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.