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Flyers 2, Capitals 1: 10 things we learned from a possible playoff preview

In what very well could be a first round preview, the Flyers skated right with the powerhouse Washington Capitals and ultimately prevailed in a shootout.

Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Morning Observations is a feature where we break down the previous night's game with an analytical eye.

  • For fifty-five minutes of regulation and then throughout the five-minute overtime session, last night's game between the Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers did not look like a matchup between the Presidents' Trophy winner and a team scraping and clawing just to make the playoffs. Instead, it was a battle of two teams that were evenly matched in all facets of the game. The Flyers would surge for a few shifts, and then the Capitals would match it. Back and forth it went, as the two teams even traded power play goals in the third period to ensure that the game would go to overtime. A late push by Washington in the final five minutes of regulation gave them the edge in the possession metrics (the Flyers finished with a 45.75% score-adjusted Corsi), but this truly felt like a 50/50 game. At this point, the two teams are likely opponents in the first round of the postseason, and if this game is any indication, we're in for one heck of a series.
  • On November 12th, the Flyers played the Capitals for the first time in the 2015-16 season and lost by a score of 5-2. Following the loss, I wrote this in my Morning Observations: "It's time to kill the "Flyers only play well against top teams" narrative. Washington is undoubtedly a great squad, possessing both high-end talent and depth throughout the roster. Last night, Philadelphia was not even close to their level. Sure, they hung with the Capitals for a while, but the team was neither able to generate any consistent offense nor prevent Washington from going the other way on the rush." It's amazing how far this team has come in just four and a half months. Back in November, the Flyers barely looked worthy of being on the same ice as the powerhouse Caps, while last night they matched them stride for stride. It's a testament to the effort of the players and the coaching of Dave Hakstol that the team has made this significant of a turnaround. Oh, and one other thing about that November 12th matchup? It was the final game before Shayne Gostisbehere was called up to the big club.
  • If the Flyers do face off against the Capitals in the first round, probably the most important even strength matchup will be Philadelphia's shutdown line centered by Sean Couturier against whatever unit contains superstar Alexander Ovechkin. Couturier spent a whopping 80.4% of his even 5-on-5 ice time battling Ovechkin last night, and Couturier got the better of the matchup. Ovechkin (like all of the Capitals) was held off the scoreboard at even strength, and finished with a poor 41.67% Corsi For percentage against the Couturier unit. The Flyers' second line has seen success all year long in containing Ovechkin, and they've used a simple formula to do so -- spend the vast majority of their ice time cycling in the offensive zone. Washington's elite sniper is far from a disaster defensively, but it's just not the strength of Ovechkin's game. Couturier and his linemates grinding out shifts on the attack along the boards becomes just as much a defensive tactic as it is an attempt to put the puck in the net. They won't need to score much to be useful if Ovechkin and company can't get play moving in the other direction while facing them.
  • If Philadelphia won the Couturier vs. Ovechkin matchup, it's only fair to point out that Washington took the also-important Backstrom vs. Giroux battle. Even if Couturier neutralizes Ovechkin at even strength (as he did tonight), Washington has tons of talent to burn, and Nicklas Backstrom remains one of the NHL's truly elite centermen. Giroux's line definitely had trouble with them last night, as the Philadelphia star finished with a subpar 33.33% Corsi For percentage in 7:17 minutes against Backstrom. Considering the decided advantage that Washington still holds with their third and fourth lines (for reference, T.J. Oshie skated on the Caps' third line last night), there will be extra pressure on the top two lines of the Flyers to win their respective battles every night in a playoff series. At least in this game, the Giroux unit did not live up to their end of the bargain.
