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Agnew: Flyers hitting back against Capitals

Former NHL coach says physical play is key for Philadelphia entering Game 5

by Tom Gulitti @tomgulittinhl / NHL.com Staff Writer

For additional insight into the Eastern Conference First Round series between the Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers, NHL.com has enlisted the help of Gary Agnew to break down the action. Agnew will be checking in throughout the series.

Agnew, 55, was an assistant with the Pittsburgh Penguins, St. Louis Blues and Columbus Blue Jackets. He also served as interim coach of the Blue Jackets for five games during the 2006-07 season, and he has been coach of Syracuse of the American Hockey League and London and Kingston of the Ontario Hockey League.

The Philadelphia Flyers finally got some traffic in front of Washington Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby and played with some discipline and structure in a 2-1 victory in Game 4 of their Eastern Conference First Round series Wednesday at Wells Fargo Center. As a result, the Flyers remained alive to play Game 5 on Friday at Verizon Center (7 p.m. ET: NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports, CSN-DC, CSN-PH), where they'll likely need an even better effort to extend the best-of-7 series further.

"I think they've got to do that and I think Washington has to ramp up their emotional game and see how Philadelphia now reacts to them cranking it up a notch emotionally," said former Pittsburgh Penguins, St. Louis Blues and Columbus Blue Jackets assistant coach Gary Agnew.

Agnew was impressed by the Flyers' physical play in Game 4; they outhit the Capitals 43-38 but remained disciplined.

Video: WSH@PHI, Gm4: Simmonds knocks down Niskanen

"It was hit and leave, not hit and stick around and they were certainly more methodical and structured in their play," Agnew said. "I thought they played more as a team it seemed like, not a lot of running around and going out of their way to make hits."

That discipline was a significant improvement for the Flyers after they gave the Capitals nine power plays and allowed five power-play goals in a 6-1 loss in Game 3. The Capitals had two power plays in Game 4 and one was for 28 seconds.

"They're such a skilled, quick group that sometimes you're forced to take penalties just to avoid giving up a big scoring chance," Agnew said of the Capitals, "but it goes back to their structure. There weren't that many outnumbered rushes if any and I thought the Flyers' play in the defensive zone was better."

It was a small sample size because the Capitals' power-play time was limited, but it was evident the Flyers were being more aggressive on the penalty kill in pressuring Nicklas Backstrom when he had the puck on the right half-wall and John Carlson at the point.

"Everybody used different terminology," Agnew said. "We used to call it topping down. That high forward was topping down on Backstrom and pushing him down the boards toward the goal line and forcing him to make tougher plays back to the point or not making plays back there. Washington has seen that before, Backstrom has seen that before, so they'll have to make an adjustment now if that's what they're expecting Philly to do again."

Video: WSH@PHI, Gm4: Neuvirth denies Burakovsky to hold lead

Flyers coach Dave Hakstol's decision to switch to goalie Michal Neuvirth after Steve Mason played in the first three games paid off, with Neuvirth making 31 saves, including 12 in the third period.

"I don't think he was overly tested in the first two periods, but when he was in the third he made some major-league saves, some huge saves," Agnew said.

Game 4 was the first in the series with extended 5-on-5 play. Agnew noticed the commitment by the Flyers and the Capitals in the defensive zone to block shots. To counter that, he says, they'll need to work the puck down low and then get it back to the points for quick shots before the defenders can get set up in the shooting lanes.

That was what the Flyers did on their second goal, scored by defenseman Andrew MacDonald on a left-point shot.

"If they wait too long, then the other team gets in lanes to block shots," Agnew said. "So, I think it's important for both teams that it goes low to high and right back to the net or if you don't have a shot, you can go D-to-D and then it goes right back to the net and gets the angle off. Then, it's up to those forwards again to win the race back to the net and I think that's going to create some offense down there."

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