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Flyers vs. Capitals, Eastern Conference Round 1: Understanding Washington at even strength

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The Washington Capitals will be an extremely difficult opponent for the Flyers, but is there any way that their roster can be exploited?

Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Fueled by an incredible first half, the Washington Capitals ran away with the Metropolitan Division this season, finishing with 120 points and topping second place Pittsburgh by 16. As a result, it's unsurprising that they've been christened by the media as one of the leading favorites to represent the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup Final.

But to get there, they must first go through the Philadelphia Flyers, who used an impressive two-month run at the tail end of the season to slip into the playoffs via the final East wild card spot. As Kurt broke down a few weeks back, the Flyers showcased no obvious statistical weaknesses during their closing kick to the year. Their even strength performance, power play, penalty kill and even goaltending were all operating at an above-average level during the season's final 25 games, making Philadelphia's surprise run to the playoffs easier to grasp.

It was their dramatic improvement during five-on-five play that probably had the biggest impact. After all, the majority of NHL games are spent with the teams skating at 5-on-5, highlighting the importance of controlling the direction of play. From around the midpoint of February, Philadelphia delivered 5-on-5 shot attempt differentials comparable to true title contenders, an amazing turnaround from the season's first half when they sat closer to the league's basement.

But Washington is no slouch at even strength, either. They sit 10th in the NHL with a solid 52.0% score-adjusted Corsi, a mark that ranks them fourth in the conference. They also led the entire league with a 56.2% Goals For percentage, meaning that they generated 56.2% of all the five-on-five goals scored in their games while their opponents could muster only 43.8%.

Without a doubt, the Capitals are a formidable foe during five-on-five play. But what are the strengths and weaknesses of their roster? In order to fairly evaluate that question, we'll need to break down each section of Washington's projected playoff lineup.

The Capitals Lineup

NHL.com's Katie Brown reported these Washington line combinations and defensive pairings from practice yesterday, so for the purpose of this exercise, we'll use them to analyze the Caps' lineup.

Since the jersey numbers of Washington players may not be familiar to Flyers fans, here is the lineup by name:

Line 1: Alexander Ovechkin - Nicklas Backstrom - T.J. Oshie

Line 2: Andre Burakovsky - Evgeny Kuznetsov - Justin Williams

Line 3: Jason Chimera - Mike Richards - Marcus Johansson

Line 4: Daniel Winnik - Jay Beagle - Tom Wilson

Pairing 1: Brooks Orpik - John Carlson

Pairing 2: Karl Alzner - Matt Niskanen

Pairing 3: Nate Schmidt - Dmitry Orlov

Evaluating the Capitals' explosive top-six

Washington's top two forward lines are clearly the team's biggest strength. They have a generational player (Ovechkin), a bonafide top-line center (Backstrom), a rising star (Kuznetsov), two 50-point wingers (Oshie and Williams) and a 21-year old first round pick already with a 38-point season to his credit (Burakovsky).

The advanced metrics back it up -- this is one formidable top-six.

Forward Time On Ice Per Game Goals Per 60 Assists Per 60 Points Per 60 Corsi For Percentage Corsi Relative to Teammates Shots On Goal Per 60
Alexander Ovechkin 15:13 1.35 0.65 2.00 54.26% +3.38% 11.70
Nicklas Backstrom 14:21 0.72 1.17 1.90 52.89% +1.72% 5.35
Evgeny Kuznetsov 13:57 0.58 2.10 2.67 53.51% +2.20% 7.35
T.J. Oshie 13:50 0.65 1.03 1.68 52.17% +0.34% 7.12
Justin Williams 13:01 0.84 1.07 1.91 54.08% +2.96% 8.95
Andre Burakovsky 11:51 1.03 0.96 1.99 52.24% +0.15% 7.21

All statistics are 5-on-5 only and all Corsi metrics are score-adjusted.

We usually use raw point totals to judge scoring ability, so looking at "Per 60" numbers can actually undersell just how impressive the Capitals' top-six is from a five-on-five point production standpoint due to lack familiarity with the metric. For reference, the 90th most efficient scoring forward in the NHL this season (Kyle Okposo) posted a 1.83 Points/60 mark. Since there are thirty NHL teams and three players on each top line, that means that 1.83 was essentially the scoring rate of a low-end first-line forward.

Washington has five forwards that qualify as top-liners. And they all drive play from a Corsi standpoint as well. Yikes.

Alex Ovechkin remains a true superstar at five-on-five. He posted the best on-ice shot attempt differential (Corsi) of any Capitals forward, had the best goals per 60 minutes in the entire league, and was third among NHL forwards in shots per 60. Simply put, there's no better pure goal scorer alive than Ovechkin.

The centers (Backstrom and Kuznetsov) are more distributors than scorers at even strength. Backstrom in particular takes very few shots, preferring to use his talents to set up his talented snipers on the wing. Kuznetsov is Washington's breakout star, leaping from 37 total points last season to a team-leading 77 in 2015-16. Only rookie phenom Connor McDavid and the ageless Jaromir Jagr finished with a higher points per 60 minutes at five-on-five this year than Kuznetsov.