  • With neither team able to gain an advantage at even strength, it was up to the Flyers' power play to tie the score after Ovechkin gave the Capitals an early third period lead. The struggling top unit for Philadelphia finally delivered after a long scoring drought, courtesy of a Brayden Schenn deflection off a Giroux slapshot. After the game, I asked the Flyers' captain if he felt that last night's goal was a case of the unit finally resolving their issues. Giroux laughed and responded, "Hopefully!" hinting that the drought has weighed on him and his linemates in recent weeks. He also correctly noted that the PP1 unit looked sharp on their first opportunity of the game in the first period, but they just weren't able to finish the job. A key issue recently has been an inability to get pucks through traffic, as the unit has tried to force pucks to Giroux and Gostisbehere without creating open lanes for them to shoot. Last night, however, they generated shots at a rate higher than their season average, so the third period goal truly was well-deserved.
  • Aside from a predictably incredible wrist shot from Alexander Ovechkin on the power play that beat him top corner, Flyers goalie Steve Mason was perfect in this one. That includes the shootout, which saw Mason patiently wait out shootout specialist (and American hero) T.J. Oshie and then absolutely rob Evgeny Kuznetsov with his glove hand soon after. The skills competition has long been the Achilles heel of Mason, and contributed to the poor opinion that some fans hold of the Flyers' top goaltender. Last night, however, Mason was on his game in all aspects. He was especially stout with the clock running down at the end of regulation, as the Capitals took six shots in a desperate attempt to avoid overtime. Mason stopped them all, clinching his team at least one pivotal point in the standings. Over the entirety of March, Mason stopped 93.27% of all shots -- truly elite metrics. Shayne Gostisbehere even called Mason "the team's MVP" after the game. While I wouldn't go that far (Claude Giroux is still the most important player on the Flyers), Mason is certainly putting together a convincing case to his remaining doubters.
  • Jakub Voracek freely admitted that his performance on Monday against the Winnipeg Jets was not his best, though he denied that his underwhelming game had anything to do with his recent foot injury. Instead, he intimated that he was dealing primarily with fatigue, and that it was on him to fight through that. He certainly succeeded last night, as Voracek helped drive a fantastic game from the Couturier line by generating zone entries, winning puck battles, and simply getting shots on net. He led all Flyers with five shots on goal, and generated a whopping ten overall shot attempts. It seems like Monday was truly just an off game for Voracek, as he was back to his dominant self in this one.
  • For the second straight game, the line centered by Nick Cousins was one of the Flyers' most effective even strength units. They succeeded by employing their often-devastating forecheck, but also by absolutely taking apart Washington's fourth line. They found little space against the Capitals' formidable third line of T.J. Oshie, Jay Beagle and Jason Chimera, posting a 30% Corsi For percentage in extended minutes versus the trio. But they had no such trouble against Washington's checking line, centered by Mike Richards. In less than three minutes of 5v5 ice time against Richards, Tom Wilson and Daniel Winnik, the Cousins unit racked up 10 shot attempts and gave up zero. That's the type of bottom-six domination that Philadelphia would need in a long series versus the Caps.
  • It becomes difficult to separate the emotions of being in the Flyers' home arena from an objective view of the game in this regard, but it certainly felt like there were a number of potential infractions by the Capitals that went uncalled in this game. Some of the missed calls were obvious, such as Jason Chimera's butt-end spear of Shayne Gostisbehere after a play was whistled dead, or Jay Beagle crashing into Steve Mason at the end of a rush. But on a number of extended cycles by Philadelphia, it felt like the Capitals were resorting to obstruction in order to slow down Flyer forwards along the boards. I'll be intrigued to see if this holds up on second viewing, or if the officials were letting lots of infractions go on both sides and the roars of the Philadelphia crowd simply made Washington's missteps more obvious. But in the moment, it sure seemed like the Capitals benefited most from the refs swallowing their whistles.
  • In bad news from last night's game, the pairing of Andrew MacDonald and Shayne Gostisbehere were absolutely butchered at even strength, as both defensemen finished with Corsi For percentages below 30%. Dave Hakstol seemed to notice, essentially using them as a third pair in terms of 5-on-5 ice time. The Flyers just look slower with the pairing on the ice, a frightening thought considering the presence of the dynamic Gostisbehere. Too often, the defensemen do not appear to be on the same page while passing the puck in the defensive zone, which hurts the crispness of their transition game. At some point, Hakstol may have to look to shuffle the pairing to see if another defenseman can help to get more out of Gostisbehere's skillset at even strength. Whether it's his fault or not, Andrew MacDonald does not appear to be that defenseman.