Flyers Qualifying Round Opponents: Washington Capitals

The Philadelphia Flyers are taking on the Boston Bruins, Washington Capitals, and Tampa Bay Lightning during the Stanley Cup qualifying round in August. After meeting Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak, and Tuukka Rask and the Bruins in the first game, the Flyers will then get ready to face off against Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and the Capitals.

2019-20 Regular Season Review

The Capitals and Flyers were separated by one point in the regular-season standings in the Eastern Conference. Washington finished with 90 points in 69 games, while Philadelphia had 89 in 69. The difference was an extra overtime loss by the Capitals instead of a regulation loss in the Flyers’ case.

Breaking down some of the statistics between the two clubs, the Flyers allowed fewer goals (196) this season than the Capitals (215). Goals-for were a little bit higher for the D.C. club, though, as they collected 240 goals to the City of Brotherly Love’s 232.

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It was another superb campaign for the Capitals. The top names excelled. Defenseman John Carlson led the team in regular-season scoring (as well as the league in defenseman scoring). He posted a career-high in points with 75 and tied his career-high in goals with 15. Ovechkin fell shy of hitting the 50-goal plateau, which would’ve been his ninth time doing so, but he still put up 48 while assisting on 19 in 68 games.

John Carlson, Washington Capitals
John Carlson, Washington Capitals (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Hans Deryk)

Forward T.J. Oshie netted 26 goals and 23 assists for 49 points in 69 contests. Jakub Vrana had a banner year with career-highs in both goals (25) and assists (27) in 69 games. Overall, the stars on the team shined as bright as ever, and their production by committee helped carry the load and the team play like a well-oiled machine.

Even before the playoffs, the Capitals have received honors for their success this season. Carlson was named a finalist for the Norris Trophy as the league’s best defenseman. Ovechkin won his ninth Rocket Richard Trophy, this time sharing the award with Bruins forward Pastrnak.

There is also something that powers the Capitals from a couple years ago that will continue to make them lethal this postseason as well: championship background.

Winning it All in 2018

The Capitals appeared in the Stanley Cup Final on one occasion before 2018. They lost to the Detroit Red Wings in 1998, who repeated as champions after beating the Flyers for the Cup the first time in 1997. The Red Wings were a dominant team with Sergei Fedorov, Igor Larionov, Steve Yzerman, and Niklas Lidstrom and swept the Capitals in that 1998 Cup Final.

The next time Washington made it to the Stanley Cup Final was in 2018. They were also loaded with talent at every position. The offense was made up of Ovechkin, Backstrom, Oshie, and Evgeny Kuznetsov among others; the defense was stellar with names like Carlson, (now Flyer) Matt Niskanen, and Dmitry Orlov; and the brick wall in net was goaltender Braden Holtby.

Alex Ovechkin Washington Capitals 700 goals
Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals, acknowledges the crowd as he is honored for scoring 700 career NHL goals, Feb. 25, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

The Capitals started their 2018 Cup run with a 4-2 series win over the Columbus Blue Jackets. Contributions came throughout the entire Washington lineup, but the Blue Jackets gave it their all and showed their fight. Four of the six games went to overtime (Games 1, 2, 3, and 5), but the Capitals proved to be too much to handle, and they advanced to take on Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The Penguins have haunted the Capitals in the postseason in recent history. They defeated the Caps in 2016 (4-2 series) and in 2017 (4-3 series). The Capitals refuse to let it be three straight and powered their way to 4-2 series victory in 2018. The nail in the coffin was when Kuznetsov scored the series-winning tally in overtime in Game 6 – the monkey was finally off the Capitals’ back.

Related: Brian Leetch – The Road to the 1994 Conn Smythe Trophy

After beating the Tampa Bay Lightning in seven games in the Eastern Conference Final, Washington faced off against the expansion Vegas Golden Knights, who had an incredible inaugural season, in the Stanley Cup Final.

TJ Oshie Washington Capitals
TJ Oshie, Washington Capitals (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault, and former Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury helped power the Golden Knights on a magical run, but the Capitals did whatever it took to put an end to that storyline. They were successful, beating Vegas in five games and claiming their first Stanley Cup in franchise history.

Many players on the Capitals’ roster remember that feeling of victory and want to experience it again. They know how to win, and have that hunger for their second title.

Some Previous Playoff Bouts

The most recent playoff matchup between the Flyers and Capitals was in the first round in 2016, when Washington was the higher seed.

The Capitals were dominant for most of the series and won in six games. In the Flyers’ two victories, they only allowed one goal total while netting a combination of four for themselves. Former Capitals goalie Michal Neuvirth saved 31 of 32 shots in Game 4 and stopped all 44 shots in Game 5 for the shutout.

