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Flyers vs. Capitals, Eastern Conference Round 1: 10 opening thoughts on the series

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The Flyers and this season's President's Trophy winners have played already four times this year, and now they'll play in the first round of the playoffs. Let's talk about the Capitals, and this series.

Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Today's Morning Observations will instead be an introductory look at none other than the Washington Capitals, who of course the Flyers will be playing between four and seven times over the next two weeks. We'll break much of this down in further detail over the next few days, but consider this your intro to the series.

  • Generally speaking, a team that clinches a playoff berth on the final weekend of the season is going to be seen as an underdog in a series to a team that clinched the President's Trophy two weeks ago. And that's a fair description for what the Flyers are in this series. The Caps didn't win two thirds of their games or pick up 120 points this year by accident. Top-to-bottom they've got one of the best rosters in the NHL, and they're well-coached with Barry Trotz behind the bench. They may not be quite the Death Star that their record would indicate, but they're really, really good. But one high-level look at the two teams' performances in the past two months should serve as a hint that the Flyers are absolutely not out of their league in this matchup. Philadelphia has improved steadily as the season's gone on and won 17 of its final 27 games of the season to pull itself into a playoff spot, and much of that was a product of genuinely playing really, really good hockey. This team is playing better than your typical "eight-seed" heading into the playoffs, and while they're the underdog here, it'd be foolish to think they don't have a real chance to upset the Big, Bad, Top-Seeded Capitals.
  • It's a shame this series didn't start two or three weeks ago, because right around then, this Capitals team looked particularly vulnerable for a team at their lofty spot in the standings. Back on March 22, shortly after the Caps received a total drubbing at the hands of the Penguins, our friends over at Japers' Rink were concerned about whether or not the Caps could "flip the switch" in the face of some lackluster February and March play. The fine folks at fellow Caps blog Russian Machine Never Breaks were a bit more blunt about it, stating that the Capitals were "coasting towards a first-round loss". Unfortunately, the 10 games they played between that game against Pittsburgh and their win over the St. Louis Blues last Saturday did appear to be a bit of a switch-flipping process for them, as their score-adjusted possession in that time was an impressive 56.5 percent via war-on-ice. Granted, there was some fluff in that schedule -- Ottawa, New Jersey, Columbus, Colorado, and Arizona were all on the docket. But it's still rather impressive, and the idea that the Caps may be inching back towards the dominant team that they can be is surely not a welcome sight for the Flyers.
November 12: Capitals 5, Flyers 2 [RecapObservations] | January 27: Flyers 4, Capitals 3 (OT) [RecapObservations] | February 7: Capitals 3, Flyers 2 [Recap] | March 30: Flyers 2, Capitals 1 (SO) [RecapObservations]
  • In a sense, the way that the Capitals have been successful on the whole this year is a lot like the way the Flyers have been successful lately: by not having an obvious weakness for teams to exploit. We noted a couple of weeks ago that the Flyers had been average or better in every high-level team game state over the past two months or so. So it's only fair to note that, by that same token, the Capitals themselves have only been below-average in one area lately, and that one area -- team shooting percentage at 5-on-5 -- is simply not something you can bank on them being bad at when they've regularly got the likes of Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Nicklas Backstrom on the ice. At a high level, this simply means that there's no real obvious game state at which teams can beat up on the Capitals, the same way there hasn't been lately with the Flyers. Should be a fun series.
  • The Capitals got the best of the regular-season matchup with the Flyers, picking up six out of eight possible points in those four games by way of two regulation wins and two overtime losses. Charlie will have much more analysis coming on those four games a bit later today right here, so I won't get very in-depth here on them. Still, it should be noted that the most even game the two sides played to my eye -- the Flyers' shootout win a couple of weeks ago at the Wells Fargo Center -- was (a) the only Flyers-Caps game this year in which the Flyers had both Sean Couturier and Shayne Gostisbehere in their lineup, and (b) was the only one that took place after mid-February, when the Flyers themselves really kicked it into high-gear as a team at 5-on-5. Yet even in that game, the Capitals still got a bit of an edge of the gameflow (53.73% score-adjusted possession at evens). This suggests that if the Flyers want to win this series, even when they're near their best lineup-wise (which they are now), they'll need to either change some things up a bit from how they attacked the Capitals in the regular season, execute their own system perfectly, get some bounces to go their way, or a bit of all of the above.
  • Let's circle back to Couturier. Over at Sons of Penn, BSH contributor Ryan Gilbert wrote recently about how well Couturier has played against Alex Ovechkin, not just in their matchups this year but in his entire five-year career. Couturier only played in two of the teams' four matchups this season, and both of those were Flyers home games. In those, Dave Hakstol took full advantage of last change to get this matchup -- of Ovechkin's 24:47 of 5-on-5 time, 17:59 of it was spent with Couturier on the ice for the orange and black (via war-on-ice). Couturier hasn't set foot on the Verizon Center ice yet this season, but with the Capitals hosting Game 1, we should know pretty quickly what lengths, if any, Trotz will go to in order to get his superstar sniper away from the Flyers' defensive ace.
