The playoffs are once again upon us, and as the Caps get ready to take on their first-round opponent - and friendly Metropolitan Division rival - from Philly, we weigh in on which unusual suspects will have an impact, where each team has the advantage, and what we think will happen.
Q1. Aside from the big names and "obvious" choices (Alex Ovechkin, Braden Holtby, etc.), which Capital do you see as having the biggest potential impact in this series?
Chris: Last year against the Islanders, Tom Wilson showed that he can get a team off their game in the playoffs. Given that Willy has some history with the Flyers, and particularly Brayden Schenn, he may be able to pull a similar feat this year. The key will be agitating the Flyers without stepping too far over the edge... and into the penalty box. If Wilson can rough up the Flyers and draw some retaliatory penalties while maintaining his stellar defensive play, he could be a key component to victory in the series. If he loses his composure and takes dumb penalties at the wrong time, he could just as easily tip the advantage the other way.
Tommy: Totally agree with Chris. I've actually liked what I've seen from Wilson in the last couple of games. Wilson has had a bit of pep in his step offensively recently, finding John Carlson beautifully for a goal in the St. Louis Blues game and dangling his way to the net on a scoring chance against the Anaheim Ducks. In the playoffs, your bottom six has to contribute mightily, and Wilson seems like one of the better bets to do just that.
He may be a bit of a bigger name, but I'm also going to toss T.J. Oshie's name out there. Over the course of his career, Oshie has a whopping 9 points in 30 playoff games. This year, Oshie was given every opportunity to become a big-time goal scorer on this team, and he did just that, setting a career high with 26. He also scored more power play goals this year than his last three seasons combined. My guess is the Flyers will focus their attention on the power play on Ovechkin, as literally every team should, and that should give Oshie ample opportunities. I'm expecting him to have a big series.
Adam: I think Kuznetsov falls into the "big name" category, so I'm going to single out the Capitals other young second-line forward, Andre Burakovsky, as the potential difference maker in this series. Burakovsky had a solid first postseason last year, including a particularly memorable game 4 against the Rangers. While his production last year was unexpected, given his current role things are different now. The team may need for Burakovsky to make an impact as it's entirely possible that the Flyers top line may cancel out the offensive production of Backstrom and Ovechkin. For that reason a lot of the scoring burden might fall to the Capitals' second line.
Burakovsky had a strong second half of the season and while he and Kuznetsov have both cooled down recently they are still producing scoring chances they are just not finding their way into the back of the net (i.e poor puck luck). Look for the Capitals' second line to play a big part in this series.
Peerless: There are actually two players here I think bear watching - Karl Alzner and Brooks Orpik. Over the last 23 games, the Flyers are 14-6-3. The funny thing about the wins, though, is that they have won two games in which they allowed more than two goals, meaning they have to score to win. They do that with high shot volumes, averaging 33.1 shots on goal in those 23 games, 33.9 shots per game among the wins. If Alzner and Orpik can force players away from prime shooting areas in close, block shots, and prevent the Flyers from deflections and rebound chances by tying players up in front, it will depress shot volumes, depress their scoring, and force goalie Steve Mason to play even bigger than he has down the stretch at the other end.
J.P.: Assuming that the third D-pair is Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt (which looks like a safe assumption, at least to start), I'd go with those guys. The Caps are deeper on the blueline than Philly and that in and of itself can make a difference in a long series, especially if Orlov and Schmidt can crush their minutes like they were earlier in the year.
During the regular season, the Caps had 57.8% of the five-on-five shot attempts when the duo was on the ice and score 54.5% of the goals. But both young blueliners had their share of gaffes down the stretch, and over the course of a playoff series, those often stand out more than any 58/42 edge in shot differential might. So if Orlov and Schmidt can be reliable and good, it'll not only provide the obvious direct impact on the series, but also can give Barry Trotz the confidence to roll three defensive pairings and keep everyone on the back-end a bit fresher.
Rob: Kuznetsov may seem like a "big name" to Caps fans, but this was really his breakout year. He finished last year strong but this year he showed what he can do and provided the Caps with a credible secondary scoring line. The lack of secondary scoring has killed the team for years in the playoffs, and if this year is going to be any different, Kuznetsov is going to have to have a great series. If the Caps become a one-line (or no-line...) team, they'll be in trouble. Adam wants to point to Burakovsky (because of course he does), but the reality is that Burakovsky isn't going squat unless Kuznetsov keeps playing the way he has for most of the season.
