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April 12, 2016

How the Flyers can upset Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals

The Flyers’ reward for a two-month drive to qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs is a pending best-of-seven dance with the Washington Capitals that begins tomorrow night in the nation’s capital.

It is a dance that many people expect to last four or five games, and one that most analysts figure will end with the Caps doing a victory dance and the Flyers shuffling off to better chances next year. It is a dance with a partner that is well-rested and one that has been able to hone its game to a sharp edge at the same time the Flyers were scrambling wildly just to get to the dance.

The Flyers' chances to win this series are likely to rest on three factors:

     • The play of goalie Steve Mason.

     • The play of rookie Shayne Gostisbehere.

     • The hope that Washington cannot take a punch.

There is a belief in Philadelphia that the death of Flyers founder Ed Snider will serve as a great motivator for the Flyers, and the club has certainly played with a distinct passion on his behalf. However, when the puck drops on the Stanley Cup Playoffs there so much emotion that each side will have plenty in reserve to offset the other’s.

The Flyers are up against a Washington team that is as balanced as any team in the NHL this season. The Capitals won the Presidents’ Trophy for the team with the most points (120) in the league – and basically had things wrapped up by Valentine’s Day.

The Caps – specifically Alex Ovechkin, whose 50 goals further cement his reputation as the greatest goal scorer of his generation – appear to be a team on a mission. Ovechkin is basically unstoppable from the left circle on the power play where he simply overpowers goalies with his shot.

At the other end of the ice, goalie Braden Holtby has claimed a spot among the NHL’s elite netminders. Holtby’s 48 victories equaled an NHL mark set by Martin Brodeur but beyond the sheer number of his wins was the strength of his game throughout the season.

Holtby has been the mainstay and he has been able to erase most mistakes – not that the Capitals have made many. Ironically, the Capitals weakness might be their lack of a weakness through the regular season.

The Capitals have been terrific wire to wire. They have fattened up on teams across the board, east and west, home and road.

So, if you want to write a preview of how the Flyers could engineer a huge upset, the main point might be that the Washington Capitals haven't been challenged all season, and may not know how to deal with a face-to-face meeting with adversity.

The hope in Philadelphia is that if the Flyers can give the Capitals a quick jolt, the Caps will not be able to adjust.

Through the years, the Stanley Cup Playoffs have been a nightmare for top seeds playing eight seeds. It is part of the allure of this tourney, where not so long ago all four top-seeded teams in the east were knocked off by the bottom four.

The best way for the Flyers to administer such a jolt would be for Mason to continue his top-level play in the Flyers’ net. Mason was the Flyers’ MVP over the final month of the season, taking all of the pressure put upon him when Michal Neuvirth went down with injury and turning that pressure into a platform to strut his stuff.

Mason made one of the best saves of the entire NHL season when he stopped Washington’s Evgeny Kuznetsov on a shootout attempt late in the season when the Flyers needed a win to continue their playoff drive. It was a spectacular glove save and he will need to make more than a few of those in the upcoming series.

Kuznetsov has magic mittens, as does Nicklas Backstrom, who uses his to set up Ovechkin. The Caps have also bolstered their lineup with ex-Flyers Mike Richards and Justin Williams, who each have more than enough playoff experience to settle things down in case the Flyers land a quick punch.

Then too, there is the matter of the men behind the benches – Dave Hakstol and Barry Trotz. Although Hakstol has done a remarkable with the Flyers, there is still a learning curve in the NHL, and the Stanley Cup playoffs are a stern test for a first-year pro coach.

The matchups are magnified, as is the aforementioned emotion, which will have to be managed.

You can figure that defenseman Radko Gudas will be a key factor. He provides the physical presence that might fluster the Capital forwards … but he must play under control as the Caps power play is lethal.

While the entire Flyers defense will be under tremendous pressure, that pressure will be magnified on Gostisbehere, the Flyers’ spectacular rookie blueliner.

If Gostisbehere can have a big series and if that is coupled with big efforts from the likes of Claude Giroux and Jake Voracek …

Well, you get the idea.

Through the years, the Stanley Cup Playoffs have been a nightmare for top seeds playing eight seeds. It is part of the allure of this tourney, where not so long ago all four top-seeded teams in the east were knocked off by the bottom four.

However, this will be the longest of shots for the Flyers who likely have already used most of their ammunition just to get to the playoffs.