For the first time in their playoff history against the Washington Capitals, the Philadelphia Flyers fell behind 0-3 in a best-of-seven series.
A 2-0 setback at Verizon Center on Thursday night was as close as the score indicated, but a 4-1 defeat on Saturday night only seemed to widen the gap between the Metropolitan Division rivals. Pile on a 6-1 thrashing in Philly on Monday, and the Orange and Black peered into the abyss in an attempt to avoid being swept on home ice.
Over the course of these first three outings, small errors of omission and technical problems whose kinks needed to be worked out exploded with frightful profusion. However, in Game 4 on Wednesday, a lot of the little things that kill were temporarily ironed out, giving the hosts a 2-1 victory and slight boost heading into another elimination game in DC on Friday.
Stay in Line, Out of the Box
Knowing the series would be physical, with both sides taking every opportunity to engage in contact, in Games 2 and 3, the Flyers could not resist staying out of the penalty box, with dire consequences. Tom Wilson, Jason Chimera, Brooks Orpik and Mike Richards were the chief bleep stirrers that kept the opposition nose-to-nose along the boards and after the whistles.
The retaliation and chippiness which marked the openers in Washington virtually disappeared as the Capitals began asserting themselves on the scoreboard, so the business of hits translating to tired foes and puck possession was a lost cause for Dave Hakstol’s team.
However, the skill gap between the clubs widened with the loss of Sean Couturier for the remainder of the series with an apparent left arm injury. As a result, the Flyers were forced into poor choices which led to significant stretches of time chasing the Caps around in a futile attempt to neutralize their transition game.
In Game 2, the Flyers committed four infractions (two restraining fouls and two frustration penalties) then Game 3 was a complete disaster (three restraining calls and seven frustration penalties which include misconducts).
Wednesday’s victory was keyed by a lock down on nonsense. Philly did not commit a penalty until 5:29 remained in the second period and went to the box just twice overall – their fewest calls against since being guilty of the same number in an April 7 OT loss to the Maple Leafs.
“I think if you look at the series, five on five it’s been pretty much even. They been getting the majority of the power plays and they’ve been scoring,” noticed Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds. “It was nice for us to get one tonight and get it started. We’re going to have to continue to stay out of the box.”
Discipline is not restricted to restraint of trade, though. A major piece to the puzzle in stopping the Capitals remains the ability to stay in passing lanes and stand in front of blistering drives. In Game 4, the Flyers blocked 28 Washington shots with Radko Gudas totaling seven and puck-magnet Nick Schultz adding six more. Schultz upped his series total to 16, which ranks first among all players in the playoffs.
Down a Man, Down in a Hole
Play between the two clubs beyond even strength reads like a demented word problem: two trains leave from opposite ends of the track, both travelling at 95 MPH, which one will crash and burn first?
Washington has simply owned power-play situations in this series, combining in Games 2 and 3 to go a scorching 7-for-11 when skating at least one man up. Aiding that situation was the Flyers’ habit of drifting back to play under Craig Berube, with three or four skaters drifting towards the Capital with the puck.
Add to that the boondoggle of ignoring Alex Ovechkin to try and force a turnover in deep, failing to get in front of John Carlson at the point, and failures to block out Marcus Johansson in front of Steve Mason, and you have open looks and deflections that Mason was helpless to stop.
Conversely, Shayne Gostisbehere blew out the candles on his cake by scoring a power-play goal to open Game 4, snapping Philadelphia’s inexplicable 0-for-14 schneid over nearly 10 periods of playoff hockey.
While the hosts did a better job of crowding Braden Holtby and getting in his kitchen – particularly on the Ghost goal which led to a blown challenge by Caps head coach Barry Trotz – they still have not solved the issue of working the puck laterally and getting it into the middle with purpose. Whether that’s a lack of execution or credit to the Washington PK system, is a subject for debate.
In Game 4, it appeared the Capitals laid back. Up 3-0 in games, they could afford to play with house money and burn a game with the safety net of a home crowd on Friday. On the other hand, the Flyers were twice bitten and not shy about finally asserting themselves on their two short-handed situations. Washington’s chances were pushed to the perimeter, in a 180-degree turn from where the Capitals penalty kill allowed the Flyers through the first three contests.
“We have to walk a fine line because if we play too soft that’s when a team is not very effective. We have to play hard, keep on moving our legs, stay away from the stick penalties and steal the puck,” noted Philly’s Brayden Schenn.
Assessing Couturier’s potential impact if healthy is a sticky wicket; given his presence on the Flyers’ PK, they certainly don’t tie a franchise record by allowing five power-play goals in Monday’s 6-1 loss, and certainly don’t give up eight scores overall when playing at a manpower deficit. Lack of positioning is lack of positioning, and failure to clear the crease was not one of Couturier’s strong points.
What can be said for the departed, is Couturier’s acumen would be best displayed in closing off shooting lanes from each point and pressuring the Caps’ defensemen near the blue line. Carlson’s three power-play goals would certainly be wiped off the ledger, but the Presidents’ Trophy winners would still have control of the series, albeit by a lesser goal differential.
We Need Another Hero
When a series reaches a point-of-no-return for one team or another, an easy mode to fall back into would be for one player and one player only, to take it upon himself to “make plays.” An all-too-easy finger-point can be moved in the direction of captain Claude Giroux, the lightning rod as the best player on the club and skater who has collected the most points in the NHL over the last five seasons.
We saw how that worked out for Jake Voracek, as his foray with the puck late in Game 1 led directly to an odd-man rush and Capitals insurance goal.
As Giroux and top-line battery mate Wayne Simmonds failed to register a single point heading into Wednesday’s potential season-ending contest, support and offense finally arrived from one likely and one unlikely source — as it must for any team to be successful in the postseason.
Holtby was beaten on Wednesday by two shots from distance — a clear point of emphasis to generate offense as the Flyers fell behind repeatedly. The first was Gostisbehere’s laser on the advantage for his first career playoff marker, and the second from Andrew MacDonald who recorded only his second career postseason red light. Both, it should be noted, came from uncontested shots from the point where no Capitals checker pressured, and where no Capitals defender screened out the chance as in the previous three games.
“Yeah I mean it definitely helps just to get some shots through instead of getting them blocked, so it feels good,” Gostisbehere said of the seas parting for his team’s chances. “Our forwards were maniacs out there on the forecheck and getting to the blue crease. Wwe got a little more active on the blue line and started moving our feet instead of just standing still. We made it hard for them to block shots.”
Odd as it may seem, despite racking up their first series victory by a narrow margin, Game 4 was the first time in the entire set the Flyers did not out-shoot the Capitals. It was a victory for those who subscribe to the theory that it’s not the sheer amount which get through to the net that test and tax an enemy goaltender, but the quality and location of the shots themselves.
To hammer home the point: at the juncture the Flyers assumed a 2-0 lead last night, their shooting percentage was 11.1 percent (two goals on 18 shots) where in the previous three games it was a meager 2.15 percent (two goals on 93 shots).