PHILADELPHIA Flyers vs. Alex Ovechkin - that is how this first-round playoff series is being billed, equal parts insult to the Washington Capitals and gross oversimplification, but there you have it. It is hard to fit everybody's name in a headline, after all.
The strand of truth that runs through every cliche also runs through this one: that the Flyers cannot allow Ovechkin, the NHL's leading goal scorer, to dominate games by himself. One game in the best-of-seven series, maybe - but that's it. More would probably be insurmountable for the Flyers.
One player cannot halt him alone. It really does take a village to stop an Ovechkin. Saying that and acknowledging that, though, recent history suggests that one sweater among all of the black-and-orange sweaters will be greeting Ovechkin most of all:
No. 44, Kimmo Timonen.
"It's going to be a big challenge, but I'm looking forward to it," said Timonen, the Flyers' smoothest defensive presence. "Taking his time and space away - that's the key for me. If you give him too much space and time, he's going to make a play, he's going to shoot the puck. So, for me, going into the game, you have to make sure you're right on him all the time and contain him."
Is it exhausting to spend a night dealing with Ovechkin, who combines great skill with uncommon enthusiasm and rambunctiousness? It is more tiring than a normal game, more draining?
"It is a challenge," Timonen said, again, "but I take that like it is. A big challenge. We're talking about the best player in the league. It won't be easy, but if the coach gives me that challenge, I'm ready to take it. That's it."
The coach, John Stevens, is keeping his own counsel at this point on how his team will try to defend against the league's likely most valuable player, and you wouldn't expect anything else. Over seven games, a coach will probably try all kinds of things. It is the nature of the postseason.
"He's a bull," Stevens said. "He's a powerful guy. Just the fact that he's around the puck a lot means he has a lot of contact. He's not an easy guy to contain, and they like to pride themselves on the forecheck, and he loves to forecheck, but he skates extremely well. He's got great strength on his feet. He's a power forward with a high skill level. He's got a lot of dimensions to his game. I don't see the physical game bothering him at all."
Some teams try to put a skilled, skating line out against Ovechkin. Others go with a more traditional checking line. As Stevens said, "It's a little bit all over the map . . . We feel we have a pretty responsible front-end group. We've had a lot of guys play in checking roles."
Then Stevens talked about the need for team defense, and added, "The matchups will more likely come on the back end as well."
Which means defensemen. There is no way to predict what Stevens will do, only guess based upon the past. And in their most recent game against the Caps, back in early February, the forward combination that Stevens liked the most against Ovechkin was Jeff Carter, Mike Knuble and R.J. Umberger, who aren't a line anymore. The defense pairing he liked the most was Timonen and Jim Vandermeer, which tells you how long ago it really was (seeing as how Vandermeer isn't on the team anymore).
That was a Flyers home game, where Stevens could impose his will more often on the line changes. If you look back at the play-by-plays from the games in Washington, Stevens was forced to roll with the punches a lot more often and everybody got a piece of the responsibility. Stevens did not do any frantic line-matching at the Verizon Center in Washington. It seems as if he did what he could to get Timonen out there against Ovechkin, but not at the hurried expense of anyone else.
The result, as everyone is aware, was three goals and 19 shots by Ovechkin in four games - slightly better than what the rest of the league did against him.
"You can't just try to trade chances with him, try to get an odd-man rush one way and give up an odd-man rush the other way," Stevens said. "I think you do have to respect when he's on the ice . . . You have to know where he is. He's as good as there is in the league at moving around in the offensive zone to get open."
More than most, it likely will be Kimmo Timonen's job to find him. *
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