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Behind Enemy Lines: Previewing the Capitals, Flyers, and Penguins

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A quartet of Metro Division games should settle some questions in the divisional playoff race.

NHL: Philadelphia Flyers at Washington Capitals Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Washington Capitals

Tuesday, 7:00 p.m. at Capital One Arena; Thursday, 7:00 p.m. at PNC Arena

NHL: Philadelphia Flyers at Washington Capitals Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

The Washington Capitals have positioned themselves at the top of the Metropolitan Division by a one point margin with just six games remaining in their season. While the Hurricanes sit just five points behind that lead, they do so while in fourth place in the jam-packed division, and any hopes of a late run to an improbable division title would most certainly require a sweep in this crucial home and home with Washington.

The Caps have pushed their way to the top of the division on the back of solid run of play that has seen them win 10 of their last 14 (10-3-1). As always, Alex Ovechkin has led the way, posting a robust league-leading 48 goals while tallying 89 points in total. His usual running mate, Nicklas Backstrom, has also had another fine season with 69 points to date. Add in the talents of Evgeny Kuzketsov (65 points), active defenseman John Carlson (65 points), and secondary scorers such as T.J. Oshie (22 goals), Jakub Vrana (22 goals), Brett Connolly (21 goals), and Tom Wilson (22 goals), and you see how the Capitals have been able to maintain their status as a Cup contender out of the Metro Division with top-end scoring which is supplemented by solid secondary offense.

In net, Braden Holtby has continued to carry the load with his 55 games played. His .909 save percentage and 2.9 goals against average have been solid enough to allow the sixth best offense in the league to flourish. You can expect Holtby to be in net for both ends of the home and home with the day off in between, as the Canes will look to improve upon their 6-14 record (averaging 2.03 goals) against Holtby.

If the Canes can resist the neutral zone turnovers that make the Caps so potent offensively, they should have enough scoring opportunities on the other end to make for a pair of exciting, pivotal games as this playoff races winds to a close.

What to Watch For

  • Obviously, Ovechkin is as electric as any player, arguably in the history of the NHL. He is a sight to see, especially of the Caps get their powerplay on the ice.
  • Against the Penguins, Rod Brind’Amour chose to put his “best” up against the same from Pittsburgh. Will Aho and company get the same assignment against the Caps top line on Thursday at home?

Philadelphia Flyers

Saturday, 1:30 p.m. at PNC Arena

NHL: New York Islanders at Philadelphia Flyers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The Philadelphia Flyers have seen their outside shot at the playoffs thrown on life support following a pair of divisional losses to the Islanders and Capitals this past weekend. Sitting eight points behind the Canadiens for the final playoff spot with six games remaining, their season is all but over.

However, the saving grace to this fate may be the experience and opportunity gained by rookie netminder Carter Hart, who has wowed in his first 27 starts in the NHL at the age of 20. Posting a .921 save percentage against 851 shots thus far on the season, Hart gives the Flyers hope that they may have the stable top netminder that has eluded them for years. This season alone, the Flyers have had eight different goalies start at least one games in net. If Hart proves to be what he has shown so far at the NHL level, the Flyers may be on their way back as a playoff contender in coming years.

Offensively, the Flyers have been a solid 13th overall, with Claude Giroux leading the way again at over a point per game (80 points). Sean Couturier (73 points) and Jakub Voracek (64 points) offer support in scoring, but from there the depth has been solid but may be an area that the Flyers seek to augment, as Wayne Simmonds has left for Nashville via trade at the deadline. With a solid core of players in place, and a host of younger performers such as Travis Konecny (20 years old), Nolan Patrick (20 years old), Oskar Lindblom (22 years old), Travis Sanheim (22 years old), and Ivan Provorov (22 years old) poised to continue to grab bigger roles, the Flyers will be a force to reckon with in coming years in the Metro.

For Saturday however, the Canes must simply put their best foot forward and grab the two points at home in this matinee affair. If they can do that, it will just be one additional final piece of the postseason berth puzzle they are attempting to complete.

What to Watch For

  • While the Canes power play has been abysmal, both the Caps and then the Flyers on Saturday have penalty kills rated in the bottom tier of the league (Caps 24th, Flyers 21st). Can the Canes get back on track and begin to move the puck better?
  • Speaking of powerplays, the Flyers man advantage took a hit with the loss of Wayne Simmonds out in front of the net. They will feature a more shot-based PP on Saturday in what will be the Canes first look at that new unit. What adjustments will need to be made?

Pittsburgh Penguins

Sunday, 5:00 p.m. at PPG Paints Arena

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at New York Rangers Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Penguins remain just ahead of the Hurricanes and right on the heels of the Capitals for first place in the Metro as they continue this week. At 95 points (four ahead of Carolina), the Penguins appear to be safe for a playoff spot, but will continue to press for the division crown and/or home ice advantage. Not much has changed for the Penguins since we reviewed their roster last week, so take a look at that for a further breakdown of Pittsburgh.

The biggest concerns have been the on again, off again status of Kris Letang who is dealing with a nagging upper body injury, and the expected absence for much of the rest of the season for Evgeni Malkin. While the Pens did reel off three consecutive wins following their loss to Carolina last Tuesday, with every team in the Metro race holding at least one game in hand over the Pens, they still need to close strong to position themselves for the postseason run their organization has come to expect.

While the game will be on the road, it will be interesting to see how Mike Sullivan counters the decisions that were made by Rod Brind’Amour on home ice last week. Brind’Amour chose to send out his top line against Crosby and the Pens top line consistently. How different will this game look in terms of matchups? One additional important factor is the light week that the Pens have in relation to the Canes. Pittsburgh does not play again until Friday at home against the Predators. Carolina has three games between now and the Sunday afternoon tilt, including a game the previous day. Fatigue could end up as a factor as this game wears on, and the Canes will be the team working with the heavier load.

But this week may well represent the best opportunity for a Carolina Hurricanes team to make their imprint in quite some time. Can they continue to dig ever deeper into their bucket of energy that has propelled them to this point? We shall see. Regardless, it will be an outstanding week to watch hockey.

What to Watch For

  • Jake Guentzel has consistently burned the Canes in his three-year career. With six goals and five assists, Carolina has allowed the second most amount of points to the young Center. Can they figure out a way to slow him down as well as the top line?
  • The Canes will be looking for their first season-series win over the Pens since 2009-10, when they went 3-0-1. Can they pull off the sweep in Pittsburgh to get it?