For the fourth time in their five lifetime series against the Washington Capitals, the Philadelphia Flyers opened a postseason matchup with a loss.
That 2-0 setback at Verizon Center on Thursday night was as close as the score indicated, and while it puts the visitors down in the series one game to nothing, they are far from out of contention heading into Game 2 where they can steal back home-ice advantage.
Nonetheless, that doesn’t mean there weren’t small errors of omission and technical problems that need to be worked out. With the exception of the Capitals’ opening goal — a double posterior deflection off a pair of Flyers from a point shot that skipped past Steve Mason — the following issues proved to be the Orange and Black’s undoing at Verizon Center.
Punch Buggy Red, No Punch Backs
In the opening 20 minutes, it was clear the Capitals wanted to use their home advantage and perceived size advantage to initiate physical contact with the Flyers on every single shift.
Caps veteran defenseman Brooks Orpik always seems to draw the less desirable duties, and has no qualms about habitually crossing the line to assert himself; as such, he was whistled for the game’s first two infractions and could have easily been called to the box for two more penalties before the period elapsed. Before that, battery-mate John Carlson drew a restraining foul – for hooking – which proved to be the game’s first penalty call only 3 ½ minutes in.
As could be predicted, the officiating tide turned against Philadelphia in the second period. While Washington’s calls could be termed good, solid, no-doubt-about-it mistakes, the opposite was true in the second. Mark Streit was sent off for a deeply questionable holding call less than three minutes in, Ryan White barely left his feet on a charge which appeared to be a clean check otherwise, and Brandon Manning was victim to an oft-challenged but still on the books delay-of-game call for shooting the puck untouched, over the glass.
In the final stanza, however, the toll of Capitals contact on the boards and their restraining activities near the scoring areas clearly began to rear its ugly head.
Sam Gagner was clipped for a high-sticking double minor. Wayne Simmonds made a decision — which should be rightfully questioned — with 6:51 remaining in regulation: engaging Tom Wilson in a fight which took him off the ice in a negative player exchange down a goal.
Shayne Gostisbehere gave the officials some obvious lip after being taken off for a phantom interference call, and the entire roster seemed to be switched to Defcon 2 after Sean Couturier was lost for the game with an apparent left-arm injury after a clean, but hard hit by Alex Ovechkin.
Schenn then provided the pointless punctuation to the night when he unnecessarily buried Caps blueliner Karl Alzner with another clean but hard check near the end boards as the buzzer sounded.
While that might have earned him some street cred with the cretins who still adhere to the “beat ‘em in the alley if you can’t beat ‘em on the scoreboard” mentality, it was less a calling card for Saturday than a cheap last gasp of frustration and release of pent-up energy.
Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol was adamant his club had no issue with keeping their emotions in check, but all of that bluster was undone in roughly 45 minutes of game action.
There is no such thing as fair, there is no such thing as equal, as far as calling a game in the playoffs is concerned. The Flyers will most likely feel the benefit in Philadelphia as the Presidents’ Trophy winners will in DC. Cool heads set on playing hockey, rather than settling scores, must prevail.
Extra Man, Extra Sauce
The Flyers, who struggled mightily down the stretch run to clinching a playoff berth, did nothing with three power-play chances in the first period and four in the game’s first half. Predictably, the Capitals managed to cut through on just one of their second-period man advantages to take a lead protected by Braden Holtby.
All credit has to be given to the Capitals, whose penalty killers did a decent job pressuring and isolating puck carriers on the Flyers’ first and second units. When shots were taken, the majority was from the perimeter or the point. The few that were taken in close as a result of broken plays and scramble for possession resulted in the puck hitting bodies in front, or saw Holtby squared up given just enough time to set himself – as in the case of Brayden Schenn’s pair of chances from the “Hartnell Spot” just inside the top of the left circle.
“I thought the first couple we got locked on one side of the ice too much when we did get in and get set up,” Hakstol said to the Courier Post. “I thought after that we opened up the zone a little bit more and had some good opportunities.”
Philly is just 3-for-21 while up at least one man over its last six games, and all three power-play goals occurred in the season finale in Brooklyn last Sunday.
Neither Wayne Simmonds (in his usual position down low to the left of the opposing net) nor Ryan White (creating chaos directly in front) were factors. That is a direct result of the Capitals penalty kill refusing to let pucks get through the middle and a failure of the Flyers to move the puck to either side in front of the goal.
For the remainder of the series, the Flyers must find ways to move the puck quicker and do so in a more lateral fashion. It’s a fait accompli on the first unit that Giroux, Voracek and Gostisbehere will be defended vigorously. Removing Matt Read from the second unit altogether, and short of that, ditching the strange idea that he should be stationed at either point, has to be enacted post haste.
With Couturier on the sidelines, it’s an absolute must to have Michael Raffl, and his newfound sense of net crashing, playing as deep as possible on that second unit. On the flip side, Scott Laughton is most likely to draw in to take Coots’ PK responsibilities, and as long as he’s able to stay in proper position and not asked to move the puck to facilitate a kill, it should take some of the sting away.
We Don’t Need Another Hero
Jakub Voracek is three weeks removed from a foot injury which had clearly altered the brain-hands-feet connection skilled hockey players rely upon to move and shoot the puck. He tested things out early and had a clean break up the middle on his first shift of the game, but couldn’t push the puck past Caps goaltender Braden Holtby.
In the final minutes of regulation, and just as a 4-on-4 situation ended when Gostisbehere and Andre Burakovsky finished serving their respective minors, Voracek took it upon himself to wheel the puck through the neutral zone in an attempt to drive possession into the offensive zone.
The only problem was, as he completed his loop to try and bust through the left-wing side, he lost control of the puck long enough for a pressing Marcus Johansson to steal it and turn the other way in a 3-on-2 break with checking winger Jay Beagle. It ended with Beagle rifling a shot past Mason from the slot as 3:24 remained on the clock, giving the hosts a 2-0 advantage and effectively wrapping up the contest.
Voracek may have the mentality that he’s fully healthy and ready to roll, but from his relative ineffectiveness at even strength and on the power play last night, he still requires further time to adjust.
His eyes might have failed him on the crucial turnover: aside from Radko Gudas – whom nobody will ever accuse of having puck prowess despite nailing a shot from the blueline last month – Jake had Claude Giroux and Brandon Manning to work with on the ice, the latter in front of him and the former across the ice. Gostisbehere was also about to exit the penalty box on the right side as well.
Instead, Voracek attempted to make a play past Washington’s Johansson, got stripped, and worst of all, fell near the boards and took himself completely out of a back check. That left Ghost and Manning scrambling to get back into the play, both unsuccessfully.
Nineteen shots on goal against Holtby is nothing to worry about in and of itself; in past years there would have been enough open chances against the Caps that four goals could be squeezed from that total. Against a Barry Trotz-coached club, though, the Flyers must adjust their sights to maximize open space and shoot from as close as possible to solve the NHL’s winningest netminder.
“You have to put some traffic in front of him and try to discourage him and frustrate him in the long run,” Couturier said to CSNPhilly prior to Game 1. “That’s going to be important for us, to bring some bodies in front of him so he doesn’t see the pucks.”