Caps to Face Flyers
As a result of the Pittsburgh Penguins pretty much choosing to play the hapless Ottawa Senators versus gaining the #1 seed in the Eastern Conference (the Pens rested Sydney Crosby against the Flyers today), the Washington Capitals will take on the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round of their Stanley Cup Playoff series that will likely start Thursday at the Verizon Center.
Playoff hockey is back in DC after a five year hiatus and the fever brought on by the Caps great stretch run plus the excitement of seeing Alexander Ovechkin in the post season led to both games one and two selling out before the first round opponent was even finalized this afternoon. Hopefully that means Flyer fans will be forced to stay away from the building and the Caps “Red Out” downtown will continue.
Personally, I was hoping the Caps would draw the Senators because they are a mess right now and the Caps have a couple of key defensive injuries. Additionally, when I spoke with a Western Conference scout this afternoon about the Caps injuries on defense he offered the following encouraging analysis on Washington:
“They have momentum, confidence and AO! If they get the Sens they will waltz into round 2. 4th best record in NHL since US Thanksgiving!”
Unfortunately the Pens realized that Ottawa was the ideal opponent as well and played soft at the Wachovia Center leaving the Caps to face Philadelphia.
The Flyers are an interesting team but I think the match-up for the Caps is pretty good. Here is a position by position analysis of the series:
Goalies: Martin Biron had the number one job early in the season when he was outstanding but then he went into a tailspin to lose the stranglehold on the starting goalie job to Antero Niittymaki during the middle of the season. Down the stretch Biron found his game again and closed with two straight shutouts. However, I still think Biron is very beatable so I give the goaltending edge to the Caps with Cristobal Huet.
Defense: The Flyers have pretty good balance on the back end from an ice time perspective. Kimmo Timonen leads the defense playing around 24 minutes a game. Braydon Coburn, the Atlanta Thrashers first round pick in 2003 (8th overall), plays around 23 minutes a game with the rest of the minutes going to Jaroslav Modry, Randy Jones, Jason Smith (nicked up a bit right now and didn’t play today), and Lasse Kukkonen. Derian Hatcher has been hurt with a leg injury but claims that he will be ready for the playoffs so he will go if healthy. Ryan Parent is the eighth defensemen and will only dress and play if there are multiple injuries. The Caps are pretty banged up on defense due to Shaone Morrisonn’s shoulder and Jeff Schultz’s probable leg problem (the Caps are not disclosing the injury). I give the edge to the Flyers but Philadelphia’s defense is nothing to be afraid of and the Flyers have consistently given up a lot of shots this season.
Forwards: Philadelphia once again has good balance up front but the big issue right now is Daniel Briere’s knee and whether he can play in the first round. Mike Richards, an NHL star in the making, is the best Flyer forward and he is solid on both ends of the ice. Jeff Carter has really come on the last couple of months and is a very good player that Washington must watch closely. He is big and can skate so he will pose problems for the Caps defense. This guy has enormous potential. Joffrey Lupul and R.J. Umberger are good second and third line players, respectively, that have been effective for the Flyers when they’ve been healthy. Scott Hartnell, who came over from Nashville in the Predators fire sale, is big and skates well too. He will crash the net hard and look for rebounds. Somebody on Washington must box him and Mike Knuble out in front of Huet. Vaclav Prospal moved over from the Tampa Bay Lightning at the trade deadline and has played well with Briere. Prospal has always been a thorn in Washington’s side but if you are physical with him you can get him off his game. The problem is the Caps aren’t that physical defensively. Scottie Upshall, Jim Dowd, and Sami Kapanen are third and fourth line players who will try and slow Alexander Ovechkin and company.
As for the Caps, the first line of Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Viktor Kozlov is one of the best in the league and the second group of Sergei Fedorov, Alexander Semin, and Matt Cooke is starting to gel. Brooks Laich, Boyd Gordon, and Matt Bradley are next in terms of ice time and Laich is very dangerous in front of the net on the power play. The fourth line and beyond is Eric Fehr, Donald Brashear, and Tomas Fleischmann but any of them could be bumped for Chris Clark and Dave Steckel should they get healthy and be inserted into the lineup. Overall edge here goes to Washington because of Ovechkin and Backstrom.
Series Prediction: This will be a tough series with some peaks and valleys for both teams. In the end I think the Great #8 helps the Caps win it in seven games despite the lack of playoff experience that he, Backstrom, Semin, and Mike Green have but they will learn quickly from Fedorov and Cooke what it takes to compete in the post-season and prevail, although the defensive injuries are still a concern.
Tomorrow night I’ll post my analysis and predictions for the remaining seven first round NHL playoff match-ups.