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Rival in Focus: Washington Capitals

by Bill Meltzer @BillMeltzer / philadelphiaflyers.com

Somewhat akin to the Philadelphia Flyers' rivalry with the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Philadelphia club's clashes with the Washington Capitals were far too lopsided in the Flyers' favor in the early years to be considered much of a rivalry at all. By 1982, however, the Caps began to emerge as a solid NHL club and there started to be more at stake in the standings. By the time the teams started to face off against one another in the playoffs and games between the teams became physical, chippy contests, the teams couldn't stand the sight of one another.

On an all-time basis, the Flyers have a 117-78-9 record with 19 (pre-2005) ties. At the Spectrum and Wells Fargo Center, the Flyers hold a 70-35-3 plus six ties record. The win-loss split is much closer at the old Capital Center in Landover and the current-day Capital One Arena in the Penn Quarter area of Washington, where the Flyers' all-time record is j47-43-6 with 13. The clubs have met five times in the playoffs with the Flyers prevailing in 1989 and 2008 and Washington winning in 1984, 1988 and 2016.

Recent regular season series between the Flyers have Capitals have yo-yoed. In 2017-18, the Flyers went 3-1-0 in head-to-head games with Washington. In 2018-19, Washington enjoyed a clean sweep of the season series with four regulation victories over Philly. Last season, despite being at a fatigue-factor disadvantage in two of the games, the Flyers went 3-0-1 against the Caps.

THE LAVY FACTOR

Today's Capitals are now two-plus seasons removed from their first and only Stanley Cup championship (2017-18). Some of the key components are gone -- most notably goaltender Braden Holtby, retired minutes-eating defenseman Matt Niskanen and head coach Barry Trotz -- but the majority still remain. 

The biggest change the Capitals made in the offseason was behind the bench. Todd Reirden was dismissed and veteran Peter Laviolette was brought in as head coach. Laviolette, of course, won a Stanley Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes and later took the 2009-10 Flyers and the 2016-17 Nashville Predators to the Cup Final. 

Laviolette's high-tempo, attack-oriented system -- based on the principle of defending well but defending infrequently -- can take an adjustment period for his players to master without sacrificing too many opposing transition chances. When it works as intended, Laviolette's system can be a beautiful sight to behold. The short training camp and the lack of exhibition games might work against the Caps early on in terms of making the needed adjustments, but the new head coach has a deep, highly talented and experienced roster at his disposal.

Laviolette, as Flyers fans know, believes in a hard-pushing style of motivation. He challenges his players frequently and, because he is himself convinced that his team will win each night if it plays to its capabilities, he can be very persuasive in getting his players to push through fatigue or adversity. His track record is one of considerable success in his first season or two with each team he has coached. 

Laviolette's Capitals are largely an aging group, but a still-formidable one that certainly is not "too old to win."

Franchise icon and future Hockey Hall of Fame shoo-in Alex Ovechkin, now 35 years old, was denied his 9th career 50-goal season by the COVID-19 pandemic. "Ovie" finished with 48 goals in 68 games in 2018-19. Playmaking wizard Nicklas Bäckström, 33, is still a bankable 70-to-75 point player prorated over a normal 82-game season. T.J. Oshie, age 34, remains a threat to score a prorated 25 goals or so and is one of the NHL all-time most dangerous players in shootouts. Elite offensive defenseman John Carlson turned 31 earlier this month. Another Capitals blueline stalwart, Dmitri Orlov, will celebrate his 30th birthday shortly after the 2020-21 playoffs end.

Entering his fifth year with the Capitals, 31-year-old third line center Lars Eller, is still a two-way threat who solidifies his team's top-nine in the forward rotation no matter who is on his line. Another piece of the supporting cast, fourth-line center Nic Dowd, is 30. Meanwhile, 32-year-old Carl Hagelin is still a speedy bottom-six winger and fine penalty killer but many be nearing the late stages of his NHL career.

Until the top echelon of their older veteran players start to markedly decline, the Capitals window to contend for another Cup remains open. Again, this is similar to Pittsburgh's situation with Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang remaining highly effective players and the team being in "win now" mode. This was underscored by the Capitals signing 43-year-old future Hall of Fame defenseman Zdeno Chara to a one-year contract late in the offseason. 

Meanwhile, Washington also has a group of very talented players who are either in the thick of their primes or in the latter part of their prime. This includes the dangerous 28-year-old playmaking machine Evgeny Kuznetsov, and 24-year-old winger Jakub Vrana.

