Each Wednesday throughout the regular season, Kevin Weekes will be offering his pluses and minuses for the teams competing in the NBCSN Wednesday Night Rivalry game in his Weekes on the Web blog. Weekes will also be assisting fans with three must-watch elements of the game.
The Washington Capitals clinched the Presidents' Trophy with a 4-1 win against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Monday. They have seven games remaining and, although those games are meaningless in the standings, the Capitals want to win every one of them.
The Philadelphia Flyers are trying to hold onto a wild card spot in the Eastern Conference; if they make the Stanley Cup Playoffs, they could face the Capitals in the first round.
There will be a playoff feel in the air when the Capitals (54-16-5) visit the Flyers (37-25-13) at Wells Fargo Center on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN360). Here's my breakdown of the game:
Pluses: Washington has been the most consistent, most complete team in the League. The Capitals haven't lost back-to-back games in regulation all season; that's a testament to the season they are having, which includes winning the Presidents' Trophy with two weeks remaining.
Video: CBJ@WSH: Oshie pads the lead on deflection for PPG
They get production throughout the entire lineup and have been bolstered by the emergence of Evgeny Kuznetsov. He had 11 goals and 37 points in 2014-15, his rookie season, and has 20 goals and leads the team with 73 points this season. Nicklas Backstrom (20 goals, 67 points) was a first-time All-Star; not sure how he hasn't made it before. You go up and down the lineup. Jason Chimera, a depth player, has 18 goals. They have a strong defensive core as well.
T.J. Oshie has fit in well with Alex Ovechkin, not only in terms of hits and being physical, but also with his skill game. He has a career-high 24 goals.
The Capitals get unbelievable goaltending every night. Braden Holtby has 46 wins and needs three more to break the single-season record set by Martin Brodeur in 2006-07. Holtby (46-9-3, 2.19 GAA, .923 SV%) has been in the Vezina Trophy conversation all season. In the few games that he hasn't played well or has had a breather, backup Philipp Grubauer has played really well.
The Capitals have won so many games because they can adjust from game-to-game and period-to-period to win in different ways. Whether it's coach Barry Trotz, goalie coach Mitch Korn or assistant coach Lane Lambert, the staff has been able to help the Capitals adjust to anything and everything.
Video: WSH@OTT: Backstrom's sneaky shot gets past Anderson
Minuses: For this to be an amazing season, and for them to be as good as they are, the Capitals need to compete for the Stanley Cup. There would be massive disappointment, to put it mildly, if they don't reach the Final. The only previous time the Capitals won the Presidents' Trophy was in 2009-10, when they lost in the first round to the Montreal Canadiens in seven games after holding a 3-1 series lead.
Also, Washington gives up the first goal too many times. The Capitals have allowed the first goal in 40 of 75 games; although they have gone 21-14-5 in those games, it's something they can't do in the playoffs. That's when the mental demons start creeping in.
They have to maintain the hunger. The Capitals still have seven games left and want to go into the playoffs looking like the team that's been the best in the League to this point in the regular season. These two weeks remaining in the regular season may not matter in the standings, but it's important for the Capitals to play well.
Pluses: The good news is that they are playing their most consistent hockey of the season. The Flyers are 11-3-2 in their past 16 games, and overall, except for a goal by Blake Wheeler of the Winnipeg Jets on Monday, they've been much improved defensively and have shown more commitment to defending.
Video: WPG@PHI: Simmonds comes off bench to score wrister
It's no surprise that those winning ways have coincided with the Flyers getting better goaltending. Michal Neuvirth played exceptionally well prior to his injury, and Steve Mason has started 11 of the past 12 games. Mason has allowed two goals or fewer in each of his past five starts, including a 51-save performance in a 3-2 shootout loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets on March 22. Give him a lot of credit for that.
I know I say this a lot, but I'll say it again: Rookie Shayne Gostisbehere has been a revelation. He is going to transform the franchise if he can continue playing this way. You look at teams that have been able to get dynamic offensive defensemen who changed the game, and you look at how that improved those teams. Fortunately for a team like the Los Angeles Kings, they get an all-around defenseman in Drew Doughty. Fortunately for the Montreal Canadiens, they get an all-around defenseman in P.K. Subban. Super-elite skilled defensemen are very hard to find. Gostisbehere has also revitalized Claude Giroux. Not only is the Flyers' captain healthy again, he also has more jump in his step. He doesn't feel like he has to do it all by himself anymore.
There are some unheralded players who are making a difference. I would say as long as he can stay disciplined and not take untimely or unnecessary penalties, Ryan White has helped make a difference there. Not only physically; he is making plays and scoring some points. The rebirth of Sam Gagner, who was a high pick and had some early success with the Edmonton Oilers, has also helped. He was on waivers and down in the minors but has been getting some big points.
Video: PHI@COL: Giroux beats Varlamov for late lead
And let's not forget Brayden Schenn, who has a career-high 24 goals and 54 points.
Lastly, first-year coach Dave Hakstol has done a good job of managing the team. He's been calm and not asked for too much, not gotten too high or too low. We know he is very prepared and methodical, but that composure behind the bench goes a long way.
Minuses: If there's one negative, it's the fact that their margin for error is razor thin. The Flyers are in a heated battle with the Detroit Red Wings and New York Islanders for a wild card spot and can't afford to lose many (or any) points.
Despite how well they have played, they are still thin on the back end, which has been a problem all season. Also, Neuvirth's injury will force Mason to have to play a lot, perhaps even every game the rest of the way.
THREE THINGS TO WATCH
1. Can the Capitals match or exceed the desperation of the Flyers? The game means more to the Flyers than it does to the Capitals.
2. Will the Flyers stay disciplined? They can't take unnecessary penalties; if they do, Washington will make them pay.
3. Can the Flyers play within their game? They can't try to do too much and play outside of who they are and what they are. If they do, it will come back to bite them.