As we inch closer to the end of the first round, we are now going to dive into the Eastern Conference matchup between the Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers. This was a series that looked pretty easy to pick on the surface. Washington had a dominant regular season, the highest scoring offense in the NHL, a goaltender who went onto win the Vezina and one of the deepest teams in the league while the Flyers were just a Wild Card team. However, there were some people who marked this series as a potential upset.
There were some arguments to be made there. Yes, the Capitals were far in away the best team in the league during the regular season, but at five-on-five, these two teams had comparable numbers. When it comes to how well both teams were at controlling shot attempts at even strength, the Caps and the Flyers were in the same neighborhood. The Flyers were also one of the hottest teams in the NHL after the trade deadline while the Caps had the President’s Trophy clinched by Valentine’s Day, so recency bias might have influenced some people’s opinions. Clearly not that many because 90% of people who participated in the NHL’s “Bracket Challenge” chose Washington, so they were still the overwhelming favorites. That said, you can see why some people thought the Flyers weren’t going to be a pushover matchup for the Caps. They also had the “Statistical AdvantageStatistical Advantage” according to SAP, for whatever that’s worth (not much).
The end result reflects that a bit, as it took the Caps six games to dispose of the Flyers but the timeline of this series is a little odd. Washington looked like they were on their way to a sweep, winning the first three games and embarrassing the Flyers in a 6-1 victory at Wells Fargo Center. Philadelphia then took the next two games before the Caps finally finished them off in a 1-0 shutout on the road. So, the Flyers definitely put up a fight and made things a little interesting before eventually falling. You could say that it was eventually going to happen since they were facing a much superior team but how well did they match up with the Caps?
Under the Microscope: Washington Capitals vs. Philadelphia Flyers
From just a shot attempts standpoint, this one wasn’t even close and it was hilariously lopsided when going by scoring chances. Now, a good chunk of this damage came from Games 4 & 5 (which the Flyers won oddly enough) where Philadelphia got outshot 136-62, and the Flyers did have some good showings at even strength in a few games. However, they still struggled to generate chances at five-on-five and this was something that was a problem even in the games where they outshot Washington.
Most of the problems stemmed in the defensive and neutral zones. The Flyers don’t have the most mobile defense in the world and the Caps exposed that by creating 60 of their shots off turnovers. That obviously carries over into the neutral zone because if you can’t get the puck out of your own end cleanly, you’re probably going to be dumping the puck in on most of your entries, which is what happened to the Flyers. They also struggled to establish a forecheck against Washington, creating a small percentage of shots off dump-ins and not creating many second or third chance opportunities at all. So, they ended up on the wrong end of the shot ledger and got outchanced by a pretty wide margin.
5v5 Zone Entries
Washington dominated the neutral zone this series, entering the zone more often than the Flyers and doing it with control on a much higher percentage of their entries. The Flyers were creating more shots per entry, but they were letting the Caps crossing their own blue line so often that it didn’t lead to much of an advantage. To make things worse, the Flyers were resorted to dumping the puck in on nearly 60% of their entries at five-on-five. Some of it was their own doing, as their objective was to get the puck behind the Caps defense and go to work, but they weren’t left with much of a choice on some of their attempts.
I mentioned earlier that the Caps created a relatively high percentage of shots off turnovers and this created a problem for the Flyers entries. Washington put a lot of pressure on both the Flyers defense & forwards on breakouts, which led to them simply flinging the puck out of the zone for most of their exits. Leading them to dump the puck in or giving the puck right back to Washington. Their defensemen also struggled to complete passes out of the zone, leading to icings or more dump-ins. Washington’s defenders also showed strong gap control at their own blue line when the Flyers were able to get out of their zone with control. Philly’s offense ended up paying the price for it, generating only two goals off entries all series.
Capitals Zone Entries
Most of the Caps top players turned in very good performances in the neutral zone, TJ Oshie being the lone exception. It’s a bit surprising because he’s usually a solid player on zone entries, but the Caps had him playing more of a simple game this series. He also had more entries relative to his ice time than his linemates, so he played a big role this series. That said, Ovechkin still drove most of the play on this line. He didn’t have as many entries as Oshie, but most of this line’s shots came off his rushes and he carried the puck in at a high rate.