Hated by many and feared by some for his ultra-physical style of play that walks (and sometimes crosses) the borderline between legal and illegal play, 26-year-old Tom Wilson has evolved from a fourth-line player to an upper-lineup power forward who has potted 20-plus goals and 40-plus points in back-to-back seasons. Wilson is also very hard to take off the puck and wins far more 50-50 battles than he loses.

Bottom-six agitator Garnet Hathaway is in his second season with Washington. He's another big-framed, punishing winger. Last season, the Capitals added veteran defensive defenseman Brenden Dillon via trade. He brings a physical element to the back end and an added layer of leadership in the locker room. Dillon turned 30 in November.

The biggest question mark for the Capitals entering the season is their goaltending. Former Vezina Trophy winner Holtby is now a Vancouver Canuck. Soon to be 24 year olds, 2015 first-round pick Ilya Samsonov is very talented and performed well in 24 games last year, but is presently unproven as a full-time starter. The Capitals intended to have the legendary Henrik Lundqvist come in this season to mentor Samsanov and share playing time, but unfortunately it wasn't to be. Lundqvist, a future Hall of Famer, was diagnosed with a heart condition that required surgery.

In lieu of Lundqvist, the Caps moved up 25-year-old Hershey Bears standout goalie Vitek Vanecek; an AHL All-Star Game selection last year and frequent nemesis of the Lehigh Valley Phantoms the last couple years. The Capitals also have 39-year-old Craig Anderson, a veteran of 648 NHL games, available if Vanecek falters. 

SEASON SERIES SCHEDULE

Feb 7: Flyers @ Washington Capitals
Feb. 9: Flyers @ Washington Capitals
Mar. 11: Washington Capitals @ Flyers
Mar. 13: Washington Capitals @ Flyers
Apr. 17: Washington Capitals @ Flyers
Apr. 27: Washington Capitals @ Flyers
May 7: Flyers @ Washington Capitals
May 8: Flyers @ Washington Capitals

RIVALRY HISTORY

The Capitals entered the National Hockey League as an expansion team for the 1974-75 season. At the time, the Flyers were preparing for their (ultimately successful) defense of the Stanley Cup championship after seven seasons in the league.

In the early years, the Flyers were the gold standard for how to quickly achieve respectability and then build on it to become a contender and then a champion. The Capitals, who lacked a general manager with the vision of Hockey Hall of Famer Keith Allen and a head coach with the brilliance and innovation of Fred Shero, had a much tougher time trying to improve their fortunes. Inaugural general manager Milt Schmidt was a Hall of Fame player but not as astute of a talent evaluator. He was succeeded by Max McNab in 1976.

The Capitals were, to put it bluntly, a doormat for most of their first eight seasons of existence. The inaugural 1974-75 club was one of the worst teams in NHL history (8-67-5). 

Former Flyers goaltender Michel Belhumeur, who was selected by the Caps in the expansion draft, was a competent NHL backup or tandem goalie if he had a decent team in front of him. As a Flyer, Belhumeur had a winning overall record (9-7-3), a respectable for the era 3.22 GAA and .903 save percentage. Unfortunately, in Washington, he was left to fend completely for himself. 

As a Cap, Belhumeur set an NHL record for most games played for a team in one season (35 appearances) without a single win. In 35 games, he won zero games, lost 24, and tied 3. Goalie partner Ron Low fared no better -- actually, Belhumeur's GAA was slightly lower and save percentage slightly higher -- but did manage eight wins in 48 games played. Third goalie John Adams was winless in eight games and was torched for a 6.90 GAA and .833 save percentage.

After the 1974-75 season, the Flyers swapped speedy two-way forward Bill Clement to the Capitals in exchange for the first overall selection in the 1975 NHL Draft. Philadelphia used the pick on hard-nosed center Mel Bridgman; the only time to date that the Flyers have had the first pick of the first round. 

There was nowhere to go for the Capitals but up. They did improve, going from 21 to 32 to 62 points over their first three seasons but remained a non playoff club in the years that followed. 

Later, longtime Flyers players such as Bob "the Hound" Kelly and goalie Wayne Stephenson finished their NHL careers with Washington. Kelly, primarily a checker, energy line player and whirling dervish of a fighter during his decade-long Flyers career, saw more time on offensive-oriented lines in Washington, and even produced a 26-goal, 62-point season in his only full season (1980-81) as a Capital. Ex-Canuck and Flyers Dennis Ververgaert also finished up his career as a Cap. 

In the latter 1970s to early 1980s, the Capitals followed the Toronto Maple Leafs, New York Rangers, New York Islanders and the World Hockey Association's Winnipeg Jets in becoming one of the early clubs to turn heavily to Sweden as a source of talent. The Caps brought in the likes of forwards Bengt Gustafsson and Rolf Edberg along with defenseman Leif Svensson. 

