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February 21, 2015

Flyers continue to gain ground in playoff hunt with 3-2 win over Ovechkin, Caps

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022215_Flyers-celebrate_AP Matt Slocum/AP

Flyers players celebrate Michael Del Zotto's game-winning goal.

The Flyers picked up two crucial points Sunday with a 3-2 win over the Washington Capitals thanks to Michael Del Zotto's game-winner late in the third period.

After racing out to a 2-0 lead early in the second period, the game looked in doubt as the Capitals stormed back to tie the game at 2-2 heading into the third period.

And despite spending about five minutes of the third period shorthanded, the Flyers were able to come away with a win.

With the win, the Flyers briefly moved to within two points of the Boston Bruins for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot, but Boston blew out the Blackhawks, 6-2, later Sunday afternoon. The Panthers -- one point ahead of the Flyers -- face the Penguins later tonight. 

[I'll update this once that game is finished.]

The Flyers know they have to keep up their current level of play if they're going to catch the Bruins.

In their last 13* games, dating back their last game before the all-star break, the Flyers are 8-1-4. Out of the 26 potential points available in that span, they've been able to get 20 of them. 

*Of those 13 games, 10 have been decided by one goal, and the Flyers have been able to get a point in all of them, going 6-0-4.

“Every game we have left this year are going to be big games for us," Claude Giroux said after the win. "We’re back in the race now. Obviously tonight we’re going to be watching TV a little bit to see what the other teams do. I think we have to be pretty happy with how we’re playing right now. We’re playing as a team. We have to keep going.”

A month ago, the Flyers were 13 points out of a playoff spot. Now, they're right on the doorstep, but as the players have throughout their recent run, they can't depend on other teams faltering. They have to continue to win and get points.

“Like we said when we were thirteen points away, we need to go game by game," Giroux added. "Just worry about our game. If our game gets better we’ll start winning games. That’s what we’re doing right now. 

"We still have some things to look at and get better. We’re a young team. We got a lot to learn and we want to learn. We have to keep going.”

Even if they aren't there yet, it's finally starting to feel like there's meaningful hockey being played on Broad Street, and that was evident inside a raucous Wells Fargo Center Saturday.

“It was one of the loudest games for sure," Jake Voracek said of the level of intensity inside the arena. "The atmosphere was fantastic. It was Sunday. Sellout again. I thought we played a great hockey game. ... It’s the way you have to play if you want to make the playoffs."

Giroux and his teammates understand that they put themselves in this position in the first place by getting out to a slow start when the season began back in October. Now, they're trying to focus on the 22 games they have left.

“We’re finding ways to win games," he said. "We gave a lot of points at the start of year with the other team scoring at the end of the game or not being able to win in shootout. We can’t be looking in past. We got to look at the future right now. We have to bet ready for next game.”

Here's a look at some of the takeaways from the Flyers' 3-2 win over the Caps:

The goalie remains the same

In a curious and unexpected move by coach Craig Berube, 33-year-old rookie Rob Zepp got the start in net over Ray Emery.

Zepp, the shootout hero in the Flyers' 3-2 win over the first-place Nashville Predators, figured to be relegated to the bench Sunday, with his appearance Saturday nothing more than a way to spell Emery.

"He won," Berube said of his decision to start Zepp vs. Washington. "He won and just gut feeling. That’s why I went with him.”

Emery had played in six straight games* in place of an injured Steve Mason and, while he hadn't been spectacular, the Flyers managed to get at least a point in five of those games, going 2-1-3 in that stretch.

*The first of those was the Flyers' February 8th win over the Capitals, when he replaced Mason after he left with a knee injury.

For Zepp and the Flyers, Sunday's win capped off a big four-point weekend at the Wells Fargo Center.

“It was huge," Zepp said after the game. "Going into a weekend with back-to-back games with two teams like that, you’re hoping that you’re going to come out of it with points. The guys stepped up and played great and we were able to get four points which was awesome.”

Facing a Capitals team that is fourth in the Eastern Conference with just under three goals per game (2.93), Zepp was solid on Sunday. Not great -- he stopped 21 of 23 shots -- but certainly good enough. And just like the Nashville game one day prior, Zepp relied on great play from his defense en route to the win. 

“Well I think we did a lot of great things in these games," Zepp said of his teammates' play this weekend. "I don’t know how many shots the guys blocked, but they did a great job, the penalty kill was awesome, and we scored some timely goals and we have a bit of a momentum, but it’s all about trying to ride that [as we head out on the road]. We have a couple good opponents coming up this week.”

For some reason, they just seem to play better in front of Zepp than Emery.

