It was one of hockey’s most epic, most anticipated, most gut-wrenching situations the last time the Flyers and Capitals met in the playoffs back in 2008 – Game 7, tied after regulation, headed to overtime. The Flyers were a #6 seed, but actually had one more point than Washington, which was a #3 seed by virtue of winning that now-relic-of-hockey-lore known as the Southeast Division. The Flyers were Back With A Vengeance, rebounding from the worst season in their history to a return to the playoffs. But after they had taken a 3-1 lead in the series, it was threatening to end in a disappointing manner.
The game had gone a relative eternity – an entire third period plus the last 4:31 of the second – with a tie score, 2-2, thanks to Alex Ovechkin’s fourth goal of the series. But it wasn’t too long into the overtime before fate smiled on the Flyers. They went on the power play just over four minutes into the OT, Tom Poti having hooked R.J. Umberger, and as that man-advantage wound down it was Joffrey Lupul softly depositing the rebound of a Danny Briere shot past Cristobal Huet. From there, the Flyers took out top-seeded Montreal before falling to Pittsburgh in the conference finals.
If this series is half as entertaining as that one, it will be a blast. And it’s shaping up like it might be the case. The Flyers and Capitals played four terrific games this season, with only one being decided by more than a goal. The intensity of course will be dialed up a notch, as it does in the playoffs.
Perhaps the most significant obstacle the Flyers face is Washington goaltender Braden Holtby, who accounted for an incredible 48 of Washington’s 56 wins this season. The Flyers have their own stellar netminder in Steve Mason, whose save percentage this season is actually just a few points below Holtby’s. Mason was complementary of his counterpart, but doesn’t feel a need to match him.
“He had one of the all-time great seasons, which is a credit to him,” Mason said. “But I can't worry about what he's going to do. I have my own job to focus on, and it's tough enough as it is.”
The Flyers will likely continue to do what they’ve done all season long with opposing goaltenders, which is to plant traffic in front – much of it coming in the form of Wayne Simmonds – and try to make life a little more difficult on Holtby.
“You’ve got so many good goaltenders and he’s proven over the seasons to be one of the best,” said Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol. “Obviously you’ve got to get in front of him and hope to take away some of his sightlines and get some rebounds.”
As for the rest of the Capitals, it will be difficult to focus on anyone. The popular choice is Ovechkin, but you also have to deal with Nicklas Backstrom. When they’re not out there, then you get Evgeny Kuznetsov, who was actually the team’s leading scorer this season, and he’s often out with Andre Burakovsky, who scored two goals against the Flyers this season. The next line offers the likes of Jason Chimera, who also had a pair in the season series.
“They have big bodies and a real strong net-front presence,” Mason said. “They have so many talented offensive players, and they can come at you from all different angles, so you have to be prepared for everything. We have a good pre-scout here, a good couple of prep days to get ready for a real tough series.”
Said Hakstol: “It’s not just one or two or three guys. They’ve got depth throughout their lineup and they have all year long. They’re a talented group and they play hard. We’re going to concentrate on ourselves and go play our game. When you look at the regular season games, we’ve had some pretty good battles with these guys. Now it goes to the next level, a playoff level, and that’s what we’ve been preparing themselves for.”
All that said, the Flyers haven’t gotten here by worrying about their opponent and changing their game to adapt. Dave Hakstol has implemented a simple, one-size-fits-most approach to the game that the Flyers have found to be effective against just about every team when they execute it well. And that will be the plan here.
“We’re going to play the way the Philadelphia Flyers play,” Hakstol said. “We’re going to try to do that from the drop of the puck in what will probably be a pretty hostile and great environment.”