CAP­I­TALS

Smart puck play cru­cial against red-hot ri­val

The Washington Times Daily - - SPORTS - BY TOMMY CHALK

The Fly­ers have been on a tear, win­ning 10 of their last 12, gain­ing at least a point in 11 of them.

Jakub Vo­racek, who went through a painful run last year, scor­ing just a sin­gle goal in his first 30 games, is a big part the Fly­ers’ suc­cess. He’s av­er­ag­ing a point per game this year, scor­ing 11 goals and 23 as­sists in 34 games, tied for the third-most in the NHL. Close be­hind him is Claude Giroux, with 30 points in 34 games, and pro­lific power for­ward Wayne Sim­monds is mak­ing noise with 16 goals this year, tied for the fourth-most in the Na­tional Hockey League.

Sep­a­rat­ing the Fly­ers from the rest of the NHL is their power play. Philadel­phia has con­verted on 22.8 per­cent of their op­por­tu­ni­ties this year, fourth-high­est league. And it’s no sur­prise to see the likes of Giroux, Sim­monds and Vo­racek pow­er­ing the way. Giroux’s 15 power play points and Sim­monds’ eight power play goals both lead the NHL in the re­spec­tive cat­e­gories. Fac­tor in Vo­racek’s and Bray­den Schenn’s 13 power play points apiece and de­fense­man Shayne Gostis­be­here’s nine, and the Fly­ers have dan­ger­ous op­tions all over the ice.

“Five re­ally good play­ers,” Cap­i­tals coach Barry Trotz said. “To me, they pass the puck re­ally well. Ob­vi­ously Giroux is a key guy. A lot of de­cep­tive passes. I think Vo­racek is on an­other level this year in terms of trust in his own game. Wayne Sim­monds in front. They’re a shoot­ing power play, and they make plays off those sit­u­a­tions.”

The Fly­ers are also get­ting con­tri­bu­tions from two young phe­noms. Drafted with their seventh-over­all pick in the 2015 draft, de­fense­man Ivan Provorov has been as good as ad­ver­tised. Re­spon­si­ble in his own zone, Provorov’s suc­cess in the of­fen­sive zone as a ju­nior-level player has trans­lated to the NHL, as he’s recorded three goals and 12 as­sists in 34 games.

Drafted just 17 picks later in that same 2015 draft, Philadel­phia is get­ting value from their un­der­sized for­ward in Travis Konecny. At just 5-foot-10 and 175 pounds, Konecny re­lies on in­tel­li­gence and po­si­tion­ing, and it’s al­ready earned him four goals and 12 as­sists at the ripe age of 19.

“He’s one of those young kids that has a dy­namic skill set,” Trotz said of Konecny. “He gets to those open spa­ces. You look at the speed and re­lease, he’s got good hockey sense of­fen­sively. That’s the new-age player.”

Konecny also can sur­prise with his feisti­ness. In Novem­ber against the New York Rangers, Konecny took ex­cep­tion on a board­ing penalty Rangers’ for­ward Bran­don Pirri took on Bran­don Man­ning. Im­me­di­ately, Konecny charged at Pirri, rip­ping off his gloves be­fore toughly throw­ing him to the ground.

That edge has be­come syn­ony­mous with the Fly­ers’ brand of hockey. On each line, vir­tu­ally any­one is ca­pa­ble of step­ping up for a big hit or drop­ping the gloves in pure anger. Be­tween for­wards Sim­monds, Schenn and de­fense­men Man­ning and Radko Gu­das, a thun­der­ous hit can be thrown or fisticuffs can break out at any given mo­ment. And with the game fea­tured on na­tional tele­vi­sion and a heated ri­valry, the Cap­i­tals are fully ex­pect­ing a ramped up, phys­i­cal game.

“Any­time we’ve played the Fly­ers, it’s been in­tense,” Trotz said. “I don’t ex­pect any­thing dif­fer­ent. It’s an im­por­tant game in the stand­ings for both teams. I’ve yet to see us and the Fly­ers not have an in­tense game.”

To­ward the end of Novem­ber and the be­gin­ning of De­cem­ber, Wash­ing­ton’s scor­ers weren’t scor­ing, the penalty kill wasn’t killing and mur­murs were swirling the 2016-17 Cap­i­tals just didn’t have last sea­son’s killer in­stinct, when the team sprinted away from the rest of the NHL en route to a Pres­i­dent Tro­phy­win­ning 120-point cam­paign.

The last seven games have qui­eted the skep­tics. Since Dec. 5, Wash­ing­ton has gone 6-1 and is now on pace for a scorch­ing 113-point sea­son.

For­ward T.J. Oshie said the Cap­i­tals are more ef­fec­tive when they’re choos­ing their shots in­stead of over-re­ly­ing on puck skills to crash the of­fen­sive zone, skate to the net as quickly as pos­si­ble and take on the op­po­si­tion one-on-one.

“I think we’re bet­ter when we pick and choose our chances to go on a rush,” Oshie said. “Ev­ery once in a while, yeah, we can get through them with our skill, but more times than not [it won’t work]. With our speed and work ethic, when we get pucks be­hind them, we’re able to get it back and ex­tend our zone time.”

Oshie’s not sure if the Cap­i­tals are get­ting fewer sec­ond chances than they were last sea­son, but rush­ing the puck up the ice un­der­stand­ably cre­ates fewer sec­ondary chances and those so-called “dirty goals.”

“I just think last year, there wasn’t that many turnovers,” Oshie said. “I can’t nec­es­sar­ily re­mem­ber if we were chip­ping more pucks, I just think that we were mak­ing bet­ter de­ci­sions and mov­ing pucks in bet­ter ar­eas to get in the zone. It’s not a tough thing to fix, I think it’s just a men­tal­ity go­ing in that, once we get across the red line, that puck’s get­ting deep one way or an­other.”

Smart plays with the puck will be cru­cial against the Philadel­phia Fly­ers, the Cap­i­tals’ up­com­ing op­po­nent on Wed­nes­day — a game that fea­tured in prime time on NBCSN’s Ri­valry Night.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Wash­ing­ton Cap­i­tals for­ward T.J. Oshie (top) said rush­ing the puck up the ice cre­ates fewer sec­ondary chances and those so-called “dirty goals.”

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