With the playoff race in full swing, the Wednesday Night Rivalry game this week features a pivotal Metropolitan Division matchup as the Philadelphia Flyers host the Washington Capitals. Each team has been inconsistent this season, but they’ve also been active at the NHL Trade Deadline, and that could help each team find its stride in these last few weeks of the regular season.
This game is a big one because that division is wide open. As far as the Flyers, there has been a significant improvement in how they defend. They also has haven’t taken as many penalties, and they’re a team that can score with anybody when they are on their game. Obviously, Vincent Lecavalier being back helps. Wayne Simmonds is having a heck of a season, and he and Scott Hartnell are very important players heading into this part of the season and into the playoffs. But I think a lot of it will hinge on goaltender Steve Mason and their commitment to defense.
Mason has had a nice bounce-back season. He had a couple of tough stretches, but all in all I like his season. Goaltending coach Jeff Reese has done a great job in getting his game back in order. I really think if the Flyers continue to commit to defending, then they have a much better chance. If they start to get sloppy and fall in love with just scoring goals, it will come at the expense of their defense, and they could get in trouble.
Claude Giroux is obviously an elite player. He had that accident with his finger before training camp, and naturally that had an impact on him and his game. I’m sure he placed a lot of pressure on himself to rush back ahead of schedule, although he probably wouldn’t admit to it. He wanted to be there and give himself the best chance he could to play for Canada at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. That’s a lot of pressure, but when it’s all said and done, he’s one of the elite players in the League. He’s a game-changer when he’s on his game.
Their Achilles’ heel all season has been their defense, especially at the start of the season. They’ve got terrific skilled forwards, but you can’t maximize that skill if you don’t get them the puck out of your own zone. Those forwards are moot if your D can’t activate, get shots through and make some plays from the blue line.
I think getting Andrew MacDonald from the New York Islanders before the trade deadline will have a big impact on that blue line. He’s a tireless competitor and plays way bigger than his size. He’s mobile and shoots the puck hard. That’s a big trade for the Flyers because what they’ve needed all year long is defensemen. He’s a pending free agent, but it’s a steal to get a player of his caliber for the salary that he’s earning right now.
To say the Capitals have been inconsistent would be putting it mildly. Alex Ovechkin has been amazing, and you have to love what he is bringing to the table. I also think Troy Brouwer and Brooks Laich have finally found their games, and Joel Ward is having a heck of a season.
We thought the Capitals would be active at the deadline, and they started by acquiring forward Dustin Penner from the Anaheim Ducks. If Penner can come in and play the way he has played down the stretch in the past, he can have a big impact. There’s no question about it; he has won the Stanley Cup twice, and he was a nice piece for the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim when they won the Cup. He seemed reborn this season with the Ducks. He’s going to give Washington even more size and a net-front presence.
Speaking with some people in the Capitals organization, they need to address some holes on the back end. That’s the key for them. Their 5-on-5 play has been greatly impacted by how much help they need on the blue line. Their defense corps is very subpar when you compare it to the Boston Bruins or the New York Rangers. They just don’t have the same components and depth.
They hadn’t gotten a drop from Martin Erat, so they traded him to the Phoenix Coyotes in a deal that brings defenseman Rostislav Klesla to D.C. Klesla is a stay-at-home D-man, and the deal addresses their issues on the blue line. That’s a major need for this team.
I don’t see any issues with Washington up front. They just need to do a better job defending. They can start by doing it against a Flyers team that doesn’t give up that many chances.
This game will give fans their first look at some of these teams’ new additions. But it will also provide a glimpse into where these two clubs may be when the playoffs start.