Washington's selection of future Hockey Hall of Famer Mike Gartner with the fourth overall pick of the 1979 NHL Draft gave the Capitals their first bonafide pure goal scoring force -- succeeded in later generations by Peter Bondra and then surpassed by Ovechkin -- but the Caps remained south of the playoff cutoff border. 

On a head-to-head basis, the perennial Cup-contending Flyers were merciless to the Capitals on the ice. Over the first 25 games played between the clubs, the Flyers were undefeated (20-0 with five ties, 12-0-0 at the Spectrum). Along the way, Philly laid whippings of 11-2 (April 1, 1976) and 9-2 (Feb. 10, 1977) on their overmatched opponent. Most of the time, especially at the Spectrum, the Caps meekly accepted their beatings and left town. 

Periodically, the Caps did try to show the Flyers they wouldn't be intimidated, such as during a fight-filled Dec. 21, 1978 game at the Spectrum that the Flyers won 5-2 behind a two-goal, three-point game from Yves Preston. On that night, Flyers tough guys such as Bridgman (who went toe-to-toe with Bill Riley) and the late Dave Hoyda (who rallied against Gord Lane) whipped the rabidly partisan crowd back into a frenzy. Riley, a frequent combatant, also had a go with the late Flyers defenseman Rick Lapointe.

Off the ice, the Capitals were struggling simply to survive as a franchise. The club's late original owner and Philadelphia native, Abe Pollin lost money, year after year. Nonetheless, he was determined to see the team succeed. He resisted chances to relocae the team (unlike the Kansas City Scouts turned Colorado Rockies turned New Jersey Devils) or simply cutting his losses by folding the franchise. However, the situation reached critical mass in the early 1980s, and the franchise was essentially on life support.

A "save the Capitals" fundraising campaign was launched. Among others, Flyers co-founder and owner Ed Snider pledged his support to old friend Pollin to assist the drive to make sure the Washington franchise did not go under. In fact, Flyers players such as Paul Holmgren even filmed a television commercial urging hockey fans from the Delaware Valley and points south to help save the Landover-based team survive. 

Brighter Days in DC

Several key events came together in 1982 that not only helped save the Capitals franchise but also marked the beginning of a long period of stability and prosperity. The team hired David Poile, the son of the late Flyers inaugural general manager and Hockey Hall of Famer Bud Poile, as its GM. Poile quickly proved to be his father's equal, or even superior, in the talent evaluation and roster building realms. 

Secondly, a blockbuster trade by Poile with Montreal that most notably yielded future Hall of Fame defenseman Rod Langway among multiple players who were steeped in a winning culture added a whole new dimension to the hockey club on the ice. Young talents such as Bobby Carpenter, Gartner and Dennis Maruk exploded into their own offensively. The Caps also drafted another future Hall of Fame defenseman, Scott Stevens, with the fifth overall pick of the 1982 Draft. By his second NHL season, Stevens was a major two-way force as well as a fearsome physical presence. 

In 1982-83, the Caps began a run of making the playoffs in 14 straight seasons. No longer were they a punching bag or all-too-easy two points for the Flyers or other top clubs. The Caps were a handful for any club, physically, offensively or defensively. Now, the rivalry with the Flyers was finally on.

The Capitals dropped their opening round series in 1983, four games to one, to the New York Islanders on the Isles' way to their fourth straight Stanley Cup Championship. The next year, however, the Caps made franchise history at the Flyers' expense, as the late Bryan Murray's team defeated Bob McCammon's Flyers in a best-of-five sweep.

The resounding loss to Washington marked the end of head coach/general manager McCammon's tenure, amid Spectrum chants of "Bob must go!" in the concluding 5-1 loss at the Spectrum. By the next year, the Flyers had a new general manager in franchise legend Bob Clarke, who simultaneously announced his retirement from his Hall of Fame playing career. They also had a new head coach in the fiery, meticulous "Iron" Mike Keenan to go along with an influx of young talent and a group of key players in their primes.

The sting of the first-round humiliation by the Caps in 1984 faded quickly for the Flyers over the 1984-85 to 1986-97 seasons. The Flyers got to the precipice of the Stanley Cup championship but could not defeat the dynastic Edmonton Oilers in the 1985 (five-game) or 1987 (seven-game) Finals round.

In 1987-88, the Capitals and Philly met again in the first round; this time in a best-of-seven series. The series went the distance, and could have swung either way before the Capitals won it, 5-4, in overtime on the second tally of the game by arch-nemesis Dale Hunter (who would be on many a top 10 list of most hated visiting players at the Spectrum). The outcome, which saw the Flyers blow a 3-0 lead and then have to rally for a Peter Zezel goal to force OT, marked the end of the Keenan era.

