Capitals prepare for hard-fought series against Flyers
Philadelphia Flyers' Claude Giroux (28) checks Pittsburgh Penguins' Oscar Sundqvist into the boards during the second period of an NHL hockey game Saturday, April 9, 2016 in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Tom Mihalek)
ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) The reward for the Washington Capitals finishing first in the Eastern Conference is a first-round matchup with the rough-and-tumble Philadelphia Flyers, whose second-half surge got them into the playoffs during the final weekend of the regular season.
It's not a soft start to the playoffs for the Capitals, but they are OK with that.
''It'll be hard-fought,'' goaltender Braden Holtby said. ''They have a physical group, a lot of skill. But realistically, it doesn't matter the opponent to us. … For us, it's focusing on what's made us successful and what's going to, and that's just being ourselves, being the Capitals.''
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The Capitals are rich with skill from left wing Alex Ovechkin and centers Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov down. The Flyers have plenty of skill, too, including center Claude Giroux and rookie defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere.
The Flyers also have a little of the ''Broad Street Bullies'' in them. The Capitals could call on big forward Tom Wilson and defenseman Mike Weber to take on more substantial roles.
''I'd like to think the team is constructed to play both ways – to play heavy and to play a skilled game, that we can adapt to either style of game,'' Washington general manager Brian MacLellan said Monday. ''We need Wilson, we need (Brooks) Orpik, we need Ovi to play heavy games. They're hard guys to play against because they're big and strong.''
The Capitals are considered favorites in the series, but the two teams split four games during the regular season. That has the Flyers feeling confident.
''I think we played some really great hockey against them,'' Gostisbehere said. ''They're the best team in the league for a reason, they're very good. We have a good test on our hands there.''
The test for the Capitals is withstanding the physical toll the Flyers could exact over the course of the series. Backstrom suffered an upper-body injury on a hit during Washington's most recent game against Philadelphia that caused him to miss three games, and the Flyers aren't afraid to finish checks or mix it up after whistles.
''They play a real hard team game,'' Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. ''They play sort of that pack mentality.''
That pack mentality helped the Flyers go 21-9-6 down the stretch to return to the playoffs after a one-year absence.
The Capitals are in the playoffs for the eighth time in nine years and many expect them to challenge for the Stanley Cup championship. MacLellan said he isn't worried about the road to get there.
''I don't think there's an easy way to get through any of it,'' he said. ''I just think any team can beat any team in the playoffs here. They're all good teams. It's just going to take a good effort to beat whoever you beat. If it's Philly, it's Philly, If it's someone else, it's someone else.''
Former Flyers forward Justin Williams, who has won the Cup three times since he played there, said the Capitals will be wary of any opponent they face along the way. The Flyers, especially so, as defenseman Karl Alzner expects an emotional series full of tight checking.
''They're going to throw everything they have at us,'' Alzner said.
NOTES: MacLellan said he anticipates forward Jay Beagle will play in Game 1 Thursday after taking a shot off the left foot Saturday in St. Louis ''unless there's some setbacks.'' … Holtby was held out of the regular-season finale Sunday with a chance to break the single-season wins record in part because the Capitals saw another goalie get hurt. MacLellan said Matt Murray of the Pittsburgh Penguins getting injured with some incidental contact Saturday afternoon against Philadelphia played into the decision. ''What if something random happened like that?'' MacLellan said. ''Could we live with ourselves putting him at risk?''
AP Sports Writer Dan Gelston in Philadelphia contributed to this report.