Capitals vs. Flyers: Preview and Prediction for the 2016 NHL Playoff Matchup

Allan Mitchell@@Lowetide_Featured ColumnistApril 11, 2016

Capitals vs. Flyers: Preview and Prediction for the 2016 NHL Playoff Matchup

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    The playoff matchup between the Washington Capitals and the Philadelphia Flyers is really the tale of two cities. Washington, fueled by a franchise-record point total, another 50-goal season from Alex Ovechkin and the brilliant goaltending of Braden Holtby, expects to go far. Philadelphia, in the beginning stages of a re-tooling under general manager Ron Hextall, is clearly ahead of the curve in arriving at the postseason this spring.

    Washington posted 56 wins, a franchise record that's reflective of its dominance. The two teams have met in previous playoff series going back decades—although most remember the 2008 battle that went seven games. In that series, a Game 7 overtime goal by Joffrey Lupul dashed the hopes of Ovechkin and his Capitals.

    The Philadelphia Flyers squeaked into the playoffs with rookie coach Dave Hakstol, owing mostly to strong goaltending, a rookie sensation named Shayne Gostisbehere and the indomitable spirit of men such as Claude Giroux and Wayne Simmonds. Will it be enough to win this series?

    Here is a complete analysis of the Capitals-Flyers series and what we can look forward to this week.

    Note: Flyers owner Ed Snider died on April 11. His family released a statement via the team website. To say Snider was the Philadelphia Flyers is not an overstatement, and the statement from NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman—also via the Flyers' website—reflects it. Portions of this article were written before the news of Snider's passing and reference him as inspiration for the playoff push by the team this spring. Those passages have been kept intact, as they reflect the feeling of the team at that time.

Regular-Season Recap

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    Philadelphia Flyers

    The Philadelphia Flyers appeared to be a team in transition last fall, and the Hockey News correctly identified them as a fringe playoff team based on available information. There was a lot no one knew about the Flyers, including the true ability of youngster Shayne Gostisbehere.

    Offensively, the Flyers got a tremendous boost from Gostisbehere. It was badly needed, as the team still ended up scoring only 211 goals—well below the league average of 222. Claude Giroux and Wayne Simmonds delivered quality seasons, and 24-year-old Brayden Schenn stepped up offensively as well.

    On defense, the Flyers allowed 18 fewer goals this season compared to 2014-15, and the team save percentage (.920) was superior to the league average (.915). Both goalies played well, although backup Michal Neuvirth posted better numbers than starter Steve Mason.

    Washington Capitals

    The Capitals were a good team last year, but the 2015-16 edition blew the previous numbers out of the water. An increase to 56 wins, 120 points and improvements in both goals for and goals against meant a dream season for Capitals fans. In most areas of the game, Washington posted superior numbers.

    With the puck, the team scored 248 goals, 26 better than league average. Along with 50-goal scorer Alex Ovechkin, five men—Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom, Justin Williams, T.J. Oshie and Jason Chimera—posted 20 or more goals. In today's NHL, that is a very rare achievement.

    Defensively, Washington was also well above average. The Caps allowed over 100 fewer shots than league average, and the save percentage of .921 was much better than league average. Braden Holtby posted an incredible 48 wins—tied for No. 1 all time—and that reflected the overall feel of a special season for Washington.

Schedule and TV Info

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    Paul Bereswill/Getty Images

    Game 1
    Thursday, April 14
    7 p.m. ET
    Philadelphia at Washington

    Game 2
    Saturday, April 16
    7 p.m. ET
    Philadelphia at Washington

    Game 3
    Monday, April 18
    7 p.m. ET
    Washington at Philadelphia

    Game 4
    Wednesday, April 20
    7 p.m. ET
    Washington at Philadelphia

    Game 5*
    Friday, April 22
    Philadelphia at Washington
    TV: TBD

    Game 6*
    Sunday, April 24
    Washington at Philadelphia
    TV: TBD

    Game 7*
    Wednesday, April 27
    Philadelphia at Washington
    TV: TBD


    *If necessary.

Key Storylines

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    Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

    Can the Philadelphia Flyers Keep It Close?

    On paper, this looks like a mismatch. In terms of straight goal differential, the Washington Capitals finished plus-59 and the Flyers were minus-four. Washington delivered 15 more wins and won nine more games on the road. However, the two teams posted five wins in their final 10 games, and the Flyers were driven by Wayne Simmonds, Steve Mason and some impressive secondary scoring.

    Washington was respectable but did not dominate down the last leg of the season. If this series stays close into the final games, Philadelphia could make things interesting.

    Will we see tight checking?

    The Flyers and Capitals played four times during the 2015-16 season, and three of them were close. The final meeting came on March 30, a game that ended up being decided in a shootout. The Capitals are an uptempo team with expert passers and creative playmakers, but Philadelphia was able to diffuse some of that in their meetings this year.

    Who will win the special teams?

    During the regular season, Washington's power play scored 21.9 percent of the time, No. 5 in the NHL. The Flyers had the No. 20 penalty kill in the league, with an 80.5 percent success rate.

    Philadelphia's power play was also middle of the pack, ranking No. 11 overall with 18.9 percent efficiency. The Capitals penalty kill was one of the best in the NHL—No. 2 overall at 85.2 percent.

    Based on the numbers, Washington should dominate special teams. 

Players to Watch

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    Tom Mihalek/Associated Press

    Claude Giroux, Philadelphia Flyers

    Giroux is 28 and in the prime of his career. He should be on a team pushing to make another appearance in the Stanley Cup Final—he was a youngster when the Flyers made it that far 2010—but the franchise has fallen on hard times. He posted a strong season despite some line shuffling and adjustments to NHL hockey for new coach Dave Hakstol.

