WASHINGTON - All weekend long, the television trumpeted the matchup. Alex Ovechkin against the Flyers. Two teams that score a lot. Two teams that give up a lot, too.
Goals, goals, goals.
Fun, fun, fun.
"The network guys aren't going to like you for this," coach John Stevens was told after the Flyers handcuffed the Washington Capitals yesterday, 2-0, at times making the raucous Verizon Center sound more like the nearby
Stevens smiled that Cheshire cat grin of his and walked on. From the moment Friday night's 5-4 shootout ended, he had defended his game plan, blaming the number of goals and the Flyers' third-period meltdown on "self-inflicted wounds" and "poor execution." What transpired in front of him yesterday - huge stretches when the high-flying Caps did not have a shot, a neutral zone that often resembled the drive-time Schuylkill and not the European autobahn of Friday night - was what he envisioned happening on Friday.
"Tactically, there wasn't a lot of difference in the game plan," Stevens insisted. "I just thought we did a much better job with the effort in between the whistles and in the loose-puck races and in the puck battles along the boards."
Well, OK. But Braydon Coburn's laser pass that sprang R.J. Umberger at the Caps' blue line for the game's first goal sure looked like a designed play, especially when replays slowed it down. The Flyers handled Ovechkin well again, but they apparently added a strategy to deal with goal-scoring defenseman Mike Green, who notched the Caps' other two third-period goals Friday night.
"You have to make sure he doesn't jump into the plays," Flyers defenseman Kimmo Timonen said. "And he's a really good skater. So if you go by him, you won't catch him. So we just made sure - if you can't hit him, don't run into him. Stay back."
Stay back. Push forward. Timonen lauded an intense Flyers forecheck yesterday that hustled back, took fewer risks, and limited odd-man rushes. Mike Richards, again often Ovechkin's shadow, said, "Our defense did a great job holding their gaps." Goaltender Martin Biron, recording his third shutout in his last four games, probably set the tone with three big first-period saves, but each time second chances were swept away by a more desperate Philadelphia effort than Friday's.
And a more pedestrian one. With a two-goal lead after one period, the Flyers spent the last 5 minutes of the second period dumping pucks deep, clogging the neutral zone, making the simple play over and over again. Washington didn't have a shot in the last 7:13 of the period, and after a brief, four-shot flurry to start the third - aided by a power play - the Caps had four shots on goal over the final half of the third period.
As maddening and excruciating as it was to watch, the Flyers mostly stayed along the boards in their own zone and resisted the temptation to do more against Washington's forecheck. Simple plays, diligence, the old, network-unfriendly muck and grind.
"They have a lot of skill on that team," Timonen said. "If you go play their game, we're going to lose.
"We had a 4-2 lead in the first game and we probably thought we were going to sit back and make sure they didn't get anything going. But it's hard to stop those guys like that. They have a lot of speed and a lot of skill."
Which is what everyone expected to see when this series started, and especially after Friday night's electrifying third period. Even Stevens got caught sounding like a fan yesterday, saying, "Tell you what, with Ovechkin and [Alexander] Semin and [Sergei] Fedorov, [Nicklas] Backstrom and Green, their transition game is terrific.
"But," he said quickly, "we can't get drawn into that."
If you are a Flyers fan, you can be encouraged that, for most of this series, they haven't been. They could be coming back to this week's games in Philadelphia with a 2-0 lead with just a few fewer self-inflicted wounds.
That's the discouraging part, though, too. Against Washington's talent, one or two boo-boos are all it takes to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
Friday's loss should have drilled that lesson home, but sometimes an eagerness to please can obscure that.
"I'm sure because it's our rink we'll be pumped up," Timonen said. "But we have to make sure we do the same things we did today."
No matter how ugly it looks?
"Hey," he said, "that's our game." *
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