Washington Capitals (first seed, Metropolitan Division) versus Philadelphia Flyers (second Eastern Conference wild card)
It's the fifth postseason meeting between the Capitals and the Flyers, and the first since 2008, when Philadelphia beat Washington 4-3 in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals. The Flyers advanced to the conference finals that season, but lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Capitals have not played past the second round since they reached the Stanley Cup finals in 1998. Many believe, however, that this could be the season Washington finally becomes a serious Cup contender. In their second season under coach Barry Trotz, the Caps have become a dominant team thanks to their size, strength, speed and talent. As for the Flyers, they clawed their way into the playoffs with a 3-1 victory over the Penguins on Saturday in the penultimate game of the regular season. Philadelphia also got help from the Ottawa Senators, who crushed the Boston Bruins -- and their postseason hopes -- 6-1 on Saturday.
How they win
Washington: There's so much more to this team than Alex Ovechkin. Sure, the captain registered his third consecutive 50-goal season when he scored a hat trick during a 5-1 win against the St. Louis Blues on Saturday, but the Capitals have balance and depth to complement a talented roster. It starts with goaltending and Braden Holtby, a Vezina Trophy candidate, has been outstanding and won his 48th game on Saturday to tie the NHL single-season record. Washington is the second-highest scoring team (248 goals) in the league behind the Dallas Stars (265). The Capitals also finished fourth overall on both the power play and penalty kill. Washington has been outstanding both at home (29-8-4) and on the road (27-10-4), which explains its 120 points. The Capitals are a superior team from top to bottom and unless they have a complete meltdown, they should have a deep playoff run.
Philadelphia: A nothing-to-lose mentality could go a long way for the Flyers as they face the best team in the NHL. If Philly has any chance of winning this series, it will need outstanding goaltending from Steve Mason, who finished the regular season with 23 wins. Discipline will also be a key factor for the Flyers. They finished 22nd on the penalty kill and the last thing they want is Ovechkin waiting for a one-timer from the top of the circle on the power play. It also helps that the Flyers have been on a roll down the stretch with a 15-6-2 record over their final 23 games and have been getting contributions throughout the lineup. Philly has also outscored opponents 63-53 during that span, averaging nearly three goals and 33 shots per game.
How they lose
Washington: Nothing is impossible, of course, but it's highly unlikely that the Capitals will lose this series. Even if the Caps suffer a few untimely injuries, they have the depth to succeed. The only way Washington will be one and done is if, for some reason, Holtby unravels.
Philadelphia: It's not in the Flyers' favor that they are facing a dominant and determined opponent. It's also entirely possible that Philadelphia could get swept in this series.
Ovechkin reached the 50-goal plateau this season in dramatic fashion, with a hat trick during Saturday's 5-1 win against the St. Louis Blues. It's the seventh time in his career that the Russian-born player has reached that milestone, making him just the third player in NHL history to accomplish that feat. He joined Wayne Gretzky and Mike Bossy, who both scored 50 goals nine times.
Washington: Since the Flyers will likely focus on containing the top line of Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie, it's fair to suggest that second-line center Evgeny Kuznetsov will continue his dominant season. The 23-year-old forward finished with 20 goals and 57 assists for 77 points in 82 games. Other than Ovechkin and Backstrom, Kuznetsov is the only other player since Dale Hunter (1992-93) to record 20 goals and 57 assists in a season. Kuznetsov is a dynamic player and should continue his point production in the playoffs.
Philadelphia: Other than goaltending, the play of forward Wayne Simmonds will be another important aspect. He finished the regular season with 32 goals and 28 assists for 60 points in 81 games. He's been outstanding down the stretch, and has seven goals and two assists for nine points in his last seven games.
The Capitals are finally poised for a deep run in the Stanley Cup playoffs, and the Flyers will become their first victims. Washington could sweep, but the Flyers will squeak out one win at home. Capitals in 5.