Playoff predictions - Eastern Conference, 1st Add

No. 3 Washington Capitals (43-31-8, 94 points) vs. No. 6 Philadelphia Flyers (42-29-11, 95 points)

OVERVIEW: The Capitals are, without question, the feel-good story of the year in the NHL heading into the playoffs. If it weren’t for them, the Flyers would be.

With just six wins in their first 21 games, Washington appeared out of the playoff running when they fired Glen Hanlon on Thanksgiving. Bruce Boudreau – an undersized center from the 1970s – came up from Hershey of the AHL on an interim basis and helped guide a stunning turnaround, capped Sunday with a win over Florida and a No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference as Southeast Division champions for the first time since 2001.

“There was never a word of ‘We couldn’t’ or ‘We won’t’ or ‘We can’t,’ it was always pushing through and believing in ourselves. This whole season’s been a dream,” said Boudreau, who got his first NHL coaching win against Philadelphia, and should get many votes for the Jack Adams Trophy as coach of the year.

Seven straight wins, 11 of 12 coming into the playoffs. Who would have imagined?

Then again. having Alexander Ovechkin providing much of the offense certainly helped make Boudreau’s transition easier.

Two years after winning the Calder Trophy, Ovechkin will add the Art Ross, the Rocket Richard, and almost certainly the Hart Trophy as MVP. He finished with 65 goals- the most by an NHL player in a dozen years – and 112 points, both league highs.

Ovechkin, headed to the postseason for the first time, scored 51 goals in 61 games under Boudreau.

Cristobal Huet’s contributions cannot be overlooked either. Picked up from Montreal for a second-round pick in a trading deadline deal that raised some eyebrows, Huet has taken over for longtime starter Olaf Kolzig by going 11-2-0 with a 1.63 goals-against average and two shutouts.

In 2006-07, the Flyers were what the Capitals this season were on the way to becoming. Philadelphia, far and away, had the league’s worst record and finished with a franchise-worst 56 points.

This season, they nearly had four 30-goal scorers. Newcomer Daniel Briere, signed to an eight-year, $52 million free-agent deal in the offseason, led the Flyers with 31 followed by Mike Knuble and Jeff Carter (29 each) and Mike Richards, who had 28 and a team-best 75 points.

Perhaps the most stunning aspect to the Flyers’ turnaround is they did so despite having concussion-prone Simon Gagne for only 25 games.

Martin Biron, in his first full season with the Flyers, finished with 30 wins – one shy of tying a career high. He closed out 2007-08 with back-to-back shutouts, and hasn’t given up a goal in 121 minutes, 21 seconds.

HOW WASHINGTON CAN WIN: Ovechkin needs to continue playing at an MVP level, but he cannot do it alone. Rookie Nicklas Backstrom, second with 69 points and unheralded defenseman Mike Green – third with 56 – also cannot let playoff pressure get to them.

A decade’s worth of futility also must be forgotten. Starting with a sweep at the hands of Detroit in the 1998 Stanley Cup final, Washington has dropped 16 of 21 playoff games, including four in a row coming in.

HOW PHILADELPHIA CAN WIN: Besides shutting down Ovechkin? Martin Biron will need to outplay Huet in goal, simple as that.

Biron was 1-1-1 against the Caps this season, allowing four goals in each contest.

During Phialdelphia’s 10-game losing streak in February, Biron was 0-5-1 with a 3.33 GAA. After that, he was 10-5-3 with a 2.40 GAA in 18 starts, losing consecutive ones just once the remainder of the season.

SEASON SERIES: Flyers, 2-1-1.

THE PICK: Capitals in 6. Ovechkin’s offense and Huet’s defense will be too much for the Flyers to handle.

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