- The Washington Times - Monday, April 25, 2016

What figured to be a trying affair between the Washington Capitals‘ and Philadelphia Flyers‘ top lines ended up only being a challenge for one of them.

The Flyers scored only six goals, including an empty-netter, in the six-game playoff series, which the Capitals won on Sunday. They generated only four points from Jakub Voracek, Claude Giroux and Wayne Simmonds, the trio that formed their top line for much of the season.

Nicklas Backstrom, meanwhile, finished with a series-high seven points, including two goals — and the only one in the 1-0 victory in Game 6. Alex Ovechkin had three goals, two on the power play, and two assists, and T.J. Oshie had a goal and three assists.

Coach Barry Trotz said he “challenged” the Capitals‘ top players — not only the top line, but also defensemen Karl Alzner and Matt Niskanen — and their overall success is why Trotz made only one slight adjustment all series, swinging Marcus Johansson to the second line for Andre Burakovsky on Sunday.

“We were very comfortable with most of the matchups,” Trotz said. “That’s why I don’t think you saw them change, and that was a challenge to our top guys. Our top guys go head-to-head, and we were hoping our depth and special teams would be a difference-maker for us.”

They were, as the Capitals‘ power-play unit finished the series 8-for-27, even though it did not score after setting a playoff record with five goals in Game 3, and its penalty kill went 23-for-24.

Philadelphia’s top-line production was lessened when considering those circumstances. Voracek, the only one of the three to score a goal, did so during four-on-four play in Game 2, while Simmonds and Giroux had assists on defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere’s power-play goal in Game 4.

Even Brayden Schenn, who swapped spots with Voracek entering Game 4, had just two assists in the series, only one of which was during five-on-five. That means Giroux, Simmonds and Schenn, the Flyers‘ top three goal-scorers, did not score one after combining for 80 goals during the regular season.

“We didn’t have much space,” Voracek said. “They played well. They checked well. I think we played them well five-on-five as well, [but] the power play was the difference in the series.”

Flyers coach Dave Hakstol said that his top-liners were “absolutely warriors” throughout the six games, and said the coaching staff tried to tinker with certain aspects of play that it believed would provide Simmonds and Voracek with additional time and space at even strength.

That included mixing lines — not just by dropping Voracek, but also by moving third-line center Nick Cousins up for Michael Raffl late in the game. The Flyers had seven of their 11 third-period shots on goal in the final nine minutes, but none broke through.

“We tried to get a little boost in the third period by switching up those combinations and changing the rhythm a little bit,” Hakstol said. “We had a pretty good push in the third, just not quite enough. Those guys, their group, defended really well.”

That impediment was primarily the work of Alzner and Niskanen, who became the Capitals‘ top defensive pair following an injury to Orpik in Game 3. They logged an average of 21:23 and 18:58, respectively, at even strength in the last three games and played almost 10 minutes each in the final period on Sunday.

They were on the ice for only one of the Flyers‘ goals during the series — the one scored at by defenseman Andrew MacDonald in Game 4, assisted on by Simmonds and Schenn.

“We’re happy with that,” Alzner said. “That was a big key for us. Holts, obviously, has to play good for our team to be successful, but we try to lessen the load as much as possible, and I think the big key for us is just getting into guys early, not letting them get to the front of the net and picking up sticks when they do get point shots through.”

The Flyers scored not only the fewest goals among any of the playoff teams, they also took the second-fewest shots on goals per game — including setting a franchise record with just 11 in Game 5. Simmonds led the Flyers with 17 shots on goal and Voracek finished with 16, with averaged not only three per game during the series.

Trotz said a lot of the credit should go to Backstrom, who “elevated his presence” to oppose Giroux and the Flyers‘ top line.

Claude Giroux and Wayne Simmonds and Voracek and Schenn — they’re not an easy group to shut down,” Trotz said. “It was good on us for getting them shut down, but at the same time, it was not an easy task.”

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