The Capitals stole their two right wingers during the last offseason -- Oshie in a lopsided trade with the St. Louis Blues, and Williams with a gift of a two-year, $6.5 million contract. Williams is essentially Michael Raffl with scoring ability -- a gritty winger who thrives in winning battles along the boards and opening up space for his linemates on the cycle and the rush with expert positioning. Oshie is maybe the weak link of the top-six, if you consider a weak link to be a guy who scores like a solid second-liner without being a possession liability.

Burakovsky is the wild card of the bunch. Out of all the forwards currently on the Capitals' top two lines, Burakovsky is the youngest (age 21) and has the weakest relative possession metrics. But those numbers are driven down by the time he spent on Washington's bottom two lines this season -- when he's played with high-end talent, he's complemented them well. And per my manual tracking, Burakovsky appears to have a talent for creating controlled entries, making him particularly dangerous on the rush.

Overall, Washington's reputation for dynamic scoring talent at the top of the lineup is well-earned. Their top two lines are going to be very difficult to exploit.

The bottom-six has some holes

The Capitals are often praised for their peerless depth at forward. The theory is that they are a team with scoring talent on all four lines that should be able to wear opponents down over a long series.

The numbers aren't quite as impressed.

Forward Time On Ice Per Game Goals Per 60 Assists Per 60 Points Per 60 Corsi For Percentage Corsi Relative to Teammates Shots On Goal Per 60
Marcus Johansson 12:53 0.63 1.13 1.76 50.60% -1.61% 6.08
Jay Beagle 11:31 0.73 0.73 1.46 50.48% -2.12% 6.00
Jason Chimera 11:16 0.78 0.78 1.56 48.79% -4.17% 8.83
Tom Wilson 11:04 0.46 0.86 1.32 47.62% -5.61% 6.37
Daniel Winnik 9:44 0.62 0.31 0.92 54.72% +1.46% 6.65
Mike Richards 9:38 0.32 0.48 0.80 51.77% -0.24% 6.74

All statistics are 5-on-5 only and all Corsi metrics are score-adjusted.

Marcus Johansson is basically a top-six forward in terms of total five-on-five ice time, but due to Backstrom and Kuznetsov taking the top two center spots, he slides in on the third line at 3C. Johansson has scored like a second-line forward at even strength this year, right around his career average.

However, his on-ice shot attempt differential has sagged a bit after finishing in the black over the previous three seasons. Some of this is likely teammate-based (he's spent extended minutes with Jason Chimera and Tom Wilson), but Johansson's performance wasn't all that impressive even alongside Justin Williams or Evgeny Kuznetsov. The 25-year old is still a second-line center on most NHL teams, but this hasn't been his strongest season.

Jason Chimera spent the bulk of the Capitals' season receiving third-line minutes on the wing. The 36-year old remains a solid even strength scorer (it helps that he shoots a lot) despite his increasing age, but he's become a real play-driving liability. His 48.79% score-adjusted Corsi is the worst among forwards regularly receiving top-nine minutes for Washington. Since it seems unlikely that Washington would drop him from line three at this point, Chimera's continued presence is potentially something that Philadelphia could exploit.

Jay Beagle, on the other hand, appears to have been dropped to the fourth line for Game 1 after spending most of the season getting third-line minutes. He's not a possession driver, but over the past two seasons he's added some legitimate scoring punch to his game. Beagle is likely out of his element with third-line minutes, but he's a perfectly adequate fourth line center.

The controversial Tom Wilson saw his role increase this season, as his five-on-five ice time jumped to a career-high 11:04 minutes per game -- nearly at the level of a third-liner. Unfortunately, he did not respond well to his new responsibilities. His regular season 47.62% score-adjusted Corsi is the worst among expected starters for the Capitals, and his team performed 5.61 percentage points better with him on the bench. Combine that with a propensity to take penalties (negative-seven penalty differential) and the Flyers should be happy whenever the 2012 first-round pick hits the ice.

Both Mike Richards and Daniel Winnik were brought in during the season to help the Capitals solidify their bottom-six, and both proved to be shrewd acquisitions. Flyers fans are all familiar with the story of their team's former captain, and Richards is clearly a shell of the point-per-game player he was in Philadelphia during his prime. But even with diminished skating ability, Richards essentially broke even from a Corsi standpoint with the Caps, and it looks like he'll get a chance to play on the third line to start the series. He's probably more a fourth-line talent at this stage of his career, though.

Winnik has bounced around the league for years, failing to find a permanent home but always posting solid statistics anyway. He's the ideal cheap fourth-line wing -- capable of driving play at a solid rate but never scoring enough to justify a large contract. In his twenty games with Washington, he's posted a positive Corsi and even chipped in with a goal or two.

