Brookover: Playoff preview? Flyers hope so

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Brayden Schenn tries to shoot past the Capitals' John Carlson.

Do not be fooled by the appearance that the Flyers and Washington Capitals skated on the same ice in the same building Wednesday night. These were two teams in different places focused on the postseason in an entirely different way.

The Capitals, with the Presidents' Trophy and home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs already secured, are more than willing to discuss the possibility that their first-round opponent could be the Flyers. Their coach, in fact, informed them before practice Tuesday that there was a 48 percent chance that the Flyers would be in Washington when the playoffs opened in a couple weeks.

That percentage went up considerably after the Flyers rallied to even the score at 1-1 in regulation before picking up a rare 2-1 shootout victory. The shootout goals came from Nick Cousins and Sam Gagner. Steve Mason, the Flyers' marathon man in net, contributed a couple of spectacular saves to go along with the 29 he made during the game.

The win put the Flyers two points ahead of Detroit for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. The Flyers also have a game in hand.

"It felt like playoff hockey," Flyers captain Claude Giroux said. "The intensity is up, hits everywhere. It was fun to play."

Even more fun to win, of course.

The Flyers would take it right now if the season was over and they were heading to the nation's capital for the playoffs. It would leave them with a daunting task against the league's best team, but that's a lot better than breaking out the golf clubs in the middle of April.

A few hours before Wednesday's game, coach Dave Hakstol wasn't willing to play the what-if-you-meet-the-Capitals-in-the-playoffs game.

"I'm worried about playing them tonight," he said.

But wouldn't there be something to gain by beating them a couple weeks before you play them in the playoffs?

"I'm worried about playing them tonight," the coach repeated. "That's it. That's the way we've been operating and that's the way we do operate. That's just what it is. There is nothing else. You've got to worry about two points tonight."

The Capitals, on the other hand, were more than willing to say they'd like to send a message to their most probable playoff opponent before this sensational game.

"I think if you go in there and leave a mark psychologically, it could have a carryover if we started against them," Washington defenseman Brooks Orpik said.

The only message that could be taken from this evening was that the Flyers against the Capitals would be a fascinating first-round series.

"It would be a good time," Giroux said.

As they have since the calendar turned from 2015 to 2016, the Flyers continued to fight for their playoff lives by rallying late in this game.

Down 1-0 after Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin rocketed a shot past Mason early in the third period, it appeared for a long time as if the Flyers were going to have a difficult time solving opposing goalie Braden Holtby. The favorite for the Vezina Trophy is on a quest to set a record for regular-season wins and had turned the Flyers away 30 times before Grioux sent a slap shot in his direction late in the third period. The wicked shot might have gone in on its own, but Brayden Schenn made the degree of difficulty even higher for Holtby by deflecting the puck. It settled in the back of the net with 5 minutes, 28 seconds remaining, tying the score at 1-1.

Orpik's use of the word psychology was an interesting one because that's a fascinating subject when talking about the Capitals and their playoff history. Shortly after Ovechkin came into the league as a 20-year-old rookie a decade ago, the Capitals became one of the NHL's elite teams. They've won division titles six times in the last nine years and this is the second time they've won the Presidents' Trophy that goes to the NHL team with the best regular-season record. This was the earliest any team has clinched that trophy since Detroit in 2002.

That's nice, but no one has ever exceeded the legal limit drinking out of the Presidents' Trophy. Only the Stanley Cup gets to sleep and shower with players. Mark Recchi did the former after winning with the Carolina Hurricanes and Steve Yzerman did the latter after winning with the Red Wings.

There are no crazy stories like that about Capitals players because they are 0 for 40 since joining the NHL as an expansion franchise during the 1974-75 season. The frustration of playoff failures has mounted since Ovechkin's arrival because the Caps have been good enough to win it all, but instead have suffered some excruciating playoff failures. In the last eight years, they have twice blown 3-1 series leads. They have also blown a couple of 2-0 series leads.

The Capitals believe that this year will be different because that is what they have to believe.

We know they will get the chance to prove it because once again they have been a terrific regular-season team.

The Flyers, meanwhile, are still trying to secure a date in D.C. in a couple of weeks and after Wednesday night they got a little closer to doing exactly that.

bbrookover@phillynews.com

@brookob