It’s playoff time again, which means it’s also time for our Breaking It Down series. That’s where I – and I alone – take a look at the post-season matchups and provide is a snapshot of the action to come. This edition features a look at the Eastern Conference tilt between the Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers. Game One is on Thursday.
Washington enters the post-season as the President’s Trophy winners, marking the first time they’ve accomplished the feat since 2009-2010. They’ll be hoping for a long playoff run, but the Capitals are one of those teams that can’t seem to get out of the blocks. The last time they entered the post-season as the top seed, they were ousted by the Montreal Canadiens in the first round.
The Flyers, like the Canadiens of 2010, enter the playoffs as the pesky upstarts and that could prove problematic for Washington. After all, the Alex Ovechkin-led Capitals haven’t advanced to the conference final yet and playoff success has been elusive. As for Philly, they haven’t been to the dance since 2013-2014, where they were felled by the Rangers in seven games in the first round.
For the Capitals, Braden Holtby is the man. He posted a diabolical 48-9-7 record, besting his 2014-2015 season totals by seven victories. The 26-year-old from Lloydminster posted a goals against average of 2.20 and a save percentage of .922, plus he had three shutouts. But perhaps more than anything else, dude likes to play a lot of minutes. Watch for Holtby to steal more than a few games, especially if the Capitals are able to pull off a deep run.
The Flyers will hope to get equal mileage out of Steve Mason. He had 53 starts this season, winning 23 games in the process. And he had a 2.51 goals against average to go with a .918 save percentage. He’s adjusted his practice schedule to allow for more rest, which in turn should allow for more game time. Philly can also draw on Michal Neuvirth to balance things out and that’s a good thing: they allowed just 2.57 goals per game with the tandem.
Shayne Gostisbehere has been the proverbial linchpin for the Flyers, as they’ve averaged 0.75 more goals with him in the fold and have improved the power play. The rookie from Pembroke Pines has 46 points in 64 games and is capable of moving the biscuit, but defensive lapses could be problematic against Washington. Mark Streit is more balanced and more experienced, while Radko Gudas could surprise with a timely rally or two.
Washington contended with some injury woes on the blueline this season, but Karl Alzner and Matt Niskanen have provided constancy. Alzner has played 459 consecutive games and counting, while Niskanen takes on all situations with aplomb. John Carlson is scorching hot right now with four points in his last two games and he’ll see time on the top power play unit, plus Brooks Orpik completes a solid pairing and will muck it up.
Here’s some news: Ovechkin drives Washington’s offence. He forms the top unit with Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie and propels an attack that’s seen five players eclipse 50 points this season. Oshie had a career-high 26 goals. There’s also Evgeni Kuznetsov, who put up 77 points this season and can play all three forward positions. He’s only had four points in his last dozen games, though, and could stand to kick out the jams in the playoffs.
The Flyers rely on Claude Giroux to do a lot and so far that hasn’t been a problem. The centre from Hearst had 67 points this season and plays between Brayden Schenn and Wayne Simmonds. His composure drove his linemates to career-best seasons, with Simmonds in particular developing nicely. He’s deadly close to the net and he’ll give Washington’s defenders fits. He’s a safe bet for a handful of grinding goals around the mouth of the crease.
The Flyers and Capitals will have a physical series and that means a lot of punishment is in the works. Washington’s Ovechkin can shoulder a lot of the load, while Giroux will try to match him minute for minute. The forward units could trade goals for a while, but the Capitals will overwhelm the Flyers if the series turns into a shooting gallery.
Expect this one to be won in the corners and in the messy areas. The Flyers can still muck it up and that’s where the Caps may get worn down. Holtby can weather most storms, however, and will be the difference maker when the dust settles.
Given the available evidence, I’m prescribing a Washington victory in seven games.