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Season preview: Philadelphia Flyers

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Season preview: Philadelphia Flyers

To get you ready for the 2015-16 season, we will be previewing all 30 NHL in 30 days, division by division. Check the bottom of the page for a schedule of each preview.

Today’s team: Philadelphia Flyers

2014-15 record: 33-31-18, 6th in the Metropolitan

How they finished: Did not make the playoffs

Coach: Dave Hakstol (1st season)

Notable additions: C Sam Gagner, G Michal Neuvirth, D Yevgeni Medvedev

Notable subtractions: C Zac Rinaldo, D Nicklas Grossmann, G Ray Emery

RELATED: Capitals blue line braces for life without Green

Schedule against the Capitals: Thu. Nov. 12 at Philadelphia, Wed. Jan. 27 at Washington, Sun. Feb. 7 at Washington, Wed. Mar. 30 at Philadelphia

Outlook: Well, you can't argue with the Flyers' dynamic duo. Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek constitute on offensive tandem to rival that of any in the NHL. They combined for 154 points last season, just five shy of Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom's 159.

The cast around them, however, is much more of a question mark. Just as the Caps needed to find a right wing for Ovechkin-Backstrom, the Flyers need to find a left wing for Giroux-Vorachek. Michael Raffl was their usual linemate last season, but ultimately he is not the best fit.

While Giroux and Vorachek are undeniably the two best players on the team, neither one of them led the Flyers in goals last season. That honor fell to Wayne Simmonds who notched 28. That's because Giroux and Vorachek thrive on setting up the players around them. They would benefit the most by having a sniper on their wing, a goal-scorer capable of finishing off plays created by Giroux and Vorachek. Raffl was passable, but with 28 points last season, he doesn't exactly fit the bill.

A more likely candidate is Brayden Schenn, a 24-year-old forward that Philadelphia hopes is poised for a breakout season. He will certainly spend some time this season on the top line. Throw in Simmonds and Sean Couturier to round out the second line and you've got a pretty good top six.

The bottom six, however, remains a question mark. The Flyers have to find a way to coax more out of Vincent Lecavalier and they may have better luck without former head coach Craig Berube calling the shots. The two did not see eye to eye with one another. If they can somehow manage to resurrect Sam Gagner's career as well, that would certainly help.

Fast-forward two or three years and this defense is set with all the great talent they have in the pipeline (Ivan Provorov, Travis Sanheim, Shayne Gostisbehere). Until then, the blue line will remain a problem largely because of Philadelphia's lack of depth. Mark Streit is great, but is almost 38 and Andrew MacDonald and Michael Del Zotto are both inconsistent. The addition of Yevgeni Medvedev is intriguing, but remains a gamble. He is 33 and has never played an NHL game, but the Flyers will fork over $3 million to him this season. You don't give away that kind of money to a 33-year-old unless you are expecting a significant impact.

One bright spot, however, is that the issue in net appears to be solved. Steve Mason emerged last year as the clear No. 1 with a 2.25 GAA and .928 save percentage. With the addition of Michal Neuvirth, there is a clear hierarchy in net. There will be no tandem this year.

The biggest wild card of all for the Flyers is not on the ice at all, but behind the bench. General manager Ron Hextall hired Dave Hakstol in the offseason as the new coach to replace Berube. Hakstol, 47, has no NHL head coaching experience and spent the last 11 seasons coaching the University of North Dakota. He is the first coach to go directly from college to the NHL since 1982.

Hakstol may have been very successful in the college ranks and has said all the right things thus far, but at best he remains a question mark. This is a huge gamble for the Flyers that could either payoff or blow up in their faces.

Expectations: Here is everything the Flyers need to go right for them this season: Schenn needs to breakout as a top-line caliber forward, the third and fourth lines need to produce, Streit needs to delay the aging process for another year, MacDonald and Del Zotto have to play better, Medvedev needs to transition seamlessly from the KHL to the NHL, Mason needs to show last season wasn't a fluke and Hakstol needs to establish himself as an NHL coach.

That's a lot of question marks and I just don't see every one of them going the Flyers' way.

I like the moves they made, I like the Hakstol hire, I like the direction they're going, but I think they are a year or two away from seeing the payoff. They still could be a dark horse to reach the postseason, but I find it more likely they are one of the last teams eliminated from contention at the end of the regular season.

MORE CAPS: What will Backstrom's absence mean for Burakovsky?

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Edmonton Oilers 
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Central Division 
Chicago Blackhawks
Colorado Avalanche
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Atlantic Division 
Boston Bruins
Buffalo Sabres
Detroit Red Wings
Florida Panthers
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Ottawa Senators
Tampa Bay Lightning
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Metropolitan Division 
Carolina Hurricanes
Columbus Blue Jackets
New Jersey Devils 
New York Islanders
New York Rangers
Pittsburgh Penguins 8/29 
Washington Capitals 8/30

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Capitals one win away from facing the Penguins ... again

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Capitals one win away from facing the Penguins ... again

The Washington Capitals are one win away from advancing to the second round of the 2018 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs

If they do beat the Blue Jackets in Game 6 or Game 7, a familiar foe awaits them.

The Pittsburgh Penguins ended their series against the Philadelphia Flyers on Sunday with a 8-5 win in Game 6. They will play the winner of the Capitals-Columbus Blue Jackets series.

Because of course they will.

The Penguins have beaten the Capitals in the second round in each of the past two seasons. The series went six games in 2016 and seven in 2017.

Washington’s biggest rival has been a thorn in the side of the Caps throughout the team’s history. Washington and Pittsburgh have met in the postseason 10 times. Only once have the Caps come out victorious, in 1994.

