Thursday, April 10, 2008

Flyers/Capitals Series Preview

(3) Washington Capitals vs (6) Philadelphia Flyers

About the Opponent

Philadelphia Flyers: 42-29-11, 95 points, 4th in the Atlantic Division, 6th in the Eastern Conference.

Team Leaders
Goals: Vaclav Prospal (33: 29 with Tampa, 4 with Philadelphia)
Assists: Mike Richards (47)
Points: Mike Richards (75)
Plus/Minus: Braydon Coburn (+17)
Penalty Minutes: Riley Cote (202)
Fights: Riley Cote (24)

Keys to the Series

(1) Home ice advantage. Not a traditional strong point for the Capitals, but the Verizon Center has come alive as a sea of red in the last few weeks (how well this remains when the team isn't the NHL's darling and Cinderella story remains to be seen, but that's another issue). The reality is that a loud, noisy, red building is something that the Capitals can feed off of, even if it doesn't necessarily intimidate opponents.
(2) Start strong. The Capitals need to get a fast start, even faster than winning the first game. Like, they need to dominate the first five minutes and score the first goal. The Capitals had a ton of momentum to finish the regular season but that's going to diminished now because of the long layoff and the fact that, well, it's a whole new season now. Starting strong would help the Caps get some momentum back.
(3) Healthy defense corps. Both Shaone Morrisonn and Jeff Schultz were hurt in the season's closing games. It looks like (knock on wood) they're going to both be ready to go for Game 1. With how much scoring depth the Flyers have, plus their physical brand of hockey, having these two 100% in important.
(4) Stay out of the box. The Flyers are going to get physical and may even get a little dirty, but the Capitals need to avoid retaliation penalties against the team with the NHL's second-best powerplay. The key players to watch here are Alex Ovechkin, Alex Semin, John Erskine and Donald Brashear.

(1) Stay on the attack. The Capitals have played very well defensively lately but the defense is exploitable - only Tom Poti does not have questions about his health, experience or overall skill level. If the Flyers can keep their offensive players attacking and aggressive throughout the series they may just get the Capitals to cough up a puck or two that lead to goals, and that may just be enough to turn the series.
(2) Find a matchup that works. The Flyers have a lot of pretty good defensemen, but who can match up against Ovechkin? Derian Hatcher and Jason Smith are too slow and Lasse Kukkonen, Jaroslav Modry and Kimmo Timonen aren't physical enough. The Flyers best bet is probably their plus-minus leader from this past season, Braydon Coburn. As good as Coburn is, I don't think he can handle Ovechkin, especially not night after night. If they Flyers do figure out a way to shut down Ovechkin offensively, it will go a long way towards them winning the series. It's worth noting the the plan right now is to have Timonen mark Ovechkin.
(3) Controlled physicality. It's been said a thousand times this season but it's worth mentioning again: The Broad Street Bullies are back. While that might help the Flyers, it can also hurt them and ever since the cheap shots by, and subsequent suspensions of, Steve Downie and Jesse Boulrice the league's been watching the Flyers. Bringing physical play to the table could help the Flyers but it's a strategy that could backfire: a number of Capitals, including Ovechkin, Bradley, Morrisonn and Brooks Laich, seem to get more into the game as it becomes more physical. Plus constantly having to have a Semin-Backstrom-Fedorov-Green-Ovechkin powerplay isn't the way to win a series.
(4) A fast start. I mentioned earlier that I think the Capitals' momentum will have waned since the finish to their regular season. A hot start by Philly, say two goals in the series' first ten minutes, would extinguish it completely.

Players to Watch

Matt Cooke - The Flyers are going to bring attitude, physical play and maybe just a hint of dirtyness. Cooke can throw all of that right back at them.
Sergei Fedorov - Fedorov is important to the Capitals success for a number of reasons: he's their best penalty killing forward, he's a key component of the powerplay, he's a great defensive forward and he's playoff tested.
Cristobal Huet - Huet's 11-2 with a 1.63 GAA and .936 save percentage since coming to the Capitals. Play like that from you goaltending means that a team has confidence...and someone to fall back on when things don't go their way.
Alex Ovechkin - Every NHL fan on the planet has to be excited to see Ovechkin in the playoffs...except those with their allegiances to the orange and black.

Martin Biron - Biron had his best NHL season in 2007-08, but he's also never played an NHL playoff game. That, plus asking a 6'3'', 163 pound goalie who has a reputation of having stamina issues to play a physical series comprised of three games a week, means that Flyers fans probably aren't as comfortable as they'd want to be with their man in the net.
Jeff Carter - Carter had a nice season this year with 53 points (29 goals), but he looks like he could be even better. What should concern Caps fans is that he looks like he's going to turn a corner any day now.
Daniel Briere - Briere has been incredibly underwhelming for the Flyers this season, especially for a man pulling in ten million dollars. His 31 goals and 72 points are solid, but also represent declines from last season (32 goals, 95 points) and he posted a team worst -22 plus-minus rating. Of course, Briere still has talent and may use the playoffs to try and redeem himself.

Around the (Inter)net
Mike Vogel explains why the physical matchup might not be what you think it is...Apparently ESPN is getting in on the Caps love...The newest member of the crazy media corps is apparently named Don Brennan (move over Mike Brophy!)...CBC talks with the creator of Caps have at least one celebrity fan.

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