Both times the Flyers have defeated the Capitals in playoff series – in 1989 and 2008 – they were upsets. Can it happen again?
THE FLYERS CAN WIN THE SERIES IF…
1) They get secondary scoring.
In Washington, Claude Giroux’s line will get the lion’s share of attention from the Caps’ checking line anchored by Marcus Johansson and, probably, the John Carlson-Brooks Orpik pairing on defense. So assuming Dave Hakstol keeps Jake Voracek up with Giroux and Wayne Simmonds, the Flyers’ wild card probably will have to be Brayden Schenn. If at any point of the series Hakstol goes back to Schenn on the big line, the wild card becomes Voracek. Either way, somebody on the second line, and even the third or fourth line, must score.
Great attention will be paid in the media to the success or failure of the power play, but plenty of teams have advanced a round without a hot one. It helps, of course, but it’s really about goals, not the situations in which you score them. If they don’t come on man advantages the Flyers still can put that time to good use building momentum. Letting down after a dismal power play opportunity early in the second period of Game Seven two years ago enabled the Rangers to score twice in 8:40 and win the game 2-1.
2) Steve Mason outplays Braden Holtby.
Goaltending is the second necessity in any playoff series, unless it’s the first. Holtby has better numbers -- the goals against are 2.20 to 2.51, save percentage is .922 to .918. -- but it’s doubtful he has outplayed Mason this season. After having to come in cold in Game Four two years ago, he was at least the equal of Henrik Lundqvist, so there is no reason to believe Mason won’t at least match Holtby.
3) They ride the wave.
Only theoretically is the conference champion rewarded with a first-round matchup against the weakest playoff team. Usually the eighth seed had to finish strong to get in, and the Flyers’ 24-12-7 record since January 2, (15-6-4 since February 14) has them coming into the playoffs looking as strong as anybody in the conference outside of the Caps or Penguins.
4) Stay out of the box.
The Flyers discipline improved over the second half of the season, but they still were the fourth most penalized team in the league, not a good formula for success in a series against the NHL’s fifth best power play. The penalty killing, too, improved from a sad start, but if Philadelphia can keep it to three minors a game, its chances will improve dramatically. We have seen enough first round upsets over the years to know that composure can trump talent.
5) Start well.
This is another area where there was improvement, until the last weeks when the Flyers resumed giving up the first goal regularly. The hockey world is waiting to see if the Caps’ spooky postseason history will freak them out again. We think they are too deep and well coached for that to happen, but it certainly won’t if they are ahead in every game.
THE FLYERS COULD LOSE THE SERIES IF…
1) They don’t hold Alex Ovechkin to less than a point a game.
You can make the case that 70 points in 72 playoff games are the reason the Caps have not gotten past the second round during his era. As points of comparison Sidney Crosby has 118 points in 100 playoff games and Claude Giroux 61 in 57.
There are examples (2010 against Montreal, last season against the Rangers) of Caps blowing 3-1 series leads when their best player, arguably, the league’s best player too, went dry in the end. There is also an example of Ovechkin coming on late in a series, three goals in the final two games in 2008, when the Flyers, on the verge of blowing a 3-1 lead, survived on Joffrey Lupul’s overtime goal.
2) They don’t hold Evgeny Kuznetsov to less than a point a game, too.
In his first playoff experience last year, the guy who gives the Caps the second line that finally gives them their best chance to win the Stanley Cup, was contained by the Rangers over the last three games. The reason why the Caps ran away with the President’s Trophy this season is they had more poisons for opponents to pick than ever before… and Justin Williams is a proven playoff performer.
3) The pace the Flyers had to keep just to get in has exhausted them…
And we don’t mean physically. It really helped that the fourth game in five nights to close the season didn’t count, but if the Caps play slipped a bit from the almost impossible one they had been keeping, it is probably because they were just waiting for their real season to begin. You can argue that the Flyers playoffs began in January, so they already have proven pressure-proof. But that can take a toll as well.
4) The defense doesn’t prove a lot better than the Caps likely believe it is…
The Flyers have reason to be proud of the job done collectively by the D, but they don’t have a shutdown pair. Our guess is Radko Gudas, a frustrating kind of a guy, will be Hakstol’s choice of the guy to try to frustrate Ovechkin. But it’s not likely that Washington Coach Barry Trotz will mind that matchup, or any matchup.
Because Andrew MacDonald stepped in well, it may not have seemed like Flyers missed Michael Del Zotto after he was injured February 13. But having another guy with speed coming late would be really helpful against more-obsessive-than-ever playoff checking.
5) If the Flyers believe, deep down, they already have made their season…
In 2013-14 they similarly overcame a terrible start under Craig Berube, and gave it a good shot against a Ranger team that would go to the final. Facing the same caliber of team here, and the Flyers have 11 survivors – including their best forwards and the goalie – from 2014 who remember the sting of falling just two goals short of an upset in Game Seven.
That was good practice.
This team has stayed the course better within games than that one did, and has upgraded the defense, but the Caps are deeper up front and on the backline, which means the Flyers are going to have to be the mentally tougher and luckier team.