Washington’s second line was also very strong on entries with all three players boasting high carry-in rates. Kuznetsov’s numbers in particular are very impressive, as he had the highest carry-in percentage on the team while carrying a huge burden in the neutral zone. He had the “smallest” role on his line, but he is still with some pretty good company with everyone else on the chart. You could say this about the majority of the Caps top-six, really.
The bottom-six, however, wasn’t as impressive. Only Marcus Johansson & Jay Beagle were able to carry the puck on at least half of their entries and they weren’t creating many shots either. The third line had some success off entries by Chimera, but most of those were off the forecheck and they didn’t do much otherwise. Tom Wilson also had a pretty big role in the neutral zone and the Caps offensive rushes died on most of his entries.
The defense ends up being a mixed bag with Carlson & Orlov being their main options for jumping into the play. Orlov had a pretty impressive series in this regard, joining the rush more often than any other defenseman and Carlson also finds himself in a good spot. Aside from these two, the Caps let their forwards handle most of the workload in the neutral zone, which is probably the best option with their top-six. Their depth forwards could have used some help here, though.
Flyers Zone Entries
The Flyers neutral zone play was a total mess with Giroux, Gostisbehere & Laughton (who played in three games) were the only players to carry the puck in on more than half of their entries. Dump-and-chase was a big part of their game, so their numbers looking like this is predictable. How small of a role their first line had in the neutral zone is a little jarring, though. Giroux was their best forward in terms of zone entries, but the puck wasn’t on his stick that much. Same can be said for both Wayne Simmonds & Brayden Schenn, who had to dump the puck in on the majority of their entries. To make things worse, the Flyers weren’t creating many shots off their entries either, as most of this line’s offense came when Giroux was the one doing the work in the neutral zone.
Another unfortunate circumstance for the Flyers was losing center Sean Couturier in Game 1. They don’t have anyone on the roster who can replace what he does, but Sam Gagner was called upon to do it anyway. All things considered, he didn’t do too bad of a job. He was put on a line with Michael Raffl & Jakub Voracek in Game 4 and this line did a pretty decent job of at least keeping the puck in the right end of the ice when they were out there. Both Gagner & Raffl had pretty big roles in the neutral zone and were dumping the puck in a lot, which isn’t ideal but they were at least creating shots off Gagner’s. Voracek dumping the puck in this much and being so ineffective offensively is a big shocker, though even if the Caps defended him well.
Philadelphia’s defense was slightly more active at joining rush than Washington’s with Shayne Gostisbehere standing out as a dynamic player here. Some of this was out of necessity because their passing was so poor and skating the puck out was really the only way they could exit the zone with control. This fits into Gostisbehere’s skillset but the rest of the defense, not so much. The third pairing of Brandon Manning and Radko Gudas didn’t do too bad of a job, though.
Capitals 5v5 Passing
Kuznetsov’s power play goal in Game 3 was his lone impact on the scoresheet all series and it’s too bad because he deserved a lot more than that. He was the Caps most effective player at five-on-five when it came to setting up his teammates and he shot the puck more often than anyone else, too. On a team with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, that is impressive. Neither Justin Williams or Andre Burakovsky could buy a goal all series long, so Kuznetsov ended up getting blanked in terms of assists, but he easily could have had a few. Same can be said for Williams & Burakovsky, who both standout as effective offensive players on this graph.
Most of Washington’s players find themselves in good spots on here. Kuznetsov & Ovechkin kind of skew the graph because their numbers are so ridiculous, but they’re not the only ones who had good showings offensively over these six games. Burakovsky, Carlson, Backstrom, Williams & Oshie all posted very solid numbers here as well and Carlson had himself a huge series offensively. The only player who you’d probably like to see more from is Marcus Johansson, who had fewer than 10 shots & primary assists per 60 minutes, but being in a bottom-six role probably didn’t help him.
