Friday, April 11, 2008

Flyers-Caps 2008 Playoff Preview

I'm the first to admit that I'm slightly stunned that this edition of the Orange and Black made it to the NHL playoffs. I was all ready to accept the big picture assessment of "wow, they sucked so bad last year that getting close to the playoffs this year was actually an acheivement" appraisal of all things Flyers. I had accepted that the Caps would get the 8th playoff spot, at the Flyers' expense, and that I would spin out a bunch of post-mortems on the Flyers' season and what they should do to get better for next year.

Writing that post-mortem will have to wait for this playoff series, however. Unbelivably, as we saw last Friday, the Carolina Hurricanes choked like dogs against the Florida Panthers, guarenteeing the Flyers a spot in the NHL playoffs. The Pens then went on to hand them the sixth seed by virtue of their disinterested effort last Sunday.

So here we are, against an old Patrick Division rival. You do remember the Patrick Division, don't you? Worst thing that Gary Bettman ever did was fuck up those good old rivalries and rename the division. Washington, you may recall, was a big rival of the Flyers; especially, in the mid-to-late 80's.

Those old Caps teams had guys like Dino Ciccarelli, Don Beaupre, Bobby Carpenter, HOFer Mike Gartner, Bengt Gustafsson, Denis Maruk, Dale Hunter, Mike Ridley, and yes, even a young Scott Stevens. Those old Caps teams were probably one of the most underrated NHL teams from the 80s. Their only problem was having to go through dominant Flyer and Islander teams through the early part of the 80s, and later, the budding Mario Lemieux-led Pens were in their way.

With this in mind, you would be correct if you thought there was some good post season hockey violence in the history between the Flyers and Caps. I won't recount that here.....others have done a very good job of that already (like here, for example).

But what I will say is that that history won't matter when these two teams get together tonite. It's a new NHL and these two teams are in completely different divisions and really don't get to work up a good hatred for each other like in the '80s. As a matter of fact, outside of Ovechkin, I'd venture that most fans don't know the Caps very well at all.

So, how will this series go down? Let's go through the talent:

Forwards: Slight edge to the Flyers here. The Caps have the best forward on either team in Alexander Ovechkin; that is without question. They also have an excellent rookie forward in Niklas Backstrom (69 points; 55 assists) as well as the dynamic Alexander Semin (26 goals). The artist formerly known as Sergei Fedorov is on the Caps and is rejuvenated by all accounts.

The Flyers, however, go three deep down the middle with Briere, Richards, and Carter. The Flyers' centers are probably better than any center currently on the Caps' roster (with the possible exception of the injured Michael Nylander). Furthermore, the Flyers have 7 guys on their team with 20 or more goals. The Capitals? Just 3.

If there is one name that Flyer fans will come to loathe over the course of this series, it's that of Matt Cooke. Cooke is an agitator of the first order. I was listening to a podcast from TheFan 590, a radio station out of Toronto (mandatory listening during the hockey season), and Matt Cooke came up in conversation. The participants in the conversation were former players John Garrett and Nick Kypreos. Apparently, according to Garrett and Kypreos, Cooke isn't the kind of agitator to stick around and deal with the mess he'd created. This wasn't some pencil necked host saying that Cooke runs away from confrontations; this was two former players. I can see this type of player completely infuriating the Flyer fanbase. If any one factor will contribute to Steve Downie seeing ice time during this series, it will depend on how much Cooke gets under the skin of the Flyer players and how it affects the amount of penalties the Flyers are assessed.

Defense: Again, very slight edge to the Flyers here. The Caps have young Mike Green, who has blossomed under rookie NHL coach Bruce Boudreau to score 18 goals from the blue line. After Green, though, the Caps have a veritable list of journeymen. The most recognizable name is that of Tom Poti, former Ranger whipping boy.

The speed of the Flyers' D is actually not bad; where things slow up a bit is when you get to the topic of either Jason Smith or Derian Hatcher. The lack of speed of either Smith or Hatcher is negated, however, when you factor in that both players have probably forgotten more about playoff hockey than most players know firsthand.

The Flyers may not a defenseman as dynamic as Green (Timonen is still pretty good and an All-Star to boot), but they have more depth, top to bottom, on their blue line, than the Caps do.

Goaltending: Even. Between them, the Caps' Cristobal Huet and the Flyers' Martin Biron have played 6 total NHL playoff games (all of them Huet's). Huet was traded away from Montreal because Bob Gainey did not believe that Huet was a playoff goalie; so much so, that Montreal is going with a rookie in net. Huet has been rock solid since coming to the Caps, winning 10 games, including 8 straight.

Martin Biron has never played in a postseason game and I'm not sure his lack of experience will be a problem. Where Biron runs into issues, I believe, is in his concentration. The playoffs will have Biron's full attention and should have Biron highly motivated.

Coaching: Caps coach Bruce Boudreau, 52, is in his first year as an NHL head coach after laboring in the minors for what must have seemed like forever. He won the AHL championship, the Calder Cup, behind the bench coaching the Hershey Bears and has coached over 1000 games in the minors in places such as Ft. Wayne of the old IHL and in Mississippi in the ECHL.

Flyers coach John Stevens, 42, is in his 2nd year as Flyers head coach and his first full year after taking over last year's disatrous season from Ken Hitchcock. Like Boudreau, Stevens also won a Calder Cup, taking the 2005 AHL title. Before the Flyers job, Stevens had coached over 400 games, all in the Philadelphia organization.

I'd say this comparison is about even, because they both have comparable NHL coaching experience. All Boudreau has done, is coach lousy players in the minors longer than Stevens did (Note: If it ever came to a physical battle between the coaches, I'd take Stevens against just about any NHL head coach....he could fight a little bit when he played).

Intangibles/Conspiracy Theory: Slight edge to the Caps. The Caps are all the rage right now in the NHL. The national media has gotten up off of it's collective knees from in front of the Pens and Sidney Crosby and has now assumed the position in front of Alexander Ovechkin, giving him the kind of knob polishing Tera Patrick would be proud of. I don't think Flyers fans mind Ovechkin nearly as much as they do Crybaby Crosby, but all the same, don't think for one second that the potential of a 2nd round matchup between the Caps and Pens doesn't make Gary Bettman masturbate furiously.

The Prediction: I don't think the Caps will have enough depth to stay with the Flyers; Ovechkin will score and this will be a tough series. I think the longer this series goes, the more it favors the Flyers, because of their scoring depth. I don't think the Flyers can downright out-physical the Caps, but as the series goes forward, I believe the top-to-bottom difference in roster talent will show.

1 comment:

JP said...

Good stuff... and good luck!