Rob Vollman is a leading voice in hockey analysis. He invented players usage charts and has written for NHL.com and ESPN Insider. His new book, Stat Shot, is available for pre-order and you can get Hockey Abstract (and the 2015 update) now.
After a dominant season, expectations are that the Washington Capitals will defeat the Philadelphia Flyers in their Eastern Conference First Round series in short order, but this may prove to be the tightest series in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Philadelphia’s overall numbers leave the impression of being a League-average team in most regards. They scored 211 goals and allowed 210 for a goal differential of plus-1, they took 2,540 shots and allowed 2,519 for a shot differential of plus-21, their power play and penalty killing percentages of 18.9 and 80.5 percent were within a few decimal places of the League averages of 18.7 and 81.3 percent, and they had a regulation-time record of 28-27-27.
While their final numbers appear modest, the trend lines suggest that the Flyers have been on a steady rise all season, and that they have caught up to the Capitals at season’s end.
Because of the time required to adjust to Dave Hakstol and the new coaching staff, and perhaps a little bit of bad luck, the Flyers got off to a very slow start this season. After 20 games, they were outscored 57 to 34, had a 6-9-5 record, and were tied with the Carolina Hurricanes for the fewest wins in the NHL.
If you set aside that first quarter of the season, then the Flyers have been just as effective as teams like the Chicago Blackhawks.
Since November 22, 2015, the Flyers have outscored opponents 177 to 153, and have a record of 35-18-9. With one fewer goal against, all those numbers exactly match the performance of the Blackhawks, who were tied with the St. Louis Blues for the fifth best win-loss record over that span.
Certainly, Washington would not be considered heavy favorites in a series against Chicago, nor should they be considered such against the statistically similar Philadelphia Flyers.
Restricting the view further to include only the 2016 calendar year, the Flyers have performed at an essentially equal level to the Capitals themselves. Since January 1, 2016, Washington outscored its opponents 133 to 113, and Philadelphia by an almost identical margin of 134 to 113.
Breaking down the analysis to the individual level, the Flyers have players that can compete with Washington’s top guns in virtually any statistical department.
For example, Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals led the League in the 2016 calendar year with 29 goals and 214 shots in 43 games, and Wayne Simmonds of the Philadelphia Flyers scored 23 goals in 150 shots in 45 games, the first of which stats were tied with Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks for third and seventh in the League, respectively.
In terms of assists, Nicklas Backstrom of the Washington Capitals and Claude Giroux of the Philadelphia Flyers are each tied 28 assists in the 2016 calendar year, which ranked ninth in the NHL.
And, with regards to overall scoring, Evgeny Kuznetsov of the Washington Capitals and Brayden Schenn of the Philadelphia Flyers were tied for sixth in the NHL with 44 points. Schenn also ranked second to Joe Thornton of the San Jose Sharks with 18 power play points.+
Defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere gives the Flyers an edge in one category over Washington, and that’s scoring from the point. Gostisbehere scored 32 points in 43 games in the 2016 calendar year, which is tied with Roman Josi of the Nashville Predators for fifth among defensemen, and also ranks fourth among rookies. Washington’s highest-scoring defenseman in this time was Matt Niskanen, with 17 points in 45 games.
Even the goaltending matches up well between these two teams, whether the view is restricted to the latter part of the season, or not.
Braden Holtby may have tied Martin Brodeur’s NHL record with 48 wins, but both teams had equally strong goaltending overall this season. Philadelphia’s team save percentage of .917 almost matched Washington’s team save percentage of .918, and actually exceeded it in even-strength situations, .933 to .929.
If the view is restricted even further, to how the two teams performed down the final stretch, then the Flyers may actually be considered the favorite.
Since February 24, the Flyers have a 15-5-3 record, which is tied with the Anaheim Ducks for the second best record in the League, while Washington is in a three-way tie for seventh with a record of 12-8-4.
In terms of goal differential, the Flyers closed the season by outscoring their opponents 68 to 55 in those final 23 games, while the Capitals were actually outscored, 59 to 57. That’s why there is some real potential of an upset in this series.
There’s no question that the Flyers got off to a slow start, as they adjusted to a new coaching staff, but they became consistently and increasingly more competitive as the season progressed. Depending how how the perspective is tightened, the Philadelphia Flyers could be a surprisingly even match for the mighty Washington Capitals.
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