Round I: Caps vs. Flyers Series Preview
Series C: Washington Capitals (43-41; 94 points; 1st Southeast Division, 3rd Eastern Conference, 12th Overall) vs. Philadelphia Flyers (42-42; 95 points; 4th Atlantic Division, 6th Eastern Conference, 11th Overall):
Tomorrow night the Caps make their triumphant return to the NHL Post Season for the first time in five years looking for their first Playoff Series win in a decade. Only two players remain from the Caps last appearance in the playoffs and only one remains from the last time the Caps won a Playoff Series. Neither player, Michael Nylander and Olie Kolzig, is expected to play much, if at all in this Playoff Run. So what does this collection of neophytes have to do in order to beat the Philadelphia Flyers and make it to the second round? We're about to give you our take on the task at hand.
First and foremost, the Caps MUST remain disciplined. After the worst season in franchise history, the Flyers made a renewed commitment to the continuing 30 year plus failure that is the Broad Street Bullies style of play. The Ultimate Fighting on Ice fans are all atwitter in anticipation of this series; expecting all kinds of blood to flow freely. As a matter of fact, we too will be surprised if Game 1 gets more than five minutes old without at least two fights taking place. Matt "Omar" Bradley, Mr. Donald Brashear, and John "Coach's Pet" Erskine Bowles are going to need to keep their cool and stay out of the Penalty Box as much as possible. The Flyers were the most penalized team in the NHL but they also had the second best Power Play unit in the league. There's no doubt that the Flyers will try to intimidate the younger Caps players making their first Playoff appearance in order to get Power Play opportunities for themselves through retaliation penalties. However, should the Caps remain disciplined, they'll greatly increase their chances of winning what really matters; the series.
Secondly, the Caps are going to need Cristobal "WE MUST PROTECT THIS HOUSE" Huet to continue his run of stellar play. Of course it helps that the defense has stepped up their play recently and limited the chances that UA has faced, but UA can't allow any soft goals. There is some concern among Caps fans about UA's 2-4 playoff record with a 2.33 GAA and .929 save percentage, but Kolzig entered the 1998 playoffs with a 3-3 lifetime playoff record with a 1.87 GAA after two playoff seasons. At the other end of the ice, Martin Biron has been to the playoffs before, but has never played a game. This could easily come down to which goaltender answers the call better which is why the Caps are going to need UA so much. Should UA falter, Kolzig has the experience but he's been sitting for almost three weeks now. The Caps not only have to worry about rust with Kolzig, but also calcium deposits.
Finally, as important as UA is and as important to the Caps A.O. is, neither one is going to be the most important player for the Caps in this series. Sure, without solid play from UA, the Caps will be in trouble and should A.O. phone it in (not bloody likely) the Caps won't go anywhere. But the Flyers are going to do everything they can to shutdown A.O. We saw Carolina, Tampa, and Florida go as far as triple teaming A.O. every time he touched the puck last week and A.O. still came away with three goals in three games. But the success of the Caps will fall upon players like Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin, and Mike "BEAM ME UP" Green who have to continue to produce in order to take the pressure off of A.O. in what is also their first playoff appearance. Sergei (#3) Fedorov should be able calm Semin and Backstrom down if they get too hot but James Traficant's illegitimate son will have to figure things out on his own. Green is capable of skating the puck from end to end by himself and helping the Caps establish their forecheck which will expose Philadelphia's blueline which is slow and immobile. This will force the Flyers forwards to do most of the work and wear them down as the series goes on. Furthermore, guys like Brooks "and Dunn" Laich and Tomas Fleischmann will have to cash in on their chances for the Caps to advance. Again, A.O. will get his points, but the Caps cannot expect him to score one goal every night, have the rest of the team collectively score one goal, and expect UA to do the rest. That won't work.
This is probably the toughest of the First Round Series to predict. Just one year ago the Caps and the Flyers were the two worst teams in the Eastern Conference and now they're facing each other in the playoffs. The Flyers bought their way back into the playoff while the Caps have been building their way in for the last four years. The Caps are riding a seven game winning streak but not a single one of the teams that the Caps beat in that streak made the playoffs. The Caps won't get the luxury of playing a disinterested Atlanta team or a punchless Ning. The Caps love playing that Al Pacino clip from "Any Given Sunday" and they'll need to claw with their fingernails for every inch in this series.
Still, the Flyers aren't without their flaws either. If the Caps remain disciplined and don't get intimidated, the Flyers are just about out of options for beating the Caps save for the cheapshot route. The Flyers are also riding a hot streak into the playoffs though not nearly as hot because the competition was a little, but not a lot tougher and not nearly as long as the Caps winning streak is. The Flyers can thank the Penguin Scum for tanking their game on Sunday and inflating their point total and giving them this series instead of one against the Penguin Scum. We think the Flyers would have had a better shot with their physical game against the Penguin Scum than against the Caps who have only one player listed under 6 feet tall, Matt Kent Cooke. While the Caps aren't a physical team, they've shown that they do not mind playing a physical game and can handle the teams that try to push them around.
So will this series live up to the hype and deliver the blood and guts everybody is expecting? We'll find out. It's been 19 years since these two teams last met in the playoffs and quite frankly, it could take some time for the hate that used to exist between the two teams returns. There's no love loss between the two fanbases but that doesn't mean these two teams are going to have line brawls at least twice a game. It should be somewhat fast paced, hard hitting, and fun to watch. Our pessimistic attitude around here is well known but our gut tells us that this series will be won by the Caps in Six.