Long Road Ahead

A record-setting season means Alex Ovechkin will have to make room in his trophy case. He's also got his eye on even more hardware.

Ovechkin will make his playoff debut Friday night when the Southeast Division champion Washington Capitals play host to the sixth-seeded Philadelphia Flyers, who are back in the playoffs after having the league's worst record last season.

Oddsmakers from Sportsbook.com have made Washington -150 money line favorites (NHL Odds) for today's game, the over/under has been set at 5.5 goals (Matchup). Current public betting information shows that 56% of bets for this game have been placed on Washington -150 (View NHL Bet Percentages).

The numbers Ovechkin put up in just his third NHL season were staggering. He led the league with 65 goals - a club record and the most by a left wing in NHL history - and also posted league bests with 22 power-play tallies, 11 game-winners and 112 points.

Two years after winning the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year, Ovechkin earned the Rocket Richard Trophy as the league's top goal scorer and the Art Ross Trophy for most points this season. He also is a favorite to walk away with the Hart Trophy as MVP.

"It was my greatest year, and it's not done yet," said Ovechkin, who now will try to bring Washington (43-31-8) the first Stanley Cup in its 34-year history. "Without the playoffs, the numbers mean nothing."

The Flyers are preparing to deal with the energy Ovechkin brings each game, be it board-slamming celebrations after scoring or dishing out hard hits to opponents.

"He loves to score goals, he loves to throw body checks and we're ready for that," Philadelphia forward Joffrey Lupul said. "I think the one thing that sets him above other guys that kind of have that similar skill set is just that hunger to play and score goals. You can see his excitement on the ice."

Seven weeks into the season, few would have thought the Capitals would be in the playoffs, much less division champions. Ovechkin had 14 goals in his first 21 games, but Washington was last in the league at 6-14-1 and replaced the fired Glen Hanlon with AHL coach Bruce Boudreau.

The Caps completed a 37-17-7 run the rest of way by winning their final seven games, and became the first team to reach the playoffs after being 14th or 15th in its conference at midseason.

Ovechkin and the Caps will now face a Flyers club that stirs memories of the team's "Broad Street Bullies" days of the 1970s. Steve Downie was given a 20-game suspension for leaving his feet to deliver a check in a preseason game, and Jesse Boulerice got 25 games for cross-checking an opponent in the face in October. Randy Jones, Scott Hartnell and Riley Cote also were suspended for various infractions.

"A prototypical Philadelphia team is an aggressive, in-your-face team ... that's how they've been since 1972," Boudreau said.

Ovechkin, who scored three goals as the Caps and Flyers split their four-game season series, didn't seem concerned.

"What can I do? If they want to hit me, hit me. I don't care. .... It's the playoffs. No friends on the ice," he said.

Flyers goaltender Martin Biron will be tasked with trying to stop Ovechkin. Biron was 10-4-4 with a 2.26 goals-against average in his last 18 games, including shutouts of New Jersey and Pittsburgh to close the regular season.

"He's not going to be playing 60 minutes of the game," the 30-year-old Biron, who also will make his playoff debut, said of Ovechkin. "You have to know when he's on the ice, what he's going to do out there."

For the Caps, their startling turnaround started in goal when they acquired Cristobal Huet from Montreal in February.

Taking over for 16-year veteran Olaf Kolzig, Huet enters the postseason having won his last nine starts with a 1.52 GAA. Huet - who played in the minors for Boudreau when both were in the Los Angeles organization - has given up only nine goals in four career starts against the Flyers en route to a 3-0-1 record.

"No slight against Olie, because if he has to go in then I don't feel like we've lost a step, but Huet's been unbelievable, and making the right save at the right time," Boudreau told the Capitals' official Web site.

This is the fourth time Philadelphia and Washington are meeting in the playoffs, but the first since 1989. The Caps hadn't made the postseason since 2003.

"We know we're playing a great team. Their forward lines are so dangerous. Who do you check? Who don't you check? Their strength down the middle is tremendous, and Biron has two shutouts in a row," Boudreau said. "We"re in for a battle."

Philadelphia (42-29-11) is back in the playoffs after recording a franchise-worst 56 points in 2006-07. John Stevens, who coached the Flyers' top farm team in the same city, spent only eight games as an NHL assistant coach before taking over in October 2006 when Ken Hitchcock was fired after a 1-6-1 start.

In the offseason, the Flyers made a splash in free agency by signing playmaking center Daniel Briere away from Buffalo. They also added defenseman Jason Smith from Edmonton and blueliner Kimmo Timonen and rugged forward Scott Hartnell from Nashville. In December, Philadelphia inked rising star Mike Richards, a center, to a extension.

Richards (75 points) and Briere (72) were the top two scorers for the Flyers, who engineered a 39-point turnaround to easily become the league's most improved team. Briere credited Stevens, whose approach is much different than that of Hitchcock, a noted taskmaster.

"The thing with John is he's very calm," said Briere, who helped lead the Sabres to the Eastern Conference finals in 2006 and '07. "He's got the confidence that he knows what he's doing, he knows where he's going. When things aren't going the way they're supposed to go, he'll step up and bring everybody back in line. When things are good, he can be very good for the players as well."

Philadelphia got good news on Smith, the team captain, Thursday when he practiced for the first time this week with an eye on returning from his upper-body injury for Game 1. The defenseman missed the last game of the regular season and sat out a pair of practices this week.

``I feel good, I felt good out there today and I actually felt good yesterday,'' Smith said.

Game 2 will be Sunday in Washington.

Here are some top trends for tonight's matchup:

-WASHINGTON is 7-5 (+3.5 Units) against the spread versus PHILADELPHIA over the last 3 seasons

-9 of 12 games in this series have gone OVER THE TOTAL over the last 3 seasons . (Over=+5.7 Units)

by: Staff Writers - Email Us

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