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Caps shutdown Flyers' playmakers en route to series win

Caps shutdown Flyers' playmakers en route to series win

First round matchups aren't always compelling, especially when a top seed faces a team that just squeaks into the playoffs. There are times when the underdog is completely overmatched by the juggernaut they face. Heading into the first round series between the Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers, one need only look at the rosters of both teams to realize that this was not the case.

The Flyers boast a high-powered roster with stars such as Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek and Wayne Simmonds as well as a budding superstar in Shayne Gostisbehere. Clearly the Caps would have their work cut out for them in the first round.

Six games later, the lack of production from the Flyers' top players looms large in the Capitals' first round victory.

Philadelphia's top line of Brayden Schenn, Giroux and Simmonds managed only five points combined while Voracek managed only one goal. How were the Caps able to shut them down so effectively? Barry Trotz went strength vs. strength, pitting his top line against Philadelphia's and the Caps came out on top.

"That was a challenge to our top guys," Trotz said. "Our top guys go head-to-head and we were hoping our depth and special teams would be a difference maker for us. Claude Giroux and Wayne Simmonds and Voracek and Schenn, they're not an easy group to shut down. It was good on us for getting them shut down, but at the same time it was not an easy task."

Trotz specifically credited Backstrom, the Caps' "under the radar" star, with his work against Giroux.

"I thought he imposed his will on the Giroux line and he just elevated his presence,: Trotz said. "He knew he was in a head-to-head and those guys I think have a really good rivalry going head-to-head.

"I know Claude fairly well and G is a very competitive guy and so with Backy, and Backy does it very quietly. I thought he raised his competitive level to a real good level for us to have success."

Despite the success the Caps' top line had against the Flyers' top unit, Philadelphia head coach Dave Hakstol chose not try to avoid the matchup and only shuffled his lines in-game based on situation.

"There's different little things that can be done, switching up a line combination here or there," Hakstol said. "Tonight we tried to get a little boost in the third period by switching up those combinations and changing the rhythm a little bit. We had a pretty good push in the third, just not quite enough. Those guys, their group defended extremely well."

Gostisbehere, who was a key piece to the Flyers' success in their late surge to reach the playoffs, also struggled with only one goal and one assist. Part of that has to do with experience—it's tough to take on a player like Alex Ovechkin and the Presidents' Trophy winners in your first NHL postseason—but Trotz said he was also a focus for the Caps in the series.

"We did have an emphasis on [Gostisbehere]," Trotz said. "He's a pretty dynamic player and obviously he can jump up and join the play but in the zone we thought offensively that he was really the key. He was the guy that was getting pucks through and creating offense and creating zone time for them."

The Flyers offense likes to move the puck from low in the offensive zone to high on the blue line and then crash the net looking for deflections and rebounds. With his quick release, accurate shot and shifty moves, Gostisbehere thrived in that system. The Caps tried to neutralize him by pressuring him at all times and getting bodies in front of him to prevent his shots from getting through. It paid off.

When asked about his star players, specifically Giroux and Simmonds, Hakstol was quick to defend them.

"The easy way that you could possibly look at it is you look at stats, right? I don't buy that," Hakstol said. "Those guys were our leaders and they played extremely hard throughout this series. Sure, the results aren't exactly what they would want ... but those guys have been absolute warriors for us all the way through."

Whatever impact they may have had on the Flyers in terms of leadership is not something you can quantify on a scoresheet. Regardless of how much they meant to the team in the locker room, however, on the ice Giroux, Simmonds, Voracek and Gostisbehere managed only six points in six games and it's a major reason why the Caps are moving on to the second round.

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Burakovsky will miss the first round, but Caps won't rule him out for remainder of the playoffs

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Burakovsky will miss the first round, but Caps won't rule him out for remainder of the playoffs

Andre Burakovsky will be sidelined for the remainder of Washington's first-round series vs. Columbus, but he isn’t necessarily out for the remainder of the playoffs, Coach Barry Trotz said on Friday.

Burakovsky suffered an undisclosed upper-body injury in the Capitals' Game 2 overtime loss and has not been on the ice since.

Trotz said the 23-year-old top-six winger needs “minor” surgery.

That procedure, however, will not preclude Burakovsky from returning to the Caps’ lineup in subsequent rounds, should Washington advance.

“That's why I said minor surgery,” Trotz added, asked if Burky might return at a later date.

This latest surgery is the second for Burakovsky this season. In late October, he had a procedure to repair a broken left thumb and missed the next 20 games.

Since his departure in Game 2, Jakub Vrana and Chandler Stephenson have taken turns replacing Burakovsky on the second line with Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie.

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Will the Caps be able to take advantage of home ice in Game 5?

Will the Caps be able to take advantage of home ice in Game 5?

There's a saying in sports that goes, "A series doesn't start until a team loses at home." For the Washington Capitals and Columbus Blue Jackets, their series won't start until someone wins at home.

Four games into the series, the road team has won every game. Columbus took Game 1 and Game 2 from Capital One Arena and the Caps answered back by winning Game 3 and Game 4 in Ohio.

"We came [to Columbus] to try to get the first one," Barry Trotz said after Thursday's win. "Did that. We came here to get the second one. Did that. All we've done is just got on even terms."

Now the series is a best of three with two of those final three games in Washington, but how much of an advantage does that really give the Caps?

"We've got to make sure that we're ready to go," Trotz said. "I think we have been since we got here. We've just got to do it at home."

The various playoff struggles the Caps have suffered in the Alex Ovechkin era have been well-documented to this point. One particularly maddening issue is the team's struggles to win at home. Since 2008, the first year the Ovechkin-led Caps made the playoffs, the team is just 28-25 in home playoff games. Since 2015, Trotz's first season as head coach, the Caps are 12-10 in Washington.

Part of that is just the nature of hockey. Upsets are prevalent in the playoffs in the NHL and home-ice advantage does not mean as much as it does in other sports. But it should mean more than 28-25.

Besides having the crowd on your side, home ice also provides matchup advantages. The home team gets the second line change at home, meaning during a stoppage in play the home coach gets the opportunity to see who the opponent puts on the ice before making his own change. For the Caps, this means getting Dmitry Orlov and Matt Niskanen on the ice against Artemi Panarin.

Trotz has matched his top shutdown pair against Columbus' top line all series long. According to Natural Stat Trick, when Niskanen was on the ice in Game 4 he held Panarin's Corsi For percentage to 36.36. When Niskanen was not on the ice, Panarin's percentage shot up to 71.43. 

Theoretically, it should be much easier for Trotz to get those favorable matchups at home. Now all the Caps have to do is take advantage.

"Our home record hasn't been really great in the last little stretch at the end of the season here and obviously the first two games of the playoffs," Trotz said. "We owe it to our fans, we owe it to ourselves to take advantage of that."

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