A Classic Playoff Preview, Perhaps

Having already decided I want none of the Bs in round one next spring I made my way down to Verizon Center late Sunday afternoon imagining that I was taking in game one between the Flyers and Capitals in a 2011 postseason matchup. I wanted to see how warm and snuggily I felt about this Capitals team against the big-build and brawn and strong center play of the Flyers. The Flyers and Caps were nos. 1 and 2 in the East entering play Sunday, with Philly having won six straight, and so my big-game construct had some street cred to it.

The verdict? I need to see more of sensational young netminder Sergei Bobrovsky, but if he keeps it up, if he’s at long last the real deal between the Flyer pipes, a Bobrovsky-Neuvirth matchup could be one of the better postseason showdowns by kids in goalie pads this league has seen in some while.

Bobrovsky is a real wild card for Philly’s hopes this season. Our friends over at Russian Machine Never Breaks caught on to Bobrovsky long before most of the rest of hockey. Here’s what they said of the undrafted Russian netminder back in the spring:

“In Russia, Bobrovsky is well-known as Varlamov’s main opponent for his age. For example, in 2008, former Russian WJC team coach Serge Nemchenov neglected to call Varly and ask him to play on his World Junior Championship team. Nemchinov instead preferred Bobrovsky . . . we believe that Bobrovsky has a chance to become the #1 goaltender in Philadelphia sooner rather than later.”

It was Bobrovsky in net on October 7 when the Flyers played guests to Pittsburgh’s christening of Consol Energy Center, a 3-2 Flyers’ triumph. (I root for natural disaster in games between those teams but delighted at seeing the Flyers ruin the Pens’ new rink opening on Opening Night.)

When General Manager Paul Holmgren ditched Simon Gagne and added Sean O’Donnell, Andrej Meszaros, and Jody Shelley to his lineup — while failing again to secure established talent in goal — the Flyers seemed, well, the Flyers: stout at every position except where it matters most. Again. Bobrovsky’s story is quite remarkable. He played in the KHL last season, for its worst team, and did so without the benefit of a goaltending coach, Dmitry Chesnokov informed me last night. He learned to play goal professionally, in other words, basically on his own. Wouldn’t it be amazing if the Flyers solved their 21st century netminding dilemma with an undrafted unknown who plied his craft for the worst team in the KHL, sans goalie coach?

Yes. Also, revolting.

Meanwhile, I’d like to see more muscle in the Caps’ lineup. One or two more rough-and-tumble bodies to go up against these Broadstreet Still Somewhat Bullies. Then I think we could have the making of a classic playoff series between these two teams. On Sunday the Flyers outhit the Caps 30-17, and while it was not an overly physical skate in any sense, consider that the Flyers were playing their third game in four nights. The Caps were comparatively well rested. The hitting would be more frequent and more intense between these clubs in a playoff series, and if the Flyers were to maintain a distinct hitting edge, well, let’s just say that it’s better to be less taxed, less bruised and beat up, the longer a series goes.

Alluding to Philly’s tenacity at a tough time in the schedule in the postgame, Bruce Boudreau talked about the Flyers’ skill and history and especially their pride. It’s that pride that’s helped fuel this rivalry. During the game I tweeted a thought about how when it comes to facing this rivalry team, there is no third-game-in-a-fourth night disadvantage for the Orange and Black that benefits the Caps. The Flyers bring it. On Sunday, in the third period, when the Caps should theoretically have had the jump on a tired visitor, Philly kept coming, and Braden Holtby was a big reason why the Caps had the opportunity to win the game in overtime.

“I thought we played our best in the third period,” Flyers coach Peter Laviolette noted afterward.

Holtby settled down well Sunday night after surrendering two goals among the first eight Flyer shots he faced, but if he’s in net next spring there are big problems in D.C. Nonetheless, it was a quality showing by the 21-year-old making his first NHL start. It was a good Flyers lineup he bested.

The Caps needed two power play strikes to better Bobrovsky and take one more point from Sunday than the visitors, and they had a lot of help getting it from the Flyers’ captain. Chris Pronger regularly commits felonies with his stick, but he gets away with more than half of them. He didn’t when lifting up his stick high on Dave Steckel, and in earning four minutes for the infraction he ensured that his already tired teammates would skate the game’s final four minutes — and overtime — shorthanded, and with Pronger, the team’s best blueliner, in the box for most of it. He won’t get that called against him in the waning moments of any tied-up playoff game, bet the mortgage on that.

It was a perfect homestand, wasn’t it? Three-and-0, against three Eastern clubs, two of whom have enjoyed strong starts. Well, those concluding third periods against Toronto and Boston were disquieting, to put it mildly. Still we are searching for hard evidence that the Capitals in 2010-11 can implement a killer instinct. And it would have been interesting to see what Sunday’s third period would have looked like had the Flyers enjoyed a labor-free Saturday as the Caps did. Still, the Caps got Michal Neuvirth a badly needed breather, and two standings points against a terrific foe, utilizing another rookie in net.

This entry was posted in Braden Holtby, Michal Neuvirth, Mike Green, Morning cup-a-joe, National Hockey League, Philadelphia Flyers, playoff hockey, The Great Old Patrick Division, Washington Capitals. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to A Classic Playoff Preview, Perhaps

  1. Em says:

    “I root for natural disaster in games between those teams.” Whew, glad I’m not alone in that. (I also root for bus accidents, plane crashes, or stadium collapses.)

  2. Tre Kronor says:

    The Flyers demonstrated last night why they – not the Caps – routinely advance in the playoffs. I was there – and the game was basically a draw at best for the Caps if you are trying to size up these teams for their Stanley Cup potential. I saw a Flyers team that was much more physical and punishing (we have no one on the forecheck like Hartnell for example), plays much tighter defense (how did Zherdev ever come loose like that on a 2 on 1 on our defenders? So much for gap control.) and clear the crease like the Caps currently constructed never will. Unless there are changes, I am convinced after last night that if the Caps face these Flyers in the playoffs, they lose again.

  3. Hittman says:

    This mentality that the Caps would “rather not see” a team come playoff time HAS GOT TO STOP. If anything, the Caps should be hoping to see the teams they hate/fear the most. There is no such thing as winning a Cup without running into a difficult opponent. It simply does not occur. I, for one, am hoping that the Caps face one of the following teams in the opening round: Philly, Pittsburgh, Boston, Montreal, or Tampa. All of these teams are sure to be quite good again this year and several have ousted the Caps in the last three years. Bring on the hurdles. It is only through adversity that we achieve.

  4. As ever I appreciate Hittman’s passion and resolve, but my sympathies are more aligned with Tre Kronor here. This Flyers’ club appears well assembled from the net on out. But maybe they’ll miss Gagne next spring.

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