Like last year’s playoffs, the Flyers have a ton of expectations on their shoulders. Last year before the first round, I alluded to my experience at a Phish concert the previous summer and frontman Trey’s bold prediction. Last summer, I attended the Phish festivities in Camden again, and Trey made another prediction:
That vacuum solo included the crowd chanting “Let’s Go Flyers!” and it continued throughout the night. So, is Trey finally right this time?
Buffalo is the hotter team right now, competing in playoff mode for the past month or so. They’re 8-1-1 in their past ten games, and 16-4-4 in their last 24. The Flyers have limped into the playoffs with a 3-4-3 record in their last ten. Many writers have the Flyers as the underdog in this series… but the question remains:
Is the team that was two wins away from Lord Stanley’s Cup last year ready to get there again?
The Flyers have some injuries with top defenseman Chris Pronger still out nursing an injured hand. Offseason moves by Paul Holmgren were supposed to bolster our blue line depth, and the core of defensemen have done an admirable job in Pronger’s absence. Coburn has been playing monstrous, physical hockey all year and Andrej Meszaros’ emergence as one of our top defenders has been great. Timonen and Carle have been steady as usual, with a few bumps along the road while O’Donnell and Boynton/Syvret on the back end instills a lot more confidence than a Krajicek-Bartulis pairing. The Flyers lost their last game at Buffalo in overtime, so the Sabres might feel confident. However, the playoffs are a whole new season and the Flyers have a clean slate to make their run back to the Cup Finals. Here are my factors for this series:
Probably the biggest aspect of this series will be the goaltending matchup of Ryan Miller versus Sergei Bobrovsky. Miller is a tested goalie who has been a mainstay on his team and even led the US hockey club to the gold medal game in the Olympics. Bobrovsky is the untested rookie who has shown flashes of brilliance this season, but still had issues adjusting to the North American game and tracking the puck from distance. Both of these goalies can be game-changers and may in fact steal a game or two for their respective teams. Goaltending is always important in the playoffs, and this is no different. Enroth has backed up Miller well in the past month or so, but shouldn’t get a start unless injury befalls Miller. Brian Boucher and Michael Leighton are on the playoff roster as well, and will be looking to get their shot should Bob fail or get injured.
Buffalo’s powerplay this year has been at 19.4%, 9th in the league. The Flyers have struggled on the powerplay mightily this year, falling to 16th in the league with a 16.6% powerplay. Many attribute this powerplay showing to Chris Pronger’s absence, but if you followed the team this year you know that the problems were there before Pronger went down with his injuries. I give the edge to Buffalo in this category based on regular season numbers, but the Flyers are capable of being a strong unit on the man-advantage. By creating simple plays and putting pucks on net, the Flyers can capitalize on their powerplay. They often try to get too cute with cross-ice passes rather than work the puck down low and outwork the four opposing penalty-killers. If they do that, they should be able to get a few past Miller. I also hope to God that Versteeg does not man the point anymore, or VanRiemsdyk for that matter. Put Richards-Timonen on one pair, and Carle-Meszaros on another. No need to put one of those other guys back there because they have not been getting the job done.
The penalty kill numbers for these two teams were pretty even, with 83% for Buffalo and 82.8% for Philly; 13th and 15th in the league respectively. However, with the possibility of Blair Betts returning for Game 1 tomorrow, the odds sway towards the Flyers on this one. His injury has recently caused a lot of problems for the PK unit, but I believe his return will solidify our penalty kill and settle things. Since it’s playoff time, both teams are going to be blocking shots left and right, so we have to hope that none of our forwards get hurt in doing that (see: Lappy, Gagne, Carter from last year).
The Flyers have a decent-sized, physical team with a few big defenseman that can knock you off the puck. Our scoring depth is greater than Buffalo’s with all of our players that had 20+ goal seasons. But it will be the physical play that will carry this Flyers team to the next round. We saw Martin Gerbe do a spin-a-rooni and float a goal in on net last game vs. Buffalo, and we saw how fast some of their guys are. Like we played Montreal last year, they’re going to need to body up and take these smaller guys off the puck. Punish them everytime you get a chance, and it will take it’s toll. Physical play is also not going to be limited to checking, but playing hard to the puck in the corners and crashing the crease on Miller. He’s a great goalie, but he IS human. Make life hard from him and the goals will come eventually.
Claude Giroux had his playoff run last year that catapulted him into the team leader in points this season. I’m thinking James VanRiemsdyk is going to have a big playoffs and establish himself as a big part of this Flyers roster. This series, JVR will make a difference in a few games and make some key plays.
This series can and should be won by the Flyers, regardless of their underdog status given by pundits on ESPN. It will take four 60-minute efforts to win, but they can do it. Play Laviolette’s system; skate hard, make smart decisions with the puck, get the forecheck going. That’s how they’re going to have to win games. Bobrovsky has to do his job and the special teams need to improve, but overall the execution of each team is going to decide the winner. I predict Flyers in 6. Miller steals a game or two. Tomorrow night at 7:30 PM the playoffs start for Philadelphia again, time to make another run. Enjoy the hockey games starting tonight and the Phils vs. Nationals.