How can Flyers neutralize Alex Ovechkin?
Returning home Thursday after a mediocre six-game road trip for a 2-1 win over Montreal, the Flyers (14-15-3) find themselves back on the road Sunday afternoon for the first half of a home-and-home with the Capitals (17-12-3).
Puck drop is at 3 p.m. (CSN) at Verizon Center.
Here are five things you need to know:
1. Live in the now
You’ll remember the last time these two teams met.
Five weeks ago, the Caps embarrassed the Flyers, 7-0, at the Wells Fargo Center. A line brawl ensued -- including goalie Ray Emery jumping Washington netminder Braden Holtby -- and the Flyers finished with 18 penalties for 99 minutes.
Though it was the lowest point of the Flyers’ season, it proved to be a turning point. Craig Berube’s club went 7-1-3 in its next 10 games, finished November with a 9-4-2 record and fought its way back into the playoff picture by going 11-6-3 overall since that game.
But are the Flyers still thinking about that loss?
“It might be in the back of the head, but at the same time you have to forget about something like that,” forward Steve Downie said after Saturday’s practice (see story).
“You can use it for a little bit of extra motivation, but we shouldn't need that extra motivation. We are right behind them in points to get into the playoffs and these two games are probably the biggest of the year so far.”
Living in the past won’t do the Flyers any favors, especially against this Capitals team, which is in second place in the Metropolitan Division and scores 2.91 goals per game, seventh-most in the NHL.
2. Huge opportunity
The Flyers enter Sunday’s meeting with Washington tied with the Blue Jackets and Rangers for fourth place in the Metropolitan Division with 31 points.
With a home-and-home with the Capitals, who have 37 points, and a home-and-home with Columbus later in the week, the Flyers have a huge opportunity to pick up major ground in the division.
Regulation wins over the Caps on Sunday and Tuesday would put the Flyers two points out of second place, and with Washington not playing until Friday, a win over the Blue Jackets on Thursday would move the Flyers into a second-place tie with the Capitals.
These games "are absolutely huge games for us,” Scott Hartnell said. “They are winnable games, as well. We have to be prepared mentally and play hard, consistent hockey and get points.”
3. All about Alex
In that 7-0 loss to the Capitals, the Flyers avoided Alex Ovechkin.
Had he played, maybe it would have gone differently for the Flyers. Or, maybe it would have been a 14-0 game. Who knows? On Sunday, Ovechkin will be in the lineup for the Capitals and that’s a huge problem for the Orange and Black.
Ovechkin’s 26 goals lead the league and, two games ago, the 28-year-old netted four markers in Washington’s 6-5 shootout win in Tampa Bay. He's only missed two games this season, against the Flyers and the Islanders on back-to-back nights.
Moving to right wing last season as requested by head coach Adam Oates, Ovie is back to the dominant goal-scoring force he was in his first five seasons in the league in which he scored at least 46 goals.
Down years for Ovechkin were still 30-goal seasons, and his 32 goals last year led the NHL in the lockout-shortened season. He’s a three-time Hart Trophy winner, and he kills the Flyers. In 29 career games vs. the Flyers, Ovechkin has 24 goals and 39 points.
This will be a huge task for the Flyers’ third line consisting of Downie, Sean Couturier and Matt Read. They play against opposing team’s top players, so they’ll be charged with the duty of shutting down Ovechkin.
Or at least trying to.
4. Stay out of the box
The Flyers did a good job Thursday not taking penalties. They were shorthanded just once and killed the penalty.
But they were playing undisciplined hockey during their road trip. The Flyers were shorthanded on average 4.8 times during the trip, and although they surrendered only four power-play goals (against 29 opponent opportunities), the penalties meant less ice time for guys like Wayne Simmonds and Brayden Schenn.
Sunday, the Flyers face the second-best power play in the league in Washington. Scoring at a 24.6 percent clip, the Capitals’ PP isn’t something to experiment against. They have four PP goals in their last two games, and Ovechkin has 11 of the team’s 30 PPG.
5. This and that
• Michael Raffl has two goals in his last three games. He was goalless in his first 17 NHL games.
• The Flyers are 2-10-1 when they give up the first goal, 12-5-1 when they score first.
• Capitals goalie Philipp Grubauer, 22, has started the last three games. He’s 2-0-1 with a 1.52 goals against average and .957 save percentage. He made his NHL debut last season in relief of Holtby in a 4-1 Flyers win on Feb. 27. He made 14 stops.
• Scott Hartnell has two goals in his last 11 games. On Thursday, he skated with the Flyers’ second line. He’ll likely start Sunday’s game playing with Brayden Schenn and Wayne Simmonds.
• Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom has seven points in his last two games and nine in five December games.