    This season has been a big surprise for the Flyers, and part of the reason for it seems to be Giroux's stubborn hold on the playoff dream. He has taken some major hits, played hurt and delivered in a big way down the stretch. He looks like a man on a mission, and that will be interesting to watch during this series. He has four points in four games against Washington this year.

    Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals

    Since he arrived over a decade ago, Alex Ovechkin has always been at the center of attention. This series will be no exception, especially considering his fantastic run to 50 goals late in the year. Ovechkin reached that total with an epic hat-trick game on the final weekend of the season.

    A lot of attention will be paid to Ovechkin by Philadelphia's best checkers, but covering him is another matter. Expect to see him in that patented spot on the left side, just inside the circle, on the power play. The magic of Ovechkin lives there, and Philadelphia needs to stay out of the penalty box to avoid destruction.

    Wayne Simmonds, Philadelphia Flyers

    Wayne Simmonds posted his best NHL season, complete with 32 goals, in 2015-16. He has been especially effective since the beginning of February and quite vocal about the inspiration behind Philadelphia's playoff push. Sam Carchidi of the Philadelphia Enquirer wrote an article on April 2 in which Simmonds credited Flyers owner Ed Snider as the inspiration behind the all-out effort this spring.

    Simmonds' run during the season's second half has been outstanding, and it puts him on another level as an offensive player in this series.

Goaltender Breakdown

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    Steve Mason/Michal Neuvirth, Philadelphia Flyers

    The Flyers allowed 210 goals this season, better than the league average of 222. Steve Mason got the bulk of the work and was effective in front of a somewhat chaotic defensive crew. His .918 save percentage included some games where the Flyers were blown out, but he held them in many nights when things could have gone off the rails. Michal Neuvirth was even more effective, despite being the backup goaltender for most of the year. His .924 save percentage was rock solid for Philadelphia.

    In terms of who should get the playoff starts, Mason probably makes the most sense. A good way to evaluate goalies is by even-strength save percentage, with Mason at .932 for the season and Neuvirth close behind. Mason was No. 9 overall at the discipline this year.

    Braden Holtby/Philipp Grubauer, Washington Capitals

    Washington fans enjoyed watching Braden Holtby win 48 games this year, and that total tied the all-time record for wins in a season by a goalie. Although he struggled in the second half of the year, he was as hot as any goalie in recent memory during the first three months of the year. Backup Philipp Grubauer has been average to a little above average this season, but he's unlikely to see much playoff action.

    With Holtby posting 48 wins in the Washington net during the regular season, there is no reason to tinker with the chemistry. The Capitals will need him to be sharp during this series.

Biggest Mismatch: Secondary Scoring

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    Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    One of the keys to the Washington Capitals' success is that they come in waves offensively. When Alexander Ovechkin and his line are done with their shift, another line with some offensive punch jumps over the boards. Washington has six forwards who scored 20 or more goals this year, and that means the opposing coach is trying to match against two—or more—lines that can score.

    NHL coaches are exceptional at taking away offense by deploying their strongest checkers and two-way players against the impact opposition. Philadelphia has a fine center in Sean Couturier, and he will be very important in this series.

    What line does he play against? Claude Giroux also has outstanding two-way skills, but if coach Dave Hakstol will be trying to put goals on the board, Giroux's line is going to be placed in a more offensive situation.

    The Capitals are a very difficult team to defend. The club ranks No. 2 in the entire NHL in goals this season, and part of that comes from the sheer number of offensive options available every night. Along with a potent power play, Philadelphia—and any team facing Washington—is going to have some difficult nights.

The Capitals Will Win If the Goaltending Holds Up

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    Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

    Goaltending is such an important part of the game that it can go from a non-issue to a major problem overnight.

    Washington rode Braden Holtby heavily in the early portions of the season, with predictable results. His splits are amazing: a .929 save percentage before the All-Star break and a .911 save percentage since. That range is the difference between a Vezina Trophy candidate and a below-average starter, and it matters a lot which goalie shows up in the Washington net for this series.

    The goals, the defense and the special teams are all rock solid for the Capitals. This series should not be especially close, but the Flyers are a tough team because they are a veteran group with good goaltenders. There's a good chance Holtby stones Philadelphia in Game 1 and finds a groove. If he does, the series will be a quick one.

The Flyers Will Win If They Play Their Tenacious Style and Shut Down Ovechkin

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    Radko Gudas is a nasty NHL player, but he is also an effective one. That unusual combination of skills gives Philadelphia a chance in this series. Although Washington is easily the better team of the two, a lot of what the Flyers do can frustrate the opposition.

    Philadelphia is a perfect storm that could surprise a top seed, maybe even win the series. The Flyers are a veteran club, their rugged style is frustrating and they have two goalies who are capable of stealing a game.

    The team also has enough skill up front to make a team pay, and it has a secret weapon—although not so secret anymore—in brilliant defender Shayne Gostisbehere.

Prediction: Capitals in Five

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    There is too much talent on the Washington Capitals for the Philadelphia Flyers to match them. The underdogs are a game bunch, and they should win at least one game in this series.

    In the end, it is unlikely to be enough this spring. Philadelphia will have another opportunity in the future. The time for this Capitals team is now, and they look ready to push deep into the spring. Washington was built to sustain, from a deep defensive crew led by John Carlson, Matt Niskanen and Karl Alzner to an incredibly talented forward group.

    Philadelphia has overcome a lot—the defense has been fluid all year—but it arrives in the postseason with an emerging group of blueliners led by the unlikely duo of Shayne Gostisbehere and Radko Gudas. This Flyers team has a story to tell, but it is not this season.

    Capitals win this series in five games.

    All advanced stats courtesy and


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