Braden Holtby made 26 saves behind another dominating 200 foot performance from the Capitals, who made the only goal of the game from Nicklas Backstrom stand up to extinguish the Flyers in game six, 1-0.
The Capitals will now move on to play the red hot and fast Pittsburgh Penguins later this week while the cheap shot artist Flyers will have all summer to hone their tactics on the golf course. It is always fun to knock off that team, which promotes Neanderthal-styled behavior and hockey on the ice, but more on them later.
Washington won this series with team defense by allowing only six goals in six games. The Holtbeast had two shutouts and only permitted five non empty net goals, one of which came off of his own teammate in game five. The Caps top three defensemen, John Carlson, Matt Niskanen, and Karl Alzner, were absolutely fabulous in this series. They were physical and Carlson showed why he’s a top ten NHL blue liner, in my book, with his defensive skills and offensive ability. He was downright sensational for Coach Barry Trotz in the six game series victory. Alzner is playing the best hockey of his career and Niskanen is just so good at both ends of the rink. His hitting ability is vastly underrated.
Another big part of the Caps team defense was the way their forwards were back checking when the puck came out of the Washington zone. The forwards routinely hauled back and stole puck after puck from the Flyers in the neutral zone or forced Philly into turning it over at the offensive blue line because the Capitals defensemen were able to step up and make plays. It was text book coverage all over the ice and Filthy had few odd man rushes in the series, as a result. They also had a minimal amount of quality scoring chances and the Caps set a franchise record with this performance in terms of fewest goals allowed in a seven game series (previous mark was 7 vs. Ottawa in 1998). Washington will need to maintain that type of defensive play against the offensively minded Penguins.
Michal Neuvirth was the single reason the Flyers were able to extend this series to six games. He was stellar in net in only allowing two goals in three games, one on a rebound by T.J. Oshie in game four and the Backstrom marker on Sunday, which he had no chance on. Alex Ovechkin made a super play at the blue line to get the puck to Marcus Johansson (six points in six games) and Jojo made a perfect pass to Nicky, who buried the shot into the yawning cage for the game winner at 8:59 of the second period.
Johansson was a big bright spot and a huge reason why Washington was able to finally bury the Flyers. The Caps had strong contributions up and down the lineup, especially from the bottom six forwards. Mike Richards, Tom Wilson, Daniel Winnik, Jojo, and Jay Beagle were all at or near the top of their respective games. Wilson was near perfect in game six and the Flyers were flat out afraid of him as the series went on. He opens up space on the ice for the Caps forwards. If he plays like that and stays out of the box, he is a real factor in the post season when the games are tight and hitting really matters.
If there was a down area in this series, it was the second line. Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky had the puck quite a bit, but by the end of the series they looked tired and a bit timid, at times, as they were getting taken off of the puck too easily on the wall. Justin Williams was okay at even strength, save for his four penalty night in game five. This was a bad match up for that line against the physical Flyers, but I expect them to have more favorable results against the Penguins, and they’ll need to do so.
In game six, the Capitals wanted to be more disciplined, and they were. Unfortunately, a friendly fire high stick by a Flyers player on Ryan White was called a double minor on Backstrom just four minutes after the Flyers had killed off a five on three for the Caps early in the second period with the game scoreless. I’ll give the zebras some benefit of the doubt because it happened so fast, but the replay clearly showed it wasn’t Backstrom or any other Caps stick that hit White in the nose. Shouldn’t the officials be able to use replay there to get the call correct? I’m all for automatic review of high sticking calls in the post season, especially the double minor kind. So please fix this NHL!
This incorrect call came at a critical juncture and it was made worse when the referees mistakenly whistled Matt Niskanen for hooking Wayne Simmonds right off of the ensuing face off in front of Holtby. Watch the replay of that one again, that’s just good defense there.
Coach Trotz’ crew was suddenly down two men for infractions that weren’t committed by them, but credit the mental toughness of this Capitals team. They didn’t flinch one bit. They worked hard and killed off the four minutes, including two minutes of five on three by only allowing three shots on goal, which the Holtbeast turned away. Beagle, Carlson, Alzner, and Richards were just superb on those kills. Richards, as he has done repeatedly in this series, was so good at dropping down to cover the back door on Flyers power play opportunities. His stick prevented Jakub Voracek from giving the Flyers the lead on the five on three.
With momentum gained on that crucial kill, the Capitals scored just two and half minutes later to set the stage for the final frame, where the Caps just kept the Flyers to the outside to preserve the victory.