Awakening a pair of sleeping giants?

Flyers winger Jake Voracek and the Capitals' Alexander Ovechkin entered action Sunday tied for fourth in the NHL with 61 points each. For most of the last month and a half, Voracek (61 points) had been first in the NHL, but a recent scoring slump has caused him to fall behind Caps center Nicklas Backstrom (64), Blackhawks winger Patrick Kane (63), and Islanders center John Tavares (62). 

Voracek's former linemate Claude Giroux, who has also been struggling offensively, has fallen even further. In third place as recently as a few weeks ago, the Flyers captain is now in a tie for 13th in the league with 55 points. Giroux had gone over a month (11 games) without scoring a goal, but it didn't take long for him to change that on Sunday.

Less than five minutes into the game, Giroux beat Caps goalie Braden Holtby on a power play that was of his own making. He drew the holding penalty on Jay Beagle, stayed on the ice for the start of the power play, and scored about a minute later. That's the kind of work you want to see your captain putting in.

Giroux added another point in the second period thanks to an assist on Wayne Simmonds' power play goal.

Voracek -- as well as Mark Streit -- also got a pair of points to break his tie with Ovechkin. He picked up an assist on Giroux's first period goal and added another on Michael Del Zotto's goal that put the Flyers up for good late in the third period.

Thanks to his performance Sunday, he is now just one behind Backstrom, who was held scoreless against the Flyers. By reaching 63 points, Voracek set a new career high in points. His 44 assists are tops in the NHL.

However, the two points scored by Giroux and Voracek are merely consolation prizes. The points that really mattered are the two they took from the Capitals as a team.

“You know I had 60 about 20 games ago," he said postgame. "I knew it was going to happen eventually. But more importantly I know we made it happen on that 3rd goal. It was a good play all around. 

"But like I said I don’t care with how many points I end up with as long as I make the playoffs it’s going to be pretty satisfying."

Special teams getting it done

Entering the game Sunday, the Capitals' power play unit was second in the NHL at 23.4 percent. The Flyers, on the other hand, are third from the bottom in terms of penalty kill (75.9 percent). 

Perhaps that's why it was so surprising that the Flyers help the Caps scoreless on their five power plays, including three in which Washington failed to register a shot. In fact, the Caps had just two total shots in their five chances with the man advantage. 

In my opinion, that was the difference on Sunday.

"Philly has been really good, especially these afternoon games really jumping on teams early and I thought they did on us," Capitals coach Barry Trotz said after the game. "We just weren't sharp and they forced us not to be sharp. ... We lost the special teams award today and they got a goal at the end."

And it wasn't just about the Flyers' PK efforts. Unlike the Caps, they took advantage of their opponent's penalties, scoring on two of their four chances -- one by Giroux and one by Simmonds.

Simmonds point streak

With that aforementioned power play goal, Simmonds extended his current point streak to eight games. Over that stretch, Simmonds has six goals, and 10 points total.

That's been a huge boost for the Flyers as Jake Voracek, who Simmonds replaced on the top line this weekend, has been struggling to find the back of the net, despite the fact that he picked up a pair of assists Sunday.

After the game, Simmonds talked little about his recent hot streak, and put the focus back where it should be.

“We’re just trying to play hockey," he said. "We’ve played some really good hockey the last couple games and now we’re only two points back so we have to keep our heads on and keep moving forward. We have to make sure that we’re taking care of our business.”

A [very late] night Cap

Perhaps it shouldn't have come as a surprise that the Flyers were able to jump out to an early* 1-0 lead Sunday despite the fact that they played less than 24 hours earlier.

*Both in relation to time into game and time of day.

That's because the fire alarm in the Capitals hotel at 1:30 a.m., which isn't the best thing when you have a 12:30 p.m. start.

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Whether or not this was intentional, it worked. The Flyers finished the first period up 1-0 after outshooting the Caps 8-6. And that's what the numbers say. It wasn't even that close, especially the first 10 minutes of the frame.

Schenn, Lecavalier scratched ... again

For the second day in a row, defenseman Luke Schenn and forward Vinny Lecavalier were healthy scratches for the Flyers. The Schenn move, while interesting on its own, has a reason behind it. The Flyers have too many mediocre defenseman vying for playing time now that Nicklas Grossman and Braydon Coburn are back from injury.

The Lecavalier move, presumably to insert recently suspended Zac Rinaldo back into the lineup, is a bit more perplexing.

Rinaldo took a bad penalty in the first -- a bad call by the refs, that is -- and missed on a point-blank chance against Holtby. The Flyers were able to easily kill the penalty, holding the Caps shotless to boot.