For the first time since April 30, 2014, the Philadelphia Flyers will hit the ice tonight for a playoff game. Their opponent is the powerhouse Washington Capitals, winners of 56 games in the regular season one of the favorites to take home the Stanley Cup in June.
Here at BSH, we've looked at the series from a number of angles this week. We evaluated the four regular season matchups between the two clubs, both on a team level and individual player level. We previewed the Capitals players, and what fans should expect to see from them at even strength during the series. Finally, we noted the disparity between the consensus view that the Flyers are heavy underdogs in the series versus statistical models that weigh the final 25 games of the regular season more heavily and believe that Philadelphia has a real shot at springing the upset.
Now, it's time to take a stab at which matchups, strategies, and individual efforts are most likely to decide the outcome of the series.
1. Can Philadelphia's shutdown center Sean Couturier slow down superstar Alex Ovechkin?
The Capitals got the better of the season series, earning six out of eight possible points by winning two games and nabbing two loser points. But it's fair to note that the Flyers were lacking a very important player in two of those matchups. Sean Couturier, the team's second line center, missed Philadelphia's January 27th overtime victory and their February 7th regulation loss, two games that saw the Flyers mostly outplayed at even strength.
Couturier has long been viewed as Philadelphia's shutdown center, tasked with facing an opponent's top line whenever possible. But it hasn't been until this season that he has truly established himself as an even strength force. Couturier drove play to the tune of a 53.89% score-adjusted Corsi For percentage, and led all Flyers in even strength scoring with 2.04 Points/60. He's no longer just a good defensive center -- Couturier has become a true two-way weapon.
As a reward, Couturier will likely spend the bulk of his five-on-five ice time in this series facing down the most dangerous goal scorer in the world, Alexander Ovechkin. The 30-year Russian forward is clearly the Capitals' best player, and while it's impossible to stifle him entirely, the Flyers simply cannot allow Ovechkin to run wild if they want to win this series. In 104:13 minutes against Ovechkin at five-on-five during his career, Couturier has done a banner job, posting a 52.5% Corsi For percentage while facing No. 8. In addition, the Flyers have scored an incredible 71.4 percent of the total goals when Ovechkin and Couturier have been on the ice together.
No one is expecting Couturier to keep Washington's star off the scoreboard entirely. But if the Flyers' second line can win the shot attempts battle when matched up against the Ovechkin unit, that will go a long way towards negating one of the Capitals' biggest strengths -- their frightening top-six forwards. By the same token, if Ovechkin and his linemates can batter Couturier, then they will have essentially taken one of Philadelphia's most effective even strength forwards out of the series.
2. Can Philadelphia slow Washington's controlled entry game?
The Capitals are rightly regarded as a team with an embarrassment of riches up front. From Alex Ovechkin to Nicklas Backstrom to Evgeny Kuznetsov, Washington's top two lines are filled with game-changing forwards who excel at carrying the puck with speed through the neutral zone. As a result, it's not surprising that the Capitals favor a rush-oriented style in creating their offense, rather than leaning on the dump-and-chase.
In four games against the Flyers this season, Washington averaged a 50.20% Controlled Entry Percentage, meaning that over half of their entries into the Philadelphia zone came with possession of the puck. Since controlled entries, or "carry-ins," generate over double the unblocked shot attempts of uncontrolled entries (or "dump-ins"), it's fair to say that the Capitals were particularly efficient in the neutral zone during the season series with Philadelphia.
The Flyers did turn the tide in the final matchup of the year, however. In the March 30th game between the two clubs, Washington could only manage a 32.79% Controlled Entry Percentage, by far their lowest of the four contests. It's no coincidence that Philadelphia's overall neutral zone performance was better in that game than any other matchup against the Capitals this season.
For Philadelphia to get Washington out of its comfort zone, they'll have to force the Capitals to play dump-and-chase hockey like they did in the late March game. One way to manage that feat is to put heavy, effective pressure on the Capitals as they try to exit the defensive zone, with the goal of making their passes less sharp and their speed less prevalent in the middle of the ice. The Flyers' defensemen could also look to keep very tight gaps when directly challenged by Washington forwards on the rush, hoping the Caps will choose to chip the puck into the corner to gain entry into the offensive zone.
Of course, both tactics are fairly aggressive and come with risk. If the Flyers' pressure proves insufficient, the Capitals will generate even more odd-man rushes and dangerous shots than usual. But if successful, Washington could be forced to play an uncomfortable style, and at a slower pace that plays right into Philadelphia's hands.
