The Washington Capitals were the run away favourites of the East. The Philadelphia Flyers, in contrast, squeaked into the playoffs thanks to an unlikely late season charge. This should be one of the biggest mismatches of the 2016 playoffs, but this series may turn out to be closer than what seems apparent when glancing at their regular season results.
Perhaps a shade of things to come, these two teams split the season series 2-2, with the Capitals slightly outscoring the Flyers 12-9. The differential was entirely accounted for by a single 5-2 lopsided Washington victory, otherwise every contest was hotly contested: every other game was decided by one goal, with two of them ending in extra time.
Evgeny Kuztnetsov lead all Caps skaters in scoring with five assists in five games while the Claude Giroux proved to be the most potent Flyer against Washington this year, counting a goal and three assists in four games.
Things seem a little lopsided to start. A big reason for the Capitals success this year was their spectacular special teams.
Washington is known for their potent power play thanks to the likes of Niklas Backstrom and, of course, Alex Ovechkin, but they also managed to be one of the best teams in the league while down a man as well. Al told, Washington finished with the 5th best PP (21.9%) and the 2nd best PK (85.6%) in the NHL. Philly wasn’t too bad at the extra man themselves (11th overall), but were bottom third in the league when it came to denying goals on the penalty kill (20th overall).
This is bad news for Philly because they were slightly more prone than the Caps at taking penalties during the regular season, going down a man 262 times vs. Washington’s 256. It’s not a big difference over an 82 game schedule, but the Flyers are going to want to avoid a special teams battle as much as possible.
This is where things seem to really diverge between the two teams, but there’s some disagreement between the results and the underlying numbers. Through 82 games, the Capitals had the best even strength goal ratio of any team in the NHL at 56.2%. The Flyers were way down at 50.8%, good for 14th in the league.
The difference is made up in two areas: shots against and shooting percentage. The Capitals enjoyed a SH% of 8.3 at 5on5, the third highest in the league. They also surrendered almost three less shots against per hour than Philly at even strength. The Flyers, on the other hand, scored on just 7.1% of their shots at 5on5 and, as noted, we less successful at denying shots on net.
That said, the more we drill down into the underlying numbers, the closer these two teams get. According to War on Ice, both clubs were relatively mediocre in terms of even strength scoring chance ratio during the season, with the Caps finished only marginally ahead of the Flyers (51.7% vs 49.4%). If we limit things to corsi, the two clubs are again within spitting distance with Washington finishing at 52.0% and the Flyers at 50.1% (score adjusted).
Although the distance between the clubs seems to converge a bit when it comes to possession and scoring chance numbers, the Capitals nevertheless consistently enjoy an advantage.
In terms of individual scoring at 5on5, The Capitals top line leads the pack in this series. Evegeny Kuznetsov (51), Alex Ovechkin (40), Justin Williams (34) and Nicklas Backstrom (34) all scored more 5on5 points than the best Flyers skater (Brayden Schenn at 33). This suggests that if Philadelphia is to survive past the first round, they are going to have to find a way to shut down the Capitals potent top line attack.
The resurrection of Steve Mason in Philadelphia is perhaps an under appreciated story. The former Calder trophy winner seemed destined to become another Andrew Raycroft after faltering in the Columbus Blue Jackets organization, but since arriving in Philadelphia he’s become an above average NHL starter.
This year he finished with an elite .932 even strength SV%. Braden Holtby, widely considered to be Vezina front runner thanks to his 48 wins, managed a still very good .928 at 5on5. All told, both teams have strong netminding perhaps capable of stealing a series if one or the other guy gets hot at the right time.
|Thursday, April 13th||Philadelphia @ Washington||7:00pm EST|
|Saturday, April 16th||Philadelphia @ Washington||7:00pm EST|
|Monday, April 18th||Washington @ Philadelphia||7:00pm EST|
|Wednesday, April 20th||Washington @ Philadelphia||7:00pm EST|
|Friday, April 22nd||Philadelphia @ Washington||TBD|
|Sunday, April 24th||Washington @ Philadelphia||TBD|
|Wednesday, April 27th||Philadelphia @ Washington||TBD|
There are suggestions that this series might be closer than it seems: the series series was split and both clubs aren’t too far separated when it comes to underlying numbers. In addition, the Flyers actuality had superior netminding during the regular season, one of the few teams that can make that claim over the Capitals.
However, Washington is still the better team from most angles. They suppress shots better at 5on5, they have the better sen strength scoring and their special teams were far more effective during the regular season. The Flyers were one of the hottest teams in the league down the stretch and they are going to need that magic to continue to have any hope of making it past Washington in round one. We’ll go with the Capitals in six.