SERIES STARTS: Thursday, 7 p.m. ET, in Washington.
HOW THEY WIN:
CAPITALS: Pick your poison. The Caps have always had great offense during Alex Ovechkin’s Beltway reign, but now he’s got more backup, plus a solid D-corps and a Vezina-caliber goalie behind him. Coach Barry Trotz has brought excellent structure to the team, and the addition of battle-tested Stanley Cup veterans such as Justin Williams and Mike Richards means Washington comes into the post-season with a bunch of confidence.
The ascent of Evgeny Kuznetsov gives the club a devastating 1-2 punch down the middle with Nicklas Backstrom, and the team can play heavy, too. Washington is top-five in offense, defense, power play and penalty killing. And backup netminder Philipp Grubauer was putting up great numbers, allowing Holtby to play only the minutes necessary ahead of what will be the team’s best chance to win the Stanley Cup in recent years.
FLYERS: The Flyers surged at the end of the season, which is something of a habit brought in by first-year coach Dave Hakstol from his days at North Dakota. Not surprisingly, Hakstol has been great for the younger members of the Flyers, with Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier having standout campaigns. But the best new kid on the team is rookie defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere. Acting as a fourth forward and smashing team records along the way, Gostisbehere has been a catalyst since joining the team in mid-November. Philadelphia is also one of the best faceoff teams. Captain Claude Giroux has been particularly good in that regard.
HOW THEY LOSE:
CAPITALS: For all the good habits Trotz has imprinted upon his lineup, the team does have a tendency to let its defense slide, and the Caps dug themselves holes in the second half by spotting teams leads. Since margins are slimmer come playoff time, that sort of thing needs to be stamped out.
Washington is also a so-so team in the faceoff circle and middle of the pack when it comes to possession numbers. The latter stat is the most troubling, as that Corsi metric has been eerily prescient when it comes to champions in recent years. In that case, Washington better hope Tampa Bay gets eliminated before a potential clash the East final – because the advanced stats do not favor Ovie and crew.
FLYERS: The play of the Flyers defense, with the exception of the offense brought by Gostisbehere, has been less than desirable. They give up a ton of shots for Steve Mason and Michal Neuvirth to handle, ranking bottom-eight in that stat. Philadelphia also gets tagged for a lot of penalties (the Broad Street reputation lives on) and does not kill them off well, furthering the burden. This is especially problematic since Neuvirth, who has the better numbers of the two, went down with an injury during the stretch run and would just be returning for a potential first-round series.
Throw in the fact D-man Radko Gudas has a habit of questionable hits that have seen him suspended once and come close on other occasions and you have a team that has survived by the slightest of margins. Carrying sloppy or dangerous play into the post-season would end their hopes in a hurry. Can the Flyers be disciplined enough to do damage?
CAPITALS: As the Capitals themselves have pointed out, the team has significant personnel losses as well as gains this year – perhaps the most perilous subtraction being Joel Ward. Ward, now with the San Jose Sharks, was always a clutch playoff performer for Washington and even tied Ovechkin for the team lead in points last year with nine in 14 post-season appearances. JUSTIN WILLIAMS will be able to replicate that knack for heroics, and Richards is also battle-tested in the playoffs. That’s why the Capitals brought in the former Kings.
FLYERS: JAKUB VORACEK came into the campaign as one of Philadelphia’s top weapons, alongside Giroux, but it has been a nightmare scenario for him. Voracek has been saddled with sagging numbers and an injury that cost him nine games after a breakout 2014-15. He has done the yo-yo thing before (excellent results in lockout-shortened year, so-so follow-up in 2013-14) but the Flyers need him. If he can find his game and get hot, Philadelphia gets tougher to deal with in an opening-round series, especially with the rise of Gostisbehere from the back.
KEY MATCHUP by Dom Luszczyszyn
Two of the game’s most gifted playmakers will square off in this series and it’ll be interesting to see how they matchup. Over the last five seasons, Nicklas Backstrom is second in assists-per-game with 0.73 while Claude Giroux is fifth with 0.69. The two love distributing the puck, but what’s interesting about both is that the damage is mostly done on the powerplay. Both Washington and Philadelphia have made a living on the PP over the last couple seasons and it’s because of their vision and playmaking skills. Unsurprisingly, the two are first and second in PP assists over the last five seasons. At 5-on-5 they’re mostly even too, with Backstrom getting the scoring edge and Giroux getting the possession edge. It’s rare to see two players so equal square off, so no matter who comes out on top it’ll be an interesting head-to-head duel.
THN’s pick: CAPITALS.