PHILADELPHIA | Nicklas Backstrom knew it right after the Capitals eliminated the New York Rangers in five games to move on to the Eastern Conference semifinals.
“If you look statistically, that’s something you see - short series,” Backstrom said. “All the teams who’s been winning has had one short series.”
He’s right - the past 18 years’ worth of Stanley Cup winners have dispatched first-round opponents quickly. And then there are the Philadelphia Flyers, the Caps’ top rivals in the East, who survived a hard-fought, seven-game series with the Buffalo Sabres.
The No. 1 and No. 2 seeds are still alive, and both believe their way through provides the best path this spring - the Caps because they have extra rest and the confidence to blow a team away and the Flyers because they were tested early and often.
Washington will begin its second-round series against the Tampa Bay Lightning Friday at Verizon Center.
“I think it just boils down to the heart and character in the room and guys understanding that you have to have a ‘never say quit’ attitude,” Flyers defenseman Chris Pronger said. “From the drop of the puck until the end buzzer, you have to be prepared to sacrifice.”
Mike Green, who took a puck to the head in Game 5, and the Caps know plenty about sacrifice. But they didn’t quite have the pitfalls the Flyers did. Washington had one goalie (Michal Neuvirth) put up some of the best numbers in the playoffs, while Philadelphia became the first team since the 1998 Detroit Red Wings to win a series with three different netminders making appearances.
“There is no question that it is a different type of series when you use three goaltenders,” Flyers coach Peter Laviolette said.
It worked for the Flyers, who eventually wore down a battered Sabres team. Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff said it best: “Our chance was in Game 6, and we had it.” But they didn’t and couldn’t close out the team that was atop the East for much of the season.
What the Sabres couldn’t do in sticking a stake in the Flyers, the Caps did to the Rangers - developing a killer instinct and finishing off the series before they had to go back and deal with the Madison Square Garden crowd again. That provided confidence, Alex Ovechkin said, and some much-needed rest.
“Any team, you want to win it as quick as you can ‘cause it’s such a physical pounding in the playoffs that if you can get breaks to get healthy, I think it’s a good thing,” Caps coach Bruce Boudreau said.
Up I-95 and in upstate New York, the Flyers got pounded, losing sniper Jeff Carter during the series as they phased Pronger back into the lineup with his broken right hand. Enduring all that was a product of the experience gleaned from a run to the Stanley Cup Final last year, as the Flyers fell behind 3-2 in the series and had to win on the road in overtime to force a deciding Game 7.
“Yeah, they’ll probably do a movie about it,” Flyers forward Claude Giroux said. “The three goalies came in, and guys didn’t give up. We were down three games to two, and winning in overtime was a lot of fun and a good experience.”
It was a challenge, too, but new ones await the Flyers and Caps, who could be on a crash course to meet in the Eastern Conference finals. But with both teams still needing four victories to make that a reality, no one in either locker room is trying to think that far ahead.
Said Flyers goalie Brian Boucher: “I think we are just happy to be moving on and to take a deep breath here.”