Becca: I'm actually going to agree with Rob here (which rarely happens... mostly because he's usually wrong and I'm always right) and say Kuznetsov. That depth down the middle is so important in the postseason, especially against a team like the Flyers that maybe doesn't have the depth on the blueline to handle two "top" lines. If Kuznetsov - and his linemates - can get rolling and pose a serious threat to score on every shift (and of course if the top line does their job, as well), it puts the Flyers and their blueline in a tough spot.
Q2: Where do you think the Caps have the edge over the Flyers, and vice versa?
Adam: Rob and I took a crack at this topic back on Monday and you should give it a look there.
Chris:The Caps have the advantage in every objective measurement. The Flyers' key advantage is their lack of pressure. This was supposed to be a re-tooling year in Philadelphia, and the Flyers managed to surprise everyone (including possibly themselves) with a late-season run into the last playoff position. As such, they have nothing to lose. The Caps, on the other hand, feel the pressure of the Presidents' Trophy and 40+ years of history.
Tommy: Philadelphia simply doesn't have the forward depth that Washington has. Their defensemen unit can be sketchy at times, as they allowed 56.2 shot attempts per 60 minutes of even-strength five-on-five play, the eighth-most in the NHL this season and the second-most among playoff teams. And while Steve Mason was a hot goaltender last month, he's allowed 12 goals over his last four games. His .939 save percentage in his five game appearances in his most recent 2013-14 playoff looks alright, but stepping up toe-to-toe with Braden Holtby is going to be a pretty tough task.
But I think the biggest concern from the Caps perspective is playing into the Flyers game. In Philadelphia's last playoff series, they played emotional and physical. If the Flyers bait the Capitals into that same style, they will get them reeling. I think the second Washington starts getting into the trading of ticky-tack penalties or personal sidenote drama, the series could start tilting in Philadelphia's favor. That's how I think the Flyers can have the edge, by distracting the Capitals from playing their game.
Peerless: On paper, depth of skill. Think of it this way. Wayne Simmonds led the Flyers with 32 goals. In the 24 games in which he scored at least one (he had eight two-goal games), the Flyers were 19-3-2. In the rest of the games, those in which he did not record a goal, the Flyers were 22-24-12. They did not have the depth of skill to consistently find someone to step up and carry the mail. He scores, chances are they win games. He doesn't, they don't.
Compare that to Alex Ovechkin. Sure, the Caps won - a lot - when he scored a goal (33-5-2 in the 40 games in which he scored a goal), but the Caps won when he did not, too. They were 23-13-6 in the games in which he was held without a goal. That is still better than a 100-point pace. The Caps can beat a team in a variety of ways from a variety of players. The Flyers are largely a product of Simmonds and Steve Mason. With all due respect to Shayne Gostisbehere, if those two don't come up big, this could be a short series.
As for the Flyers, they have the potential to control the style of play. Frankly, I think this is their only chance at winning the series. If they can make this a zone-to-zone, trench warfare sort of series that features a lot of wall and corner battles and a lot of activity in front of Braden Holtby, then they can take advantage of some Caps who might not be inclined to involve themselves enthusiastically in such antics. They could render silent the likes of Evgeny Kuznetsov, Marcus Johansson, or Andre Burakovsky, thus negating the depth advantage the Caps have.
J.P.: Is this a trick question? The Caps have more depth, more skill and more skilled depth. They've got a 20-goal scorer and a 17-goal scorer on the third line... those totals would rank fourth and fifth among Flyer forwards. They've got eight defensemen who played at least half a season's worth of hockey at the NHL... while one-third of the Flyers' blueline was in the AHL in mid-November.
If the Flyers have an edge, it's clearly in recent (but not necessarily too recent!) play, and in a short four-to-seven game series, a point or two difference in 25-game Corsi-for percentages doesn't move my needle as much as clearly superior finishing skill and (perhaps) one extra save every 167 shots or so.
Peerless: The Caps have never swept a best-of-seven playoff series in four games, and I do not think they will do so here. But I don't think it will go seven, either. Caps in six, but I would not be surprised if it's in five.
Tommy: I'm pretty stingy and cautious when it comes to betting on anything, so while I certainly think it's possible that the Caps can wrap it up quickly, I think I'm safely saying Caps in six.
Adam: I'm picking the Capitals to win this thing in five. The Flyers simply don't have the depth to keep up with the Capitals over a prolonged series.
Becca: The Caps finally have enough of this seven-game series nonsense and win it in six.
Rob: Caps are going to go down in the series, playing hockey like they mostly have since the All Star break, and come back to win in 7.
J.P.: Caps in six after a bit of a stumble out of the gate.
Chris: My human brain wants to say Caps in 5, but my lizard brain wants to say Caps in 7. I'll go with my human brain this time.
It's go time!