Keenan's firing was more the product of avoiding a full-fledged mutiny of Flyers players who had tired of their head coach's Type A personality and perceived bullying tendencies in dealing with his players than it was specifically due to the Game 7 loss to the Caps. The next year, after assistant coach Holmgren had been promoted to head coach, the Flyers and Capitals had their third meeting in the playoffs (once again in the first round).

This time around, the Flyers prevailed in six games. The 1989 series' most famous moment -- and one of the most well-known NHL moments of the era -- came late in Game 5 when Ron Hextall punctuated an 8-5 Flyers road win by becoming the first goaltender in NHL history to score a goal in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Two nights later, a pair of Rick Tocchet goals in the third period secured a 4-3 series clinching win for the Flyers. The latter goal, scored with 3:19 left in regulation, proved to be the one that put the series away. The Flyers went on to reach the Wales Conference Final before losing in six games to Montreal.

Plenty of animosity but no playoff clashes

The 1989 series win over the Capitals was the last hurrah for the remaining nucleus of the Keenan teams. Thereafter, the Flyers missed the postseason five straight years, before finally emerging on the other side as a Cup contender once again for a decade. Meanwhile, the Capitals remained a perennial playoff team through Philly's dark years and were still a nearly annual playoff club through the remainder of the 1990s.

The mid-1990s Flyers and Capitals had their share of regular season wars and tight games. The post-1994 lockout Philly had to contest with the high-scoring likes of Bondra, Joe Juneau, defensemen Sergei Gonchar, Calle Johansson and Kevin Hatcher, playmaking Michal Pivonka and two-way forward Steve Konowalchuk. The Caps also remained plenty feisty, with the likes of Keith Jones (later a Flyer) and the greying but still ornery and sometimes ruthless Hunter. 

During the mid-to-late 1990s, things never quite worked out to spur a new playoff clash between Philly and the Caps. The Flyers did not cross paths with Washington on the way to the 1995 Eastern Conference Final, the 1997 Stanley Cup Final (a one-year playoff absence for Washington) or the Eastern Conference Final in 1999-2000. Meanwhile, the Capitals made it to the 1998 Stanley Cup Final, where they were swept by Detroit as the Flyers had been the previous year, without facing the Flyers.

Flyers come close, Caps fade

As with Pittsburgh, the Capitals were in a bad way in the years immediately leading up to (and the first year following) the lockout-canceled 2004-05 campaign. While the Flyers reached Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final in 2000 and 2004 -- both 2-1 losses in the deciding match -- the Capitals slowly started to fade from contention.

First-round exits in 2000 and 2001 were sandwiched around non-playoff seasons in 2001-02, 2003-04 and each of the first two seasons (2005-06 and 2006-07) following the lockout-canceled 2004-05 season and the adoption of the salary cap. The legendary Jaromir Jagr spent two-and-a-half seasons with the Capitals during these lean years before he was traded to the New York Rangers.

The Ovie Era

Just as the Penguins transformed back into a contender within a couple years of the arrival of Sidney Crosby, the Caps became formidable again during the Alex Ovechkin era but not overnight. Selected by Washington with the first pick of the 2004 NHL Draft (Pittsburgh took Malkin second in what was dubbed "the Year of the Russian"), Ovechkin joined the NHL in 2005-06 and scored 52 goals and 106 points as a rookie. In his early years, Ovechkin was also an ultra-aggressive hitter before later needing to learn to pick his spots a little more selectively.

Throughout his stellar career, Ovechkin has been a perennial threat to win the Rocket Richard Trophy (most goals). He's also a two-time Hart Trophy winner as league MVP and a one-time winner of the Art Ross Trophy as the leading point-getter.

It took the Capitals until Bruce Boudreau successed Glen Hanlon as head coach around U.S. Thanksgiving in 2007 to re-emerge as a bonafide playoff team. That year, the Flyers and Capitals finally squared off in the playoffs for the first time since 1989. 

As with the 1988 and 1989 series, the first-round clash between the Flyers and Capitals in 2008 was another thriller that could have gone either way. Ultimately, an overtime power play goal in Game 7 by the Flyers' Joffrey Lupul propelled Philadelphia to the Eastern Conference Semifinal. Philadelphia made it to the Eastern Conference Final before being overmatched by Pittsburgh in five games.

Year by year, under longtime GM George McPhee, the Capitals began to assemble a high-quality roster around Ovechkin, including the likes of Bäckström (selected 4th overall in 2006), offensive defenseman Mike Green, 2009 first-round pick Carlson and 2009 fourth-rounder Holtby. 