On the whole, the Capitals don't have a bad bottom-six, but it's far from filled with world beaters. Johansson scores like a second-liner, but he's having a bit of a down year when looking at on-ice shot attempt differentials. Jason Chimera trades solid point production for poor possession play, while Tom Wilson has been a straight-up liability. Daniel Winnik, Mike Richards and Jay Beagle are perfectly competent fourth-line players, but at least one will be used in as a top-nine forward in this series.

As frightening as the Capitals' top-six looks, the bottom-six could absolutely be exploited in the right matchups.

Defense lacks a standout but is solid all the way through

The praise that the Capitals receive for their forward depth should probably be directed at their defense instead. While Washington lacks a traditional No. 1 defenseman in the vein of a Duncan Keith, Victor Hedman or Drew Doughty, they are capable of rolling three perfectly-competent pairs. Weaknesses are tough to find.

Defenseman Time on Ice Per Game Points Per 60 Corsi For Percentage Corsi Relative to Teammates
Matt Niskanen 17:52 0.41 51.75% +0.11%
Karl Alzner 17:13 0.68 50.18% -2.35%
John Carlson 16:52 1.33 51.08% -1.06%
Brooks Orpik 16:35 0.88 52.22% -0.22%
Nate Schmidt 15:48 0.69 50.92% +0.26%
Dmitry Orlov 14:31 1.26 53.96% +3.33%

All statistics are 5-on-5 only and all Corsi metrics are score-adjusted.

The Capitals generate more shot attempts (over-50% Corsi) than their opponents with each of their six starting blueliners on the ice. Some defensemen were better at driving play than others, but the unit lacks an obvious liability, which is an advantage that Washington has over the majority of playoff teams.

The top pairing of Matt Niskanen and Karl Alzner may not have particularly impressive full-season relative metrics, but that's primarily due to a poor stretch during the middle of the season. Over the past 25 games, the top pair has excelled, with Niskanen performing +4.46% Corsi percentage points better than his teammates and Alzner close behind at +4.03%. Both defensemen are playing their best hockey of the season as the playoffs begin.

John Carlson has long been more of a second-pair defenseman than the top-pair stud that some desperately wish he was, but he's still certainly a useful player. Carlson is Washington's biggest even strength offensive threat on the blueline, leading the defense in points/60 for the second straight season. And like Niskanen and Alzner, Carlson's on-ice shot attempt differentials are peaking as he hits the playoffs. Since Carlson returned from a lower-body injury on March 25th, no Capitals defenseman has a better Corsi For percentage than his 59.35%.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the season for the Capitals from a statistical standpoint has been the return of useful Brooks Orpik. After posting a putrid negative-3.35% Corsi Relative over the preceding five seasons, Orpik basically broke even in 2015-16 (-0.22%). He also finished the regular season with his best points/60 since 2009-10. Considering his age (35) and extensive track record of underwhelming play, it's fair for Flyers fans to hope that Orpik will again be a liability in this upcoming series. But make sure to note that he's been totally solid so far this year.

Many in the Washington fanbase have called for the third-pairing of Nate Schmidt and Dmitry Orlov to receive more even strength ice time, citing their strong Corsi metrics as key evidence. And while the case is intriguing (the pair has posted a stellar 57.8% Corsi in 352:52 minutes together), it's also fair to note that both Schmidt and Orlov's performance has regressed in recent months.

Orlov's play-driving metrics have merely dropped from great to solid since late February, as he's posted a decent 50.90% Corsi For percentage in the Capitals' last 25 games. Schmidt is the bigger concern. He's been underwater for the past month and a half, nursing a 44.92% score/venue adjusted Corsi in his past 20 games.

Considering the improving play of Niskanen and Alzner combined with the sagging metrics of Orlov and especially Schmidt, the Capitals are distributing their even strength ice time to their defense in a fairly efficient manner entering the playoffs. If Washington has a weak point on the blue line, it's probably Orpik (if you don't trust his bounceback season) or Schmidt (if his end-of-season struggles carry over to the playoffs). But generally speaking, this looks like a rock-solid unit.

Conclusion

The Capitals may not be a perfect team, but their roster doesn't have a ton of obvious weaknesses. Up front, Washington has an ultra-dangerous top two lines that can match up with any squad in the NHL, led by Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov. The defense, while lacking a true star, also is absent any obvious liabilities, forcing opponents to hope that players like Brooks Orpik and Nate Schmidt perform worse in the playoffs than they did in the regular season.

If Washington can be exploited anywhere, it's probably by attacking their third and fourth lines. Marcus Johansson is the only threatening player in the Capitals' bottom-six, and even he is having something of a down season. Jason Chimera and Tom Wilson receive too many minutes considering their poor puck possession metrics, while Daniel Winnik, Jay Beagle and Mike Richards aren't much more than solid fourth line forwards.

Still, when an opponent's biggest weakness is that their third and fourth lines are "just OK," they're probably a very good hockey team. The Flyers will certainly have their hands full at even strength during this series.

All statistics courtesy of War-On-Ice, Corsica.Hockey and Stats.HockeyAnalysis.com.