  • Since we mentioned the Couturier-Ovechkin matchup and how it could work out OK for the Flyers, we should at least mention that the teams' other top forwards matching up against one another has been a bit of an issue for the Flyers this year. While Claude Giroux has had the unenviable task of frequently double-shifting against Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov at times this year thanks to Couturier's injuries, Backstrom and his line (which, in fairness, has often included Ovechkin and likely will in Game 1) has gotten the better of him in their matchups, to the tune of 62.5% possession in just under 31 minutes of ice time. One could guess that Trotz will be looking to go power-on-power as much as he can, because so far this year it's worked for his squad. Last week, for the first time in months, Dave Hakstol put arguably his three best forwards back on one line, with Jakub Voracek moving up alongside Giroux and Wayne Simmonds. Balance is great, but for now, you have to think that trio will be the team's top line on Thursday -- if Hakstol can't get Ovechkin and Backstrom to have to face Couturier regularly, he may as well throw the rest of the kitchen sink at them.
  • Braden Holtby is probably going to win the Vezina Trophy this year and tied the NHL record for most wins in a season, and is overall a damn good goalie, so asking "who has the edge in net in this series?" may seem a little ridiculous on its face. Still, since goalie wins are a borderline meaningless statistic on an individual level, we'd be remiss not to point out that Steve Mason (93.53%) has a higher save percentage than Holtby (93.07%) at 5-on-5 this season, behind what is probably a worse defense than the one they've got in Washington. And that's not just true over this season, it's true over the three years Mason's been in Philadelphia in their entirety. Holtby's overall save percentage is higher than Mason's thanks to an edge on the penalty kill, which does matter. But even if Washington does have the edge in net, it's very tough to say that it's substantial enough of one to turn the series drastically in their favor.
  • Back in that March 30th matchup, the Capitals became one of just three teams in the month of March to score on the Flyers' penalty kill. From afar, that may not seem like much of a surprise -- the Capitals boast dynamic offensive talent all over the place and have maybe the most prolific power play weapon in recent NHL history waiting at the top of the right circle. They're always good on the power play, and the fact that they finished fifth in the league in PP conversion percentage this year should come as no surprise. But are those numbers a bit deceiving as they pertain to this series? In their last 25 games, Washington has cashed in on just 13 of its 70 power play opportunities, for an 18.6 percent conversion rate that would be a perfectly average 15th in the NHL across the full season. And they've more or less earned those pedestrian marks, too; they're 12th in the league in shot attempts per 60 minutes with the man advantage in that time, but 18th in shots on goal. It's crazy to think that the Flyers -- whose penalty kill has rounded into form at the right time -- could actually have the better special teams unit on the ice when they're out killing penalties against Alex freaking Ovechkin and company, but if recent play on both sides is any indication, that'd appear to be the case.
  • Unlike the Flyers, who have packed their six defensemen pretty close to one another in terms of ice time lately, the Capitals look like they have a clear top-4 on defense in Trotz's eyes. Matt Niskanen and Karl Alzner have been a constant at the top of their lineup all season, while John Carlson and Brooks Orpik appear to be the other top-4 guys when healthy (though they've both missed significant time this year, they appear to both be good to go now). Curiously, none out of that group have been particularly dominant possession players this season -- in fact, the best among them has been Orpik, who missed half of the season. All four of them, though, are between 49.5 and 52.5 percent in terms of possession on the season, and each of them has relative possession numbers right around or slightly below zero (though that's due in large part to a very solid possession year from third-pair guy Dmitri Orlov). From a Flyers perspective, if you're a glass half-full type, you look at this group and say there's no one guy who really scares you when you see him hit the ice, no one guy who you really see as a true do-it-all type poised to dominate your best players. If you're less of an optimist, you'd note that there's no real obvious weakness amongst them, no guy or pair that you really look to as a matchup you can exploit.
  • Often here at BSH, we try to stay focused on the tangible and explainable, rather than the more mental, emotional, or intangible side of the game. But it has to be pointed out how interesting this series should be from an emotional standpoint for both teams. Washington is one of the most talented teams in the league, with one generational talent up front and other bonafide star players in or near their primes, and they've all heard quite enough about how much they've choked in the playoffs over the last several seasons. They know how much pressure is on them after cruising to the President's Trophy, and you know how much they want 16 wins this postseason. They will assuredly play like it. Meanwhile, one would have been forgiven a week or two ago for thinking that the Flyers were on a bit of a care-free run to the postseason and that they would treat this whole thing as gravy. But we now know the Flyers have been playing for weeks in honor of team owner and founder Ed Snider, and with yesterday's tragic news of his passing, that same drive we've seen from them is assuredly going to be in them for this entire postseason. It's going to be an extremely hard-fought series, and anyone who at any point questions these teams' effort or motivation during the series can be pretty safely ignored.