There’s a team from Pennsylvania with a six-game winning streak threatening the Washington Capitals’ division lead. It’s not the team you’re probably thinking of.
The Philadelphia Flyers, not the Pittsburgh Penguins, have climbed into second place in the Metropolitan Division thanks to the longest active winning streak in the Eastern Conference. With a month to go in the NHL regular season, the Capitals’ final game against the Flyers on Wednesday could play a crucial role in how the division standings shake out.
Entering Wednesday’s matchup, the Capitals lead the Flyers by just three points in the standings, 86 to 83. Pittsburgh, losers of six straight, is in third place with 80 points entering its game Tuesday night.
It doesn’t help that the Flyers have had the Capitals’ number this season. The Capitals’ only win in the first three meetings was via shootout last November. In February, the Flyers visited Washington and pounded Braden Holtby and company for a 7-2 win.
Some players have opted to put that game out of mind when preparing for Philadelphia’s next visit.
“If I’m gonna remember trying to think about the last game what happened (versus) Philly, then I’m gonna be pissed little bit, right?” Evgeny Kuznetsov said. “But I don’t want to go back, I don’t want to look whatever happened in the past, I just want to focus on the future.”
It wasn’t just a one-game fluke. In three meetings the Capitals have mustered just five goals in regulation, and Alex Ovechkin has yet to score on the Flyers this year — the only team to hold Ovechkin scoreless across three or more meetings this season.
Philadelphia’s defensemen — including former Capital Matt Niskanen — are limiting opponents to 28.5 shots on goal per game, the best mark in the league. And the Flyers lead the league in most goals scored by their defensemen with 42, led by Ivan Provorov’s 11 and Niskanen’s eight.
“They’re playing really well as a five-man unit,” Capitals coach Todd Reirden said. “I think they’re getting contributions from a bunch of different people through their lineup. You don’t see guys that are at the 100-point number like you have in Edmonton or something like that. I think they’re getting contributions up and down their lineup.”
If special teams decide Wednesday’s game, it doesn’t bode well for the Capitals, either. They were held to one power-play goal in 12 chances in their three previous meetings with Philadelphia, while the Flyers’ own power play is 10-for-23 (43.5%) in their last eight games.
“They’re hot. When you’re hot, you’re hot,” Capitals defenseman Brenden Dillon said. “They got a lot of confidence to win hockey games. Their power play has been on a tear and they are coming at every team from all angles and it is an important matchup obviously with the division and how well they are playing.”
Dmitry Orlov added that first-year coach Alain Vigneault’s presence has something to do with the Flyers’ surprise success.
“They got a new coach probably and he change them a little bit and everybody working hard, try to show they can play,” Orlov said. “Because it’s always when new coach comes, everybody fight for their spot and (work) hard. That’s what they did, I think.
“Last time it was not great game for us,” he added, “so we’re going to be ready (Wednesday) and it’s gonna be rivalry division game and it’s still a battle for playoffs and they’re not that many points behind us, so we need to show our best game there.”
It doesn’t ease up for the Capitals afterwards. On Thursday, they visit the New York Rangers, who have won nine of their last 12, and on Saturday they make their first trip of the season to Pittsburgh. But there’s no looking past Wednesday’s game against the dark-horse contender to win the highly competitive Metro.
“This is a situation for us where we didn’t like the last time we played them,” Reirden said, “and we need to respond with a stronger game and know that they’re right there along with the rest of the Metro teams in a very tight divisional race.”
Holtby will start against Philadelphia while Ilya Samsonov will take the net in New York the next night.