The problem was that the Flyers fell into a 0-3 series deficit. They would’ve had to pull off the same amazing comeback they had done against the Bruins in 2010 again in order to make it into the next round. Comebacks of that magnitude are rare.

Michal Neuvirth
Michal Neuvirth is a goalie who has suited up for both the Flyers and Capitals. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

With a loaded roster that included Ovechkin, Backstrom, Carlson, and Holtby, Washington crushed the Flyers offensively, outscoring them 14-6 in the series. The Capitals moved on to take on the Penguins in the semifinals, where they lost in six games to the eventual Stanley Cup champions.

Both of these organizations also met during the 2008 Eastern Conference quarterfinals. Like in 2016, the Flyers were again the lower seed. However, they won three games in a row after giving up Game 1. Ovechkin and the Capitals would not die though and climbed their way back to force a Game 7. Despite giving up that series lead, the Flyers finished off the job in Game 7, thanks to goals by Scottie Upshall, Sami Kapanen, and Joffrey Lupul in overtime.

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Other clutch performances by Flyers during that series included Mike Knuble notching a game-winner in double overtime in Game 5, and goalie Marty Biron shutting down the Capitals’ offense in Game 2 with a 24-save shutout. The Flyers moved on but were eliminated by the Penguins in five games in the Eastern Conference Final. The Penguins lost to the Red Wings in that year’s Stanley Cup Final.

Flyers Game Plan

The Flyers had a lot of success against the Capitals during the 2019-20 season, but it did not start as great. They lost a close initial battle 2-1 in a shootout at home. Oshie and Kuznetsov scored for Washington to secure the win. However, the Flyers triumphantly took the second matchup 3-2 at Wells Fargo Center in early January. Travis Konecny, Robert Hagg, and Kevin Hayes tallied goals for the Orange and Black in that game.

Kevin Hayes (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The last couple of regular-season games against the Capitals saw the Flyers kick things to the next level. In the last two head-to-head showdowns, goaltending and defense kept Washington to only two goals in each game. The Flyers’ offense, on the contrary, lit the lamp in both games at least five times.

In the first contest at Capital One Arena, Philadelphia notched seven goals. Contributors to that sum were Sean Couturier with two goals (and an assist), Claude Giroux with a goal (and two assists, to reach 800 points in his career), Nicolas Aube-Kubel with a goal (and an assist), Konecny with a goal (and an assist), Michael Raffl with a goal, and James van Riemsdyk with a tally as well. Oshie and Kuznetsov scored for the Capitals. Flyers goalie Brian Elliott made 25 saves.

The last time these two foes faced off was in Washington right before the coronavirus shutdown. The Orange and Black totaled five goals thanks to Hayes, Ivan Provorov, Konecny, Scott Laughton, and Tyler Pitlick. Elliott once again was between the pipes, stopping 25 of 27 shots.

The Flyers will have to find a way to shut down Ovechkin. That’s easier said than done, of course, but they were able to accomplish that feat the last two times they played the Capitals.

Shutting Ovi down changes the dynamic on the ice. As good as the Capitals are as a team, Ovechkin captains the ship, and keeping him off the board weakens the team as a whole. Ovechkin only had four total shots (two in each game) in the last two contests against the Flyers. Philadelphia is off to a good start if they can find a way to shut down The Great Eight.

The Flyers have the disadvantage of being the less-experienced playoff team. Obviously it helps Washington’s case having won a Cup with a good portion of their current roster, but the Flyers also have their own leaders with Cup tenure.

Matt Niskanen Philadelphia Flyers
Matt Niskanen, Philadelphia Flyers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

One of the first players who comes to my mind is defenseman Niskanen, who was part of that 2018 Cup champion Capitals roster. He brings a combined 125 postseason games to the table between his stints with the Dallas Stars, Penguins, and Capitals. He also is familiar with a lot of the current Washington players, and knows what to expect out of them.

Other veterans on the team with playoff experience include Jakub Voracek, Couturier, Giroux, and Hayes. Defenseman Justin Braun, who was acquired by Philadelphia during the offseason, also played in a Cup Final in 2016 with the San Jose Sharks. They lost in six games to the Penguins.

Flyers bench boss Alain Vigneault also coached both the Vancouver Canucks (2011) and New York Rangers (2014) to the Stanley Cup Final. He knows what it takes to get to the promised land and has been in the trenches and experienced the Cup Final atmosphere. Younger players like goalie Carter Hart and defenseman Philippe Myers do not have any playoff experience right now. They will be guided by a good core of veterans and coaching to make the playoff atmosphere as easy of an adjustment as possible.

Vigneault and the veteran players have done a good job this season bringing out the best in one another, and it is time for that to shine through during the qualifying round games. The Capitals, like the Bruins, will be a good test for this club to take their next strides.