Pittsburgh has won five Stanley Cups in their history and each time, they had to beat the Caps in the playoffs to do it.

The emergence of Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin helped to reignite the Washington-Pittsburgh rivalry, but that too has been one sided. Crosby has won three Stanley Cups while Ovechkin has never advanced past the second round.

Before you despair, however, consider this. Coming into the season, no one knew what to expect from the Capitals. Expectations were low. Somehow, Washington managed to overcome the loss of several players in the offseason and managed to win the Metropolitan Division.

In a season in which the Caps have already defied expectations, perhaps this will be the year they finally get past Pittsburgh and advance to the conference final. Maybe? Please?

First things first, they still need one more win against Columbus. Game 6 will be Monday at 7:30 p.m. on NBC Sports Washington.

MORE CAPITALS:
How the Caps stymied Artemi Panarin
Nick Backstrom's Game 5 heroics, explained
Capitals' PK unit the series difference-maker
John Tortorella makes Game 7 proclamation

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How the Capitals have limited Columbus' top offensive threat

How the Capitals have limited Columbus' top offensive threat

The Capitals boast a roster full of superstar forwards including players like Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov.

The Columbus Blue Jackets do not.

As a team, Columbus’ offensive output is more spread out among the team, except for one offensive focal point: Artemi Panarin.

Traded in the offseason to Columbus from the Chicago Blackhawks, Panarin has proven this season to be a star in his own right rather than just someone hanging on to the coattails of his former linemate in Chicago, Patrick Kane.

Defensively, shutting down Panarin was priority No. 1 for Barry Trotz and company heading into their best-of-seven first-round playoff series

“We went into the series knowing fully well how good of a player Panarin is,” the Capitals head coach told the media via a conference call on Sunday. “He's a leader for them. It's no different than what they would do with Kuznetsov, Backstrom or [Ovechkin]. It's got to be a team game.”

Initially, things did not go well for the Capitals, as Panarin tallied two goals and five assists in the first three games. In Game 4 and Game 5, however, he was held off the scoresheet and finished with a plus/minus rating of -3.

For the series as a whole, Washington has actually done a good job of shutting Panarin down. Four of his seven points came on power play opportunities, meaning the Caps limited Columbus’ top forward to only three even-strength points in five games.

Washington’s strategy coming into the series was to give Panarin a healthy dose of Dmitry Orlov and Matt Niskanen. At 5-on-5 play, no two defensemen have been on the ice against Panarin anywhere near as much as the Orlov-Niskanen pairing. That’s been true all series. The offensive line Panarin has been matched against, however, has changed.

In Game 1, the Caps’ second line of Backstrom, Andre Burakovsky and T.J. Oshie matched primarily against Panarin’s line. That changed in Game 2. Since then, Ovechkin, Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson have been on Panarin duty.

There are several ways to approach matching lines against an opponent. Backstrom is one of the best shutdown forwards in the NHL. It makes sense for Trotz to want him out against Columbus’ most dangerous line. The problem there, however, is that Trotz was taking his team’s second line and putting it in a primarily defensive role.

In Game 1, Backstrom was on the ice for seven defensive zone faceoffs, 12 in the neutral zone and only two in the offensive zone.

The Capitals have an edge over Columbus in offensive depth, but you mitigate that edge if you force Burakovsky, Backstrom and Oshie, three of your best offensive players, to focus on shutting down Panarin.

Let’s not forget, Washington scored only one 5-on-5 goal in Game 1 and it came from Devante Smith-Pelly. They needed the second line to produce offensively so Trotz switched tactics and go best on best, top line vs. top line in a possession driven match up.

The strategy here is basically to make the opposing team's best players exhaust themselves on defense.

You can tell this strategy was effective, and not just because Panarin's offensive dried up. In Game 4, when the Blue Jackets could more easily dictate the matchups, Columbus placed Panarin away from the Caps’ top line, whether intentional or not.

Kuznetsov logged 7:27 of 5-on-5 icetime against Panarin in Game 4. Wilson (6:52), Oshie (6:46), Ovechkin (6:42) and Backstrom (6:01) all got a few cracks at Panarin, but nothing major. Those minutes are far more even than in Game 5 in Washington in which Ovechkin matched against Panarin for 12:45. Kuznetsov (12:42) and Wilson (12:30) also got plenty of opportunities against Panarin as opposed to Chandler Stephenson (2:10), Oshie (2:10) and Backstrom (2:01).

This is a match up the Caps want and the Blue Jackets are trying to get away from.

Trotz was asked about defending Panarin on Sunday.

“There's no one shadowing anybody,” Trotz said. “You know you want to take time and space from top players in this league, and if you do and you take away as many options as possible, you have a chance to limit their damage that they can do to you."

At a glance, this statement seems to contradict itself. You are going to take time and space away from Panarin, but you’re not going to shadow him? But in truth, this is exactly what the Caps are doing.

When the Caps’ top line matches against Panarin, if they continue attack and maintain possession in the offensive zone, that limits the time Panarin gets on the attack.

This will become more difficult on Monday, however, as the series shifts back to Columbus for Game 6. As the Blue Jackets get the second line change, just as in Game 4, you should expect to see Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella try to get his top line away from the Caps’ to avoid that matchup.

Shutting down Columbus’ power play and matching Panarin against both Ovechkin’s line and the Orlov-Niskanen pairing have been the keys to shutting him down. The Caps will need more of the same on Monday to finish off the series.

MORE CAPITALS vs. BLUE JACKETS:
How Nick Backstrom saved the Capitals in Game 5
Burakovsky done for first-round, but how much longer?
Capitals' penalty kill the biggest difference maker