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 also will assist fans with three must-watch elements of the game.
The Washington Capitals have struggled following their six-day break, losing two straight games and looking to avoid three straight losses for the first time in almost three months (Nov. 26-Dec. 3). The Pittsburgh Penguins and Columbus Blue Jackets are right on their heels for the top spot in the Metropolitan Division and Eastern Conference.
The Philadelphia Flyers have lost five of seven (2-4-1) to fall out of the second wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the East and are behind a few teams as well. It won't get much easier as three of their next five games are against the Capitals and Penguins.
The Flyers snuck into the playoffs last season and had a matchup with the Capitals; Washington raced out to a 3-0 series lead before winning the first round series in six games. I'd expect a similar playoff-like atmosphere when the Capitals (39-12-7) visit the Flyers (28-24-7) at Wells Fargo Center on Wednesday (8 p.m. E.T.; NBCSN, TVA Sports, NHL.TV). Here's my breakdown of the game:
Pluses: There hasn't been much drop off from last season when they won the Presidents' Trophy. Center Nicklas Backstrom is quietly among the League leaders in points (61), Alex Ovechkin is still Alex Ovechkin and goalie Braden Holtby is playing as well as he did last season when he won the Vezina Trophy. When you're No. 1 center, wing and goalie are playing that well, it's pretty impressive.
Video: WSH@DET: Holtby makes a pair of stops on Helm
Another thing is that the Capitals get production up and down the lineup. It's not only guys in the top six but in the bottom six as well who are starting to play better. Take forwards Brett Connolly and Lars Eller for example. Connolly has 12 goals and six assists in 44 games, and Eller has 10 goals and 11 assists in 57 games.
Lastly, the Capitals can win games in many ways. They don't always have to light up the scoreboard. They'll take a 3-2 or 2-1 win. And they can still defeat you 6-0 based on their skill. They are a complete team and have guys that are willing to get to areas that they need to get to in order to score. The Capitals have the best goal differential in the League (plus-69).
Minuses: During the past two games in which they've lost by a goal in each (3-2 in a shootout to the Detroit Red Wings on Saturday; 2-1 to the New York Rangers on Sunday), Washington hasn't been at its best. The Capitals were 19-2-1 in 22 games prior to their break, but haven't come out with that same fire since having a full week in between games. As I've said previously, the Capitals know they'll be in the playoffs, and all that matters to them is winning the Stanley Cup, but they have to use the remaining 24 games to play with the same passion and determination as they would in the playoffs.
The Capitals have dominated at home (24-5-1) but are 15-7-6 on the road. While that's not bad by any means, they've lost four of the past six on the road and playing better on the road could give them more confidence heading into the playoffs.
Pluses: Forward Wayne Simmonds pre-All Star break was awesome. He's been the Flyers' most consistent player. He had a difficult stretch before scoring four goals in his past five games, including the game-winner in a 2-1 overtime victory against the San Jose Sharks on Feb. 11. Forwards Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek have had good seasons but have had some dips in their seasons as well.
Video: PHI@VAN: Simmonds jams home rebound in front for PPG
The good news for the Flyers is that they play in the East and it's wide open. You look at how far back the New York Islanders and Buffalo Sabres were for a playoff spot months ago and look at where they are now. The Flyers are right there in the mix.
Defenseman Ivan Provorov and forward Travis Konecny are really good rookie players in this League. I like what general manager Ron Hextall has done to assemble this team. He's setting them up for success in the future.
Minuses: It's been a disappointing year based on how the Flyers played last year when they had a nice run and made the playoffs. Both of their goalies, Steve Mason and Michal Neuvirth, have not played nearly as well as they did last season. They were both at a higher level. That being said, as a team, Philadelphia isn't always air-tight defensively.
The Flyers were convinced last season that they would make the playoffs and that confidence is something we haven't seen yet. Let's not forget, Philadelphia had a 10-game winning streak earlier in the season. Imagine how far out of the race it would be if not for that?
Having not gotten production up and down from all four lines has been a problem, forward Sam Gagner, who was a key piece for them last season, is now in Columbus. He's not a fourth-line player, but last season, accepted his role and did what he had do to re-establish his NHL career, and provided some production. They have not gotten that this season.
I also have a hard time understanding defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere's situation. He's such a good player and was a great player for them last year (Calder finalist with 17 goals and 29 assists in 64 games). Maybe the Flyers are trying to teach Gostisbehere some hard lessons about being a pro and trying to be a pro by scratching him. I didn't think it would come to this based on what we saw last year despite his struggles (four goals, 21 assists in 53 games).
THREE THINGS TO WATCH
1. Do the Flyers get overly physical and take penalties?
2. Which Flyers line and defense pairing gets the Ovechkin matchup?
3. Will the Flyers goalie be able to match Holtby save-for-save?