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Caps Face Formidable Foe in Flyers

by Mike Vogel / Washington Capitals
Last season, the Washington Capitals and the Philadelphia Flyers were the two worst teams in the NHL’s Eastern Conference. The Caps finished last in the Southeast Division and 14th overall in the East with 70 points. Philadelphia finished with 56 points, fewest in the NHL, and missed the playoffs for the first time in 12 seasons.

This week, the Caps and Flyers – the two most-improved teams in the Eastern Conference in 2007-08 – will hook up in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference Quarterfinals series. Game 1 is Friday night in Washington.

The Caps and Flyers split four regular season meetings, with one of Washington’s wins coming in overtime. The Nov. 23 meeting between the Caps and Flyers in Philadelphia marked the NHL debut of Caps head coach Bruce Boudreau. The Caps took a 4-3 overtime decision from the Flyers that afternoon. After taking over a 6-14-1 team on that date, Boudreau guided the Caps to a 37-17-7 mark the rest of the way.  The result was Washington’s first Stanley Cup playoff berth in five years.

“We’re excited to be in, but our goal wasn’t just to get in,” reminds center Brooks Laich. “We’ve [taken] baby steps throughout the year, to get to .500, to get to the playoffs, but our ultimate goal is to win the Stanley Cup. We’ve given ourselves a chance here and now we’re excited to play Philly.”

Washington won 15 of its last 19, 11 of its last 12 and seven straight to earn its first Southeast Division title in seven years. Fueled by the best month of Alexander Ovechkin’s career and three shrewd trade deadline day deals that brought in goaltender Cristobal Huet, center Sergei Fedorov and right wing Matt Cooke, the Caps have been playing must-win hockey for more than a month now.

“On that long run, every game was like a playoff game,” says Fedorov. “So I guess guys got their feet kind of wet already.  We’re going in a little bit inexperienced in the eyes of some media guys. But in general I think we’re an experienced group. It’s good to be the underdog anyway.”

The Capitals are not the only team in this series that is coming in off a late-season roll.

Philly went 7-1-1 in its last nine games, clinching a playoff berth one night ahead of Washington. Goaltender Martin Biron heads into the playoffs with a shutout streak of 121:34. He blanked the Devils and Penguins, respectively , the Flyers’ final two regular season games.

Flyers head coach John Stevens – like Boudreau a recent Calder Cup champion coach – believes his team may have played its best all-around game of the season in last Friday’s game against New Jersey. That win, coupled with Carolina’s loss to Florida, is the one that ultimately clinched a playoff spot for the Flyers.

Philly scored at least one power play goal in each of its five games against Washington this season, going 5-for-22 (22.7%) overall. The Caps got only 11 power play chances in the four games against the Flyers, converting two for an 18.1% success rate.

After enduring the worst season in franchise history in 2006-07, the Flyers rebounded quickly. Like his counterpart in Washington, Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren had a good off-season and a good season, pushing the right personnel buttons to get the Flyers back to their customary spot among the top teams in the East. Taking some cues from the 2007 Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks and returning to the Flyers’ hard-nosed heritage, Holmgren remolded his team with a lot of toughness and physicality.

“They’re a physical team,” notes Laich.  “I think they’re a team that we match up well against. I think it’s going to be a hard-fought series. They have some good forwards and a lot of talent on that team and they’re also a gritty team. It’s going to be an intense, physical series and we can’t wait to get it started.”

The Caps also have a few guys who can dish out the hits, including superstar left wing Alex Ovechkin who would just as soon run over a defenseman as he would go around him. The deadline day addition of Cooke also supplies the Caps with another solid bodychecker.  Ovechkin is the only member of the Caps who recorded more hits than Cooke this season.

“We all know it’s going to be physical,” Cooke declares.  “They’ve tried to go back to the Broad Street Bully days, if that’s how you want to look at it. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t change how we have to play. Our system is what makes us successful. Obviously, there is a lot of skill within that system and we have to take advantage of that when given the opportunity.

“I look forward to the physical play; that’s the way I play. As we’ve said here in the room, playoffs are completely different than the regular season. There is a lot more pressure and there is a lot more intensity, and you see guys who don’t normally play physical get into the mix. That’s an emotional lift for players on their team.”

Another trademark of the 2007-08 Flyers is strong special teams play. Philadelphia’s power play finished second in the league at 21.8%. It was better than 20% both at home and on the road.

“They’ve got a really good power play,” says Caps defenseman Milan Jurcina. “I think that’s a big factor for them, the power play. They’re second in the league. I think a lot of guys get points on the power play and they have some big guns out there.”

Four Flyers – Mike Knuble, Daniel Briere, Vaclav Prospal and Scott Hartnell – had at least 10 power play goals this season. Mike Richards had eight on the power play and five more while Philly was shorthanded. In Richards, Briere and Prospal, the Flyers have three forwards with 70 or more points.

In Prospal, Briere, Knuble, Carter, Richards, Hartnell and Joffrey Lupul, the Flyers have seven players who tallied 20 or more goals during the regular season. That makes the Flyers a hard enough team to keep in check, but Washington finished the season without three of its top five defensemen.

Out since early January with an upper body injury, Brian Pothier will not play in the series against the Flyers. Out with more recently sustained injuries, Shaone Morrisonn and Jeff Schultz hope to return to action against Philly.

“You would think it would be a concern,” begins Boudreau, “but everybody that’s stepped in has done great. Steve Eminger sat out 62 games this year and our record is 14-5-[1] with him in the lineup. When Schultz left the game on Saturday and we had five [defenseman], him and John Erskine and Milan Jurcina – the three guys you never hear too much about – played outstanding. People rise to the occasion, and these guys rose to the occasion.  What sometimes is a weakness is really a strength.”

Even though the Caps have been playing playoff-equivalent hockey for the better part of the last month, Boudreau believes his charges still have some upside in their game.

“I think it’s always a step up,” he says of the difference between playoffs and the regular season. “No matter how emotional games are before the playoffs, it takes another level. You’ve got to take it up, and they will. I think that’s what makes the playoffs in hockey so fabulous to watch.  The hitting is harder, the skating is faster and no matter how hard you work during the regular season, it’s different.”

The late start – the Washington-Philadelphia series is the only one of eight opening round series to begin on Friday – will help the Caps get healthy, but it will also help the Flyers in the same regard.

“I think it benefits both of us,” says Boudreau. “I’m sure Briere and [Derian] Hatcher are going to play, so the extra time off for them is just as good. At the end of 82 games if you’ve got some guys who are banged up and you can get them four or five days off, I think that’s beneficial to us as well.”

“We know we’re playing a great team. Their forward lines are so dangerous. Who do you check? Who don’t you check? Their strength down the middle is tremendous, and Biron has two shutouts in a row. And we certainly believe they’re going to be healthy when they play us. We’re in for a battle.”

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