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Capitals, Flyers summer overhauls have paid off

Wednesday, 10.19.2011 / 2:03 PM / NHL Insider

By Adam Kimelman - NHL.com Deputy Managing Editor

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Capitals, Flyers summer overhauls have paid off
The top teams in the Eastern Conference last season both got knocked out in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, spent the offseason retooling and have started the 2011-12 campaign strong.
The Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers have seemed to be traveling parallel paths for the last year or so.

They finished 1-2, respectively, in the Eastern Conference, but each was swept out of the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs in the second round.

Rather than stand pat with teams stocked with All-Stars and elite players, Capitals general manager George McPhee and Flyers GM Paul Holmgren engineered roster overhauls, with the result being not much different than last season -- both teams are right at the top of the conference standings.

Their paths will converge for the first of four times this season Thursday (7 p.m. ET, NHLN-US) in Philadelphia.

"We're delighted we've won five games," McPhee told NHL.com. "We could probably play better but you take the points where you can get them. What we might be the most happy with is how we're comfortable playing with one-goal leads. Not sure that was the case a few years ago. That's been a good sign."

The Capitals enter Thursday's game a perfect 5-0-0. Showing their improved mental toughness and continued devotion to defense, four of the wins were one-goal victories, including two in overtime and one in a shootout.

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After a season-opening overtime win against the Hurricanes, they topped the Lightning -- the team that rolled them out of the playoffs last season -- 6-5 in a shootout, and followed that with a 3-2 overtime win in Pittsburgh.

After beating the Senators, goalie Tomas Vokoun -- signed July 2 to give the position a veteran's touch to go with 23-year-old Michal Neuvirth -- stopped 20 shots in a 3-0 shutout of his former team, the Florida Panthers on Tuesday.

Also joining the team in the offseason were defensive-minded forwards Troy Brouwer, Joel Ward and Jeff Halpern. They've helped the Caps allow just 2.20 goals and 30.8 shots per game through the first five games, and their influence has been contagious for the team's more offensive-minded players.

"Sometimes there's a process for players to learn how to play in the right positions and learn how to check and be better defensively and know how to manage things that way," said McPhee. "When you bring some guys that can play that way, by watching it the light comes on and they understand better.

"It's so early (so) I don't know what kind of influence they've had, but we sure like having them here."

Not only has that trio added a defensive presence, they've also chipped in with offense. Brouwer has 1 goal in five games and become a mainstay alongside All-Stars Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom on the top line, while Ward has 2 assists in five games on the team's most productive line, also featuring goal-scoring leader Jason Chimera (4 goals) and Brooks Laich (3 points).

"It's a pretty strong line," Ward told the Washington Post. "It's no secret. We're just going to try to get in on the forecheck as best we can, and we're just excited to get on the ice and feed off the crowd as much as we can and try to create chances."

The offseason additions have made the Caps a deeper team as well -- through five games, 10 different players have at least 1 goal.

That number is more than all but four teams -- one of them being the Flyers, who have gotten a goal from 12 different players (Tampa Bay leads with 13). That scoring depth has helped them get out to a 4-0-1 start -- including wins over both of last season's Stanley Cup finalists -- and they've scored a League-high 19 goals.

Not bad for a team that subtracted a pair of All-Star centers in Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, and replaced them with a mix of rookies (Sean Couturier, Matt Read), unproven younger players (Wayne Simmonds, Jakub Voracek), and a future Hall of Famer (Jaromir Jagr).

Those moves went along with the signing of goalie Ilya Bryzgalov to a nine-year, $51.5 million contract. It appeared the Flyers would go from an attacking, up-tempo team to one that looked like it was going to rely on its defense and goaltending to win games.

"I think people have questioned our offensive ability the last few years," Holmgren told NHL.com at the start of training camp. "The cast of characters has changed a little bit. Obviously we're counting on Claude (Giroux) to score more than he did last year, we're counting on James (van Riemsdyk) to score more than he did last year and Jakub Voracek to score more than he did last year. We believe Wayne Simmonds will score more than he did in L.A. Then you throw in Danny Briere and Scotty Hartnell, guys like that. We think we have enough guys that certainly have the ability to score goals."

He's been proven right so far, as the Flyers have established themselves as a fast, aggressive team that knows how to get to the net.

"Make sure night in and night out it's wave after wave," Flyers captain Chris Pronger said of the attack. "Get on the forecheck and skate, use the young bodies we've got up front to skate -- skate teams into the ground."

Among those leading that charge are Simmonds and Voracek, who have 2 goals each while flanking Danny Briere, last season's leading goal-scorer.

"I like the look of our line," Briere told NHL.com. "I think we're still in a learning mode and trying to figure each other out out there. I like what everybody brings. Wayne brings a little bit of toughness to our line, brings a lot of speed to our line. He can be physical, but he's also very good around the net, got quick hands. He's a player that I think is going to surprise a lot of people. When we treaded Mike Richards everyone was talking about Brayden Schenn. We didn't hear a lot about Wayne, but more and more he's become a very big part of our offense."

While that line has been good, the best line has been one featuring Giroux, van Riemsdyk and the 39-year-old Jagr.

Jagr has yet to score a goal, but he's tied for second on the team with 4 assists and is a threat every time he's been on the ice.

"He's done an excellent job coming in and providing offense for our team," Flyers coach Peter Laviolette told CSNPhilly.com prior to Tuesday's game. "It's just a matter of time before he does find the back of the net.
 
"Consistently, his line is in on the scoring chances for four games now. They've done a really nice job of creating offense. I would think it's just a matter of time."

That time could come as soon as Thursday against the Capitals.

Contact Adam Kimelman at akimelman@nhl.com. Follow him on Twitter: @NHLAdamK
Quote of the Day

I'm sure [my father] was going crazy up there. I hope all of my friends were celebrating in the crowd. Coming back here and all of my friends and family are here, getting a goal in front of them is special.

— Blues forward Ryan Reaves on scoring the game-winning goal Sunday against the Jets in his hometown of Winnipeg
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