For much of the 2010s, the Capitals were a regular season force, including President's Trophy honors for the best regular season record in the NHL during the 2009-10, 2015-16 and 2016-17 campaigns. However, the playoffs brought about a lot of frustration during these years as the Caps failed to emerge from the Eastern Conference to return to the Stanley Cup Final. This continued even after Boudreau was replaced as head coach by Barry Trotz and Brian MacLellan was promoted from assistant GM under McPhee to head GM in 2014. 

The Flyers, following a run to an overtime Game 6 of the 2010 Stanley Cup Final, remained a Cup contender through 2011-12 and a playoff team through 2013-14. After Holmgren gave way to Ron Hextall as general manager following a 2-1 loss in Game 7 to the Rangers in the first round of the 2014 Eastern Conference Playoffs, the Flyers underwent a partial rebuild focused on stockpiling Draft picks and post-Draft player development along with long-term salary cap flexibility while also retaining enough pieces to at least push for a playoff spot.

On an alternating year basis from 2014-15 through 2018-19, the Flyers missed the playoffs three times (2014-15, 2016-17 and 2018-19) and reached the first round of the postseason in 2015-16 and 2017-18. 

Under first-year head coach Dave Hakstol, the Flyers drew the Capitals in the first round the 2016 playoffs. A tough task for an underdog Philadelphia team became even tougher when top two-way center Sean Couturier was lost for the series with a shoulder injury in Game 1. Down three games to zero in the series, Philadelphia changed goaltenders from Steve Mason to ex-Capitals netminder Michal Neuvirth.

The Flyers staved off elimination on home ice in Game 4 with a 2-1 victory as Neuvirth made 31 saves and goals by rookie defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere and veteran blueliner Andrew MacDonald provided just enough offense to win. In Washington for Game 5, the Flyers were massively outchanced all night but Neuvirth played the best game of his entire career in authoring a 44-save shutout. A fluky second period goal by Ryan White and a late-game empty netter by Chris VandeVelde supplied two goals on a night where the Flyers were held to just 11 shots overall and only a couple high-danger chances.

Neuvirth's magic continued back at home on the afternoon of Game 6, holding the Capitals to only a nearly unstoppable second-period goal by Bäckström among the 29 shots he faced. This time, however, there were no goals (fluky or well-earned) by the Flyers to push the series to Game 7. Holtby earned a 26 save shutout, including 11 saves in the final frame.

Trotz's last season in Washington before his contract expired and he joined the New York Islanders was in 2017-18. This was the year when the Capitals finally peaked at just the right time, capturing the Stanley Cup for the first time in their franchise history.

The Flyers lost in six games to Pittsburgh in the first round of the 2018 series in a series that almost improbably went to the third period of Game 6 tied despite the Penguins outplaying Philly for most of the series. The next year, expectations were elevated when the team brought back left winger James van Riemsdyk as an unrestricted free agent for a second stint on the team. JVR's signing signaled an intent to take the next step back toward Cup contention in conjunction with the veteran nucleus and talented younger players in place.

Thing went awry, however, and the GM tenure of Hextall and the coaching tenure of Hakstol came to an end about a month apart before midseason. Chuck Fletcher became the Flyers GM. After Lehigh Valley Phantoms head coach Scott Gordon finished out the season as Flyers interim head coach, Philadelphia hired four-time Jack Adams Trophy finalist Alain Vigneault as head coach. 

Philadelphia would go on to have a breakthrough season in 2019-20, buoyed in part by the acquisition of Niskanen from Washington in exchange for Radko Gudas. Vigneault became a five-time finalist for the Jack Adams and the Flyers came within one victory of reaching the Eastern Conference Final.

The Caps, who lost in the first round of the 2019 playoffs in their bid to repeat as Stanley Cup champions, finished in first place in the Metro Division during the pandemic-shortened 2019-20 regular season (although the Flyers were right on their heels at the time of the pause, and seemingly poised to overtake Washington). 

In round-robin play, the Flyers swept the Capitals, Bruins and Lightning to enter the playoffs as the top seed in the East. Note: if there had been regular season points at stake, the Flyers would also have overtaken Washington to win the Metro but Philly would have been third in the overall Eastern Conference standings rather than the top seed. 

Washington lost to the Trotz-coached New York Islanders in five games in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. The Isles then beat the Flyers in seven for the right to play eventual Stanley Cup champion Tampa in the Conference Final. Laviolette subsequently replaced Reirden as head coach after Reirden's two-season tenure in succession of Trotz.

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