayne Simmonds, and Voracek played with just about everyone when he returned from injury (via HockeyViz):

In particular, you see he was playing with Raffl and Couturier to close out the run to the playoffs.

And then, for some reason, Coach Hak decided to get away from that and load up the top line with Giroux-Simmonds-Voracek. As they discussed in the SOP podcast, for some reason Jake seems to play better when he is "the guy" on his line. I can't understand why, after two months of success with his two superstars separated, Hakstol would mess with the rhythm of the team. With Sean Couturier out, it appears he's going to leave them split, and I believe that's the right move.

Flyers Lineup Volume 9

Schenn - Giroux - Simmonds

As the saying goes, dance with you brought you.

Voracek - Raffl - Gagner

I really like how Voracek and Gagner compliment each other in the neutral and attacking zones. They are both creative players with good hands and they work well together via the eye test and the possession/generation numbers. Raffl, though he's been a winger for most of his time in Philadelphia, has the size and the responsibility to play center, and his positioning will eventually pay off if he plays with these two playmakers.

The top six is easy - keep the same guys in the same spots because we just won. The bottom six gets a little tricky, because Laughton is likely out and Bellemare is returning.

White - Cousins - Read

Promotion for Whitey! This might seem like another one of those times where I am stupid because of how much I like the grinders, but White's shown quite a bit of offensive skill this year for the kind of player he's perceived to be. He and Cousins complement each other well in the "pest" category, and this trio also has the ability to move through the neutral zone, crash the net, and generate shots.

Vandevelde - Bellemare - McDonald

I was very impressed with Colin McDonald last night, and I imagine Jordan Weal looked a lot like Brucie from The Longest Yard:

McDonald fills in well on the fourth line, and bingo bango we have our lineup for Game Five in Washington. I'll see you guys all out there on the ice.

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