The Philadelphia Flyers will square off with another familiar division foe in the Conference Semifinals. The New Jersey Devils extinguished the Southeast Division Champion Florida Panthers in double overtime on Thursday night to win the decisive game seven of their first round match-up. The Devils outlasted the Panthers in a series that featured comebacks, momentum swings, and inconsistency by both teams. It took overtime wins in games 6 and 7 for the Devils to fight back from the cusp of elimination and earn their berth in the 2nd round.
The Flyers split the season series with New Jersey finishing with a record of 3-2-1 against their next playoff opponent. The most notable stats to take away from the regular season meetings are the stellar numbers put up by Ilya Bryzgalov. In three starts against the Devils this season Bryzgalov put up a 3-0 record including two shutouts, a miniscule .029 Goals Against Average, and a .987 save percentage. Regular season statistics generally have little-to-no bearings on the Stanley Cup Playoffs but it can’t hurt for the goalie to be going up against a rival he feels comfortable against (especially coming off a less-than-stellar first round performance). These teams are very familiar with each other so it won’t be surprising if schematics don’t play a big role in the outcome of the series. I’d look at the three D’s of success (desperation, discipline, and determination) to be the difference in this rivalry series.
By the time Game 1 is played on Sunday the Flyers will have been finished with their first round match-up against Pittsburgh for one full week. It is a good opportunity for battered bodies to heal and players who have been out of the lineup to integrate back into the chemistry of team play. It can also cause a little bit of rust for the first tilt of the series. Hopefully having the home ice advantage will help the Flyers come out strong and counter any rust factor that might have accumulated.
Flyers Keys for 2nd Round Victory:
- The Flyers are one of the most talented teams in the NHL and possess a handful of gifted scorers. Moving forward in the post season, it is understood that teams will be attempting to play their best overall team defense. The Devils specifically have always been known as defensive stalwarts. Under new coach Peter DeBoer their system has opened up a bit but defense first is still their mentality when they are playing their best hockey. Patience will indeed be an important virtue for Philadelphia, figuring there won’t be anywhere near as much open ice to work with as there was against Pittsburgh. Just like in any series at this juncture, the Flyers will have to chip pucks behind the very average NJ defense and outwork them in one-on-one battles to create chances. Beating Marty Brodeur, arguably the greatest goaltender to ever lace up the skates, will also take tremendous patience and effort.
- Special teams will be a major factor in any series the Flyers play in as long as they continue to excel with the man advantage. New Jersey put up some of the best penalty killing numbers of all time this year as they lead the NHL in the regular season with a 89.6% efficiency while killing off a penalty. Although they were great from October through March, the Devils had a major PK breakdown in their series versus Florida. The Panthers went 9-for-27 on the powerplay for a 33.3% conversion rate in the seven games against the Devils. Combine that fact with the astronomical better-than-50% Flyers PP and it is quite obvious that special teams have the ability to decide this series.
- Nullifying and minimizing the Devils top offensive line will be the most important key to a Flyers series victory. The Devils top line of Zach Parise, Travis Zajac, and Ilya Kovalchuk have the potential of being one of the most dominating and effective units in the NHL. The Sean Couturier combination has become a very effective checking line and will likely draw the match-up with the Devils top scoring unit. The Flyers offense is deep enough to overcome struggles by their best players. It seems unlikely NJ will win a series without stellar showings by their studs.
- There is no doubt that Ilya Bryzgalov has been an enigma all season. At times he looked like a world-beater and an absolute beast of a goalie. At other times he looked discouraged and downright beatable. If the team had not rallied from early deficits in the Pittsburgh series there could be a whole different dialogue about Bryz and his 3.89 Goals Against Average and .871 save percentage in round one. Fortunately, the Flyers outscored the Penguins and Bryzgalov will have a shot at turning his play around and regaining the form that made him the NHL player of the month in March. Either way, Bryz is clearly the definition of an “X-Factor”
- The first round battle of Pennsylvania was a series full of finesse and pretty tic-tac-toe offense. Against the Devils it is highly likely the guys who do the dirty work in the corners and around the crease will be a much bigger factor. The Flyers scored a whopping 30 goals in their six games against the Pens. Scott Hartnell only had two goals while Wayne Simmonds only managed to hit the net once. James Van Riemsdyk (just returned from foot surgery) didn’t notch a point in his two games played. Look for these three power forwards to be some of the most important guys on the ice for Philadelphia in the upcoming series. Creating traffic and chaos in front of Marty Brodeur will be integral to throwing him and the Devils D off their game.
- One guy the Flyers can’t afford to ignore is Patrik Elias. Elias has been a