The Flyers are a Threat to the Capitals

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Rob Vollman is a leading voice in hockey analysis. He invented players usage charts and has written for NHL.com and ESPN Insider. His new book, Stat Shot, is available for pre-order and you can get Hockey Abstract (and the 2015 update) now.

After a dominant season, expectations are that the Washington Capitals will defeat the Philadelphia Flyers in their Eastern Conference First Round series in short order, but this may prove to be the tightest series in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

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Sizing Up the Flyers: Special Teams

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When the Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers face off on Thursday, we will see one of the league’s best power plays try to flummox a decent Philadelphia PK, and we’ll see a troubled Philadelphia power play try to surprise a very strong Washington shorthanded unit.

But asking how Washington is so effective and how Philadelphia will attempt to stymie them requires us to go a bit deeper– to the particulars of each team’s special teams systems and personnel– to better understand what we’re going to see this series.

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WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 16: John Carlson #74 of the Washington Capitals celebrates his second period goal against the Ottawa Senators at Verizon Center on December 16, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Photo:Patrick Smith

The Washington Capitals’ special teams units have been at or near the top of the league rankings all year. While the number of power-play chances certainly goes down once the playoffs begin, the relative rarity of goals and chances makes converting those opportunities all the more important. Look none other than to the last President’s Trophy run. In that playoffs first round match-up the Montreal Canadiens scored six PP goals to the Capitals one, the Canadiens prevailed. Last year in the first round, the Islanders did not score a PP goal while the Caps scored two. Then in the very next round the New York Rangers tallied three PP goals to the Capitals one.

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Last night, Braden Holtby tied Martin Brodeur’s all-time single season wins record. At times, 48 wins seemed like it’d be an easy mark to reach for the Holtbeast, but after the Caps lost three of their last four games, the Caps goaltender had to win his final scheduled start just to tie.

That drama and doubt fueled the Caps’ to one of their most convincing wins of the season, a 5-1 beatdown of the Blues, in St. Louis. It also meant one big celebration with their hairy goaltender.

At the end of the game, the Caps mobbed Holtby in the crease and gave him a giant group hug.

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Wednesday night in Philadelphia, Jason Chimera avenged a vicious slash to the stomach by butt-ending Shayne Gostisbehere in the midsection. Chimera was not penalized on the play. Gostisbehere was not injured either.

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Saturday night, the Washington Capitals got shut out by the Blues 4-0. St. Louis’ first goal, by Kyle Brodziak, started with a turnover behind the net by Caps defenseman Dmitry Orlov.

CSN Mid-Atlantic’s Alan May, a veteran of 393 NHL games and 17 professional seasons of hockey, broke down the play and showed how Orlov can learn from veteran Brooks Orpik. This is brilliant stuff (and no, he didn’t pay me to write that, though he probably should, considering how mean he is to me online).

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It’s never fun to watch the Caps lose — especially when it’s a 6-2 drubbing at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins on national television. The Caps came out hard, but could not handle the Pens’ speed, falling behind two goals in the game’s first ten minutes. The Pens would pull away later in the second and third period, scoring four unanswered goals.

The Caps gave up five even-strength goals. Dmitry Orlov and Brooks Orpik were on the ice for four of the Pens’ six tallies.

“We got exactly what we deserved tonight,” Barry Trotz said after the game.

“I’m not going to let guys off the hook,” Trotz continued. “There’s no excuse for the sloppy play and the lack of execution when the heat was on. We had some guys who were not strong tonight. You can’t do that against a team that’s trending well. They’re probably the hottest team [in the NHL].”

Let’s take a look at the Pens six goals and see what patterns we find.

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A few weeks ago, RMNB’s Chris Gordon asked Evgeny Kuznetsov about his finger twirl celebration.

“That’s not for you, you know,” Kuznetsov said to Gordon when asked what the inspiration of the celebration was. “You don’t have to know that.”

Kuznetsov said it was a secret, but recently RMNB reader Chris S. (@theSTOEHR) found something that could give us context.

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Photo: Amanda Bowen

The Mike Richards era in Washington is officially twenty games old. The Caps signed Richards in early January and, after getting up to speed in practice, he’s been a fixture on the bottom-six and on the penalty kill since then.

Given that he’s playing on a prorated, $1 million deal, had missed about half a season of hockey, and wasn’t able to hold down an NHL job with the LA Kings when he was last under contract, it would be unfair to have anything other than low expectations for the Canadian-born center.

But many of us are rooting for him to find redemption, in part because he is playing for the good guys, but much more so because he deserved better treatment than he got from the Kings at the end of his time there. So, let’s take a look and see how he’s done through his first 20 games in red.

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On the Dangers of Winning So Many One-Goal Games

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Photo: Amanda Bowen

The Caps continue to win a lot of games. But it’s fair to say that the team hasn’t been as dominant in their wins lately. As was talked about in the snapshot last week, the team’s puck possession and netminding, while far from bad, have both been moving in the wrong direction.

Each of the Caps’ last 6 wins have been by a one-goal margin. Having success in one-goal games is nothing new for the 2015-16 team, as they’ve had more success than any other team this season in one-goal contests. Part of this is a byproduct of being a team that wins a lot regardless of the margin of victory. Teams that win more often than not are likely to be more successful than not in games decided by one goal, two goals, and so on. But the flip side of this coin is that a record built heavily upon winning one-goal games is unlikely to be sustained moving forward.

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