- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 21, 2016

It would have been easy to understand if a high level of animosity between the Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers carried into Game 4 of the teams’ first-round playoff series on Wednesday.

After all, the Flyers were trying to stave off elimination, owing to their losses in each of the first three games of the best-of-seven series, and a volatile mix of disgust, desperation and determination finally combusted in the closing minutes of their eventual 6-1 loss in Game 3 on Monday night.

Instead, after combining for 20 or more penalties in two of their first three games, the teams played what ranked as a relatively clean 60 minutes. And, in a series in which the Capitals routinely feasted on their opponent’s penalty kill, scoring eight times in their first 17 chances, the Flyers starved them not just for goals but chances as well in Washington’s 2-1 loss on Wednesday.

“If this turns into a five-on-five game, then we have to be the better five-on-five team,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. “That’s where it’s at.”

That, in theory, shouldn’t be hard for the Capitals, who hold the 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series. They owned not only one of the league’s better power-play units during the regular season, ranking fifth with a 21.9 percent success rate, they also finished second with 191 even-strength goals and 10th with 77 percent of their goals scored at even strength.

Yet, only five of the 13 goals they have scored over the first four games of the playoff series have been scored in five-on-five play — and while that represents a small sample size, it also is influenced by the sheer amount of time the Capitals and Flyers have had to deploy their special teams.

SEE ALSO: Barry Trotz: Brayden Schenn’s cross-check to Evgeny Kuznetsov was ‘dangerous’

Only 41:41 was played at even strength in Game 1, including a second period in which one team had the man advantage for 6:18. Game 3, on Monday, was even more lopsided: Only 37:42 was played at even strength, including a stretch of just over six minutes in the third period when the Capitals had at least a one-man advantage.

Those situations seem unlikely to present themselves again, especially with the Flyers only being called for a pair of minor penalties in the second period. That means, for Game 5 on Friday — and perhaps beyond that — a disciplined style of play should resume.

“We had a lot of power-play goals the first three games, and obviously, that was something they talked about — try to stay out of the box and play five-on-five,” center Nicklas Backstrom said on Thursday afternoon. “So, that’s probably going to be the case tomorrow as well.”

It did not become apparent to the Capitals until the second intermission on Wednesday that the tenor of the game would not be in their favor. By that point, the Flyers had already seized a 2-0 lead, scoring their first power-play goal of the series in 13 opportunities in the first period and then tacking on an insurance goal in the second.

Thus, Washington laid out a simple strategy: Pepper goaltender Michal Neuvirth with a number of shots and distract him with bodies in front of the net, hoping that if an attempt didn’t go through, the rebound would be there for the quick deposit.

That’s exactly what happened on T.J. Oshie’s goal, which was scored 2:38 after the end of the intermission and on Washington’s fourth shot attempt of the period. Defenseman Matt Niskanen fired from the point, and when that shot was stopped, Backstrom deftly flicked the puck over to Oshie, who had an empty net in front of him.

Though the Capitals outshot the Flyers, 13-4, in the third period, and finished with an astounding 35-6 edge in shot attempts, Oshie provided Washington’s only goal. Neuvirth, who spent parts of six seasons with the Capitals before being traded at the deadline in March 2014, finished with 31 saves in his first playoff start in nearly five years.

“They played really well in the first and second,” Oshie said. “We weren’t getting pucks deep and getting all five guys in on the forecheck. That’s where you create all your turnovers. That’s where you play fast — when you can get everyone in there. … I think we sharpened that up in the third pretty good.”

Trotz suggested that the offensive stagnation over the first two periods was due in part to a forecheck that failed to match up to that of the Flyers, plus an inability to chip and cycle the puck.

The Capitals sustained time in the attacking zone in the back half of the first period, but were otherwise unable to make their presence felt there until a frenzied third period.

“If you look at it overall, we have to be better five-on-five, we have to get more traffic in front of the net and all those things,” Backstrom said. “We can be a little hungrier, I think, all the time.”

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