When the horn sounded, this was one sweet victory for the Capitals and their fans over their arch rivals since 1974. Washington now owns a 3-2 lifetime playoff series advantage on the Flyers (wins in 1984, 1988, and 2016; losses in 1989 and 2008).
After the Caps domination in game five in a 1-0 loss that allowed Philly to pull within 3-2 in the series, there were factions in the media and the fan base that immediately shifted into the “Here We Go Again” and “Caps are Going to Blow It Again” mode. The “Capitals are Cursed” mantra was thrown around far too much for my liking. I’m not surprised by it coming from some of the media, that’s their job to stir it up, but it was frustrating and disappointing to see so many fans fall blindly into it. To quote Bruce Springsteen, many in the fan base need to simply “Show a little faith.”
I’ve been steadfast all season in my belief that this team is different from past Capitals teams and they have shown that throughout the season. This is the best Caps team ever assembled and coached, period. Yet the first sign of trouble we had too many breaking their legs jumping off of the bandwagon.
Where’s the mental toughness?
Fortunately this Caps team has it and it is different. There are eight players who weren’t on this roster last season when they lost to the Rangers in May; Oshie, Williams, Richards, Winnik, Dmitry Orlov, Nate Schmidt, Taylor Chorney, and Mike Weber (who was excellent in 8:48 of ice time in game six). Those players have helped upgrade the talent and closeness of this club. Williams and Richards bring a wealth of experience (five Stanley Cups), too. There will be bumps in the road and it is the teams that stick together that fight through tough stretches and prevail. Again, show a little faith fans.
Finally, let’s talk about what it means to beat the Flyers.
Forgive me for not heeding Tim McGraw’s advice to “Always be humble and kind” here, because when it comes to the Flyers, all bets are off. They are despised by many and unlike the Pittsburgh Steelers, who the Ravens fan base very much despises, Philadelphia is not respected, where the football team that is run by the Rooneys in Steeltown is respected. Flyers owner Ed Snider passed away right before this series began and the people who work for him have always pretty much been first class to me off of the ice from Joe Kadelec, Gene Hart, Bobby Taylor, Bobby Clarke, and Dave Brown on down, including Gene Prince, who used to run the Spectrum and Wells Fargo Center press boxes.
But on the ice is a different story. Snider preached physical hockey and that’s okay, as long as it is done between the whistles. In this series, the Flyers crossed the line too many times. Simmonds cross checked Ovechkin in the back of the knee in game two and Brayden Schenn did the same thing to Kuznetsov in game four, with both coming well AFTER THE WHISTLE. They were bush league moves along with the intent to injure hit by Pierre-Edouard Bellmare on Orlov in game three, simply because the Flyers were being sore losers. The Capitals may have actually benefited by not hitting the empty net at the end of game six because it would’ve given the sore loser Flyer players time to get in at least another cheap shot or two.
Speaking of bush league and being sore losers, it was just two and a half years ago when goalie Ray Emery raced across the ice and jumped Holtby then started pounding him in a game the Caps would end up winning 7-0. It was disgraceful, but the dinosaur like fans in Filthy loved it and a media member made a bozo move naming Emery the game’s third star. That’s typical Philadelphia Flyer mentality. They’ve been setting the game back for 40 years on the ice, so they’ll get no praise from me.
Look, the Flyers overachieved this year and have some good young players, but they are cement heads on the ice and that leads to their overall reputation. As Niskanen repeatedly told me in this series, “it’s in their DNA.” They’ll continue to be nothing but losers until they clean that stuff up and shame on the NHL for allowing too much of it to happen far too often. It also leads to many of their fans acting like babies and idiots on occassion, witness game three’s bracelet throwing spree. Simply put, on the ice, that team is pretty much classless.
But good for Coach Trotz for praising the Flyers season in his post game presser, he is a classy man as is Caps GM, Brian MacLellan. Those two know what they are doing and have assembled a roster that will go up against the vaunted Penguins, who own a 7-1 all time series record against the Caps. But none of that matters and the last time these teams met in the playoffs was 2009.
Again, this Capitals team is different. It is a challenging match up and Washington will need to play their game properly to win the series. This club is mentally tough and I’m not guaranteeing a victory, but the fan base needs to show a little faith, in fact a lot of faith, and stick by them as they go up against Sidney Crosby and company.
Oh, and one more thing, see ya Flyers!