Flyers Passing Stats
The Flyers numbers are obviously much lower than the Capitals and fourth liner Pierre-Edouard Bellemare ended up having more primary shot assists relative to his ice time than any other player. That alone probably tells you all you need to know about how bad their offense was this series. Giroux might have been impressive in the neutral zone but he struggled to find much daylight when it came to creating chances, finding himself on the lower part of this graph. Simmonds is the only one on his line that stands out at all and most of it comes from his work as a shooter. His 19 shot attempts led all Flyers forwards and five of them came without an assist. He’s a very valuable weapon to have with how good he is in front of the net, but no one else on that line was a shooting option for the Flyers.
When looking at each of the Flyers primary shot assists and who was on the receiving end of them, it was pretty easy to guess who Giroux’s passes were going to. He looked to Simmonds first to setup shots and didn’t look Schenn’s way at all. Meanwhile, Schenn utilized the defense as an option a lot more while Simmonds proved to be effective as passing option as well as a shooter. He and Giroux started the series on a line with Voracek before the latter was replaced with Brayden Schenn after Game 3 and Simmonds had some success with setting up Voracek for shots & chances. It’s too bad they were broken up because that line seemed to be less predictable with how they setup plays in the offensive zone. It’s also interesting how no one was able to setup Giroux for any shots, even if he is more of a pass-first player.
Speaking of using the defense as an option, the Flyers resorted to that a little more than Washington with Shayne Gostisbehere leading the team in shot attempts and Brandon Manning coming in second. Gostisbehere leading the pack here is no surprise and he was more effective as a passer than some of their forwards, too. Manning had more of a “shoot every chance I get” type of strategy, but having someone get the puck at the net isn’t the worst thing in the world when you’re hurting for offense.
Special teams usually play an important role in the playoffs and that’s especially true for this series. Every single game had over 10 minutes of special teams time and nearly half of Games 1, 3 & 5 were not played at even strength. If you remember every detail of this series, you might recall that the Flyers didn’t matchup that poorly with the Caps until Game 5 where they were outshot by 29 at five-on-five play alone.
The power play was a big reason why the Caps coasted through the first three games, scoring a power play goal in every game and blitzing them for five PPGs in Game 3 alone. To make things worse, the Flyers power play scored only one goal with over 48 minutes of time to work with. They had every opportunity to catch the Caps by surprise early in this series but shot themselves with some incredibly poor special teams play. This will sink pretty much any team no matter how good they are at five-on-five.
Power Play Shot Distribution
What makes this comparison even more ridiculous is that Washington spent only one more minute on the power play compared to Philadelphia (49.63 vs. 48.61 PP TOI according to Natural Stat Trick). Washington’s had one of the best power plays in the NHL for years and they’re known more for prioritizing shot quality over volume, but they got the best of both worlds here. The Flyers, however, have seen their power play decline from what it was in years past and they couldn’t get much going at all here compared to Washington.
Next we’re going to look at what worked and what didn’t for both team’s power plays.
Capitals Power Play
Something that stands out in the initial look at the Caps power play is that they were able to create a high volume of shots regardless of how they got the puck into the zone. They also created a high number of shots off faceoffs, doubling up the Flyers in this regard. The blue print of the Capitals power play has been out for years but teams still haven’t figured out a way to slow it down and the Flyers were no different.
The main look is setting up Ovechkin in the left faceoff circle and if that isn’t there, they look for shooting options on the blue line (Carlson or Niskanen) or in the slot (Oshie). Which method worked best for them this series?
The Caps had two main looks they went to on the power play, the one-timer to Ovechkin which is always going to be their staple, and Carlson at the center point. They didn’t try the slot play as much because Ovechkin & Carlson were open more times than not and the plays kept working. Carlson had a few big goals this series and even when he wasn’t getting shots through, he was at least creating rebounds & throwing the Flyers out of position, which led to more chances down low. Carlson was also very useful as a passer here, as he setup Ovechkin for 15 of his shots. Backstrom also made his money here, setting up 16 times from the right boards. The forwards down low weren’t utilized as much because the Flyers didn’t pressure Carlson as much and were more concerned about not getting burned by cross-ice passes or plays into the slot. Unfortunately for them, the Caps found ways around that.