3. Can Steve Mason outplay Braden Holtby?
Holtby may be the Vezina Trophy favorite, but this is nowhere near as outlandish of a question as it may appear at first glance. The Washington goaltender will probably win this year's award on the strength of a stellar first half of the season and lots of wins, but neither are particularly applicable to his likely performance in this series. It just means that he was great four months ago, and that he still has a fantastic team playing in front of him.
Since the calendar year has turned to 2016, however, Steve Mason has been the superior statistical goaltender. His 0.923 save percentage in all situations tops Holtby's good-not-great 0.911 over the past four months. In addition, Mason has been the better even strength goaltender all season long, topping Holtby 0.935 to 0.931.
The big question is whether Mason can hold up against the relentless Washington attack. The Capitals had a conference-leading 9.9% shooting percentage in all situations, and while some of that is surely due to the bounces going their way, it certainly helps to have guys like Ovechkin, Backstrom, Oshie and Johansson under contract, all of whom have scored at over an 11% efficiency rate for their careers. Mason will be facing legitimate snipers who thrive at getting to high-danger areas and then letting accurate shots rip from those spots.
It's fair to say that the Capitals roster on the whole is deeper than that of the Flyers, whose defense and fourth line are significantly weaker than those of Washington. But a goaltending edge can swing a series, and if Mason plays like the goalie of 2016 rather than 2015, he could steal it.
4. Is this a special teams mismatch, or do shot metrics hint at an evenly-matched battle?
When looking at goal-based efficiency metrics, the Washington Capitals appear to have a major edge in special teams. After all, their power play ranks fifth in the NHL, while their penalty kill checks in as the second-best goal prevention unit in the league. By contrast, the Flyers rank 11th and 20th, respectively.
But the shot metrics present a far closer matchup. I like to use Fenwick (shots on goal + missed shots) to judge special teams effectiveness, because I do believe that shot blocking is an individual and team-level skill on the penalty kill. When looking at Washington and Philadelphia's Fenwick metrics for their power play and penalty kill, the two teams' statistics are actually fairly tight.
The Capitals have the edge with the man advantage, posting an average of 85.3 unblocked shot attempts (3rd in the NHL) per sixty minutes, while the Flyers come in at 80.7 (7th). But Philadelphia has been the more effective team this season in preventing opposing power plays from generating shots, ranking sixth in the NHL with an average of 70.0 Fenwicks allowed per sixty minutes. Washington, on the other hand, gave up 73.3 per sixty (13th).
If the shot differentials prove predictive, the Capitals' supposedly huge advantage becomes essentially a wash, giving the Flyers hope that they can win the series through solid even strength play and strong goaltending. But if Washington can replicate its stellar goal-based efficiency metrics, Philadelphia will need to make up the difference with a big edge in five-on-five results, and I'm not sure they are capable of doing so.
5. Can the Flyers' third line thrive?
As I wrote yesterday, the Capitals' third and fourth lines are adequate, but far from world-beating. Marcus Johansson is the only forward with a skillset and measurable results that would allow him to fit right in on an NHL team's second line -- the rest of the Capitals' forwards are more gritty role players.
The Flyers' fourth line of Chris VandeVelde, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Ryan White certainly fits that description, and even with a solid finishing kick to the year, the "Untouchables" line still posted full-season Corsi metrics in the 45-46% range. Philadelphia's newly constituted third line, however, has far more upside. Matt Read has been the Flyers' second most effective forward in the neutral zone this season, Sam Gagner has eight 10-goal seasons to his credit (and he's just 26), while center Nick Cousins posted a strong 53.55% score-adjusted Corsi in his rookie campaign.
Unlike the Caps' third line of Jason Chimera, Mike Richards and Marcus Johansson, the Read-Cousins-Gagner unit boasts three forwards who drive play, have some scoring pop, and are still in the primes of their careers. If the Flyers have one advantage in a head-to-head matchup, it's probably in the battle of the third lines.
Assuming the Cousins line can succeed against an exploitable Washington bottom-six, it would help to counteract the likely defensive zone struggles of the Untouchables, or even bad games from the Giroux and Couturier lines. But if they slip into irrelevancy, that puts extra pressure on Philadelphia's top-six to outplay Ovechkin, Backstrom and Kuznetsov on a nightly basis, a supremely difficult task.