Flyers Power Play
Philadelphia’s power play is a little tougher to figure out because they scored only one goal and it was a point-shot off the faceoff by Gostisbehere. They had enough power play time for us to dive into what they were trying to accomplish, though and one thing you’ll notice in the earlier graph is that about 36% of their shots came from the slot area while another 28% came from the left blue line. So, those were the areas they were trying to attack from the looks of things. Their 85.9% Carry-in percentage shows that their problems came after they got the puck into the zone. Looking at their shooting and passing options reveals a few more things.
On the first unit, the Flyers main shooting options were Brayden Schenn and Shayne Gostisbehere with Giroux & Gostisbehere being the main setup guys while Simmonds stayed in front of the net for the most part. Voracek also acted as a shooting option but wasn’t utilized as much. The second combination featured some combination of Streit, Read, Gagner, Cousins & White with Streit being the main shooter at the left point.
As far as the first unit goes, it seems their main objective was to setup Schenn in the slot, which is where he spent most of his time and created virtually all of his chances. It’s not a terrible setup and they had success with this formula this year with Schenn scoring 11 goals on the power play. When it works, it’s a pretty effective setup and the Flyers almost got the Caps with it early in Game 1.
It starts with Gostisbehere distributing the puck to Giroux in the left faceoff circle. Giroux then gets the puck to Schenn in the slot and if they move the puck around quick enough, Schenn should have a pretty good scoring chance while getting goaltender Brayden Holtby to move laterally.
The Flyers end up getting two chances out of it because even though Holtby made the save, he gave up a rebound and Voracek retried it in a good scoring position. Like I said, this is a very effective play setup when it works but the Caps weren’t going to get burned by the same play twice and adjusted to it.
Here we see the Flyers using the same play setup but the Caps penalty killer has his stick in the lane so if Giroux tries to thread the pass there, the puck is likely getting cleared. Fortunately for Giroux he has other options and is smart enough to use them. Simmonds is also available as a passing option and Voracek is wide open on the backdoor. He could also setup Gostisbehere for a one-timer. The Flyers continued to try to setup Schenn, but gave it a different look on the other side of the ice.
This time they try a tip play with Voracek shooting from an angle and Simmonds screening the net. It’s kind of a low percentage play because Schenn has to get his stick on it to make it work and make sure the deflection gets on net. However, if it does work then Holtby will need to make a very impressive save to keep it out. Simmonds is screening him and deflected pucks are tough on a goaltender.
The puck gets deflected..by Karl Alzner and it ends up sailing wide of the net. I do have to hand it to the Flyers, though because they were persistent with trying to setup Schenn in this exact location. We’re about to see them do it again with a goal-line play.
By now, the Caps pretty much know what Philly is trying to do here and have Schenn surrounded by three players. Giroux tries to go to the goal-line again with Simmonds having a clear shot in front of the net. Voacek is also all by himself on the right wing, but the odds of Giroux getting him the puck from all the way over there are slim unless he makes an incredible pass.
Giroux gets it to Simmonds and instead of going to Voracek on the backdoor, he tries to feed Schenn again and guess what happens? The Caps penalty killers break it up and the play is over. This wasn’t limited to plays on the boards or the goal-line, though. Sometimes they tried to set him up from the blue line. Did it have a different result?
I’ll give you a quick guess at how this turned out.
I think you all get the message now. They eventually resorted to letting Gostisbehere take most of the shots from the point when the slot play to Schenn wasn’t open and their second unit wasn’t much better, as Streit took the majority of their shots. It’s too bad because the Flyers have the personnel to run a pretty good power play but the setup was just too easy for the Caps to defend once they caught onto it and Philly didn’t try that many different looks. I would have liked to see Simmonds used more as a shooter rather than just a net-front presence guy because he’s a talented goal-scorer. Having Voracek more involved as a shooter would have made a difference, as well but they were obsessed with setting up Schenn in the garden spot.
The Final Word
The overall numbers ended up being a bit skewed from the last three games, but Washington never lost control of this series. Their not-so-great play at even strength in the first three games was negated from how much they dominated the special teams battle and their five-on-five play greatly improved over the next three. The Flyers offensive problems and failure to do anything on special teams prevented them from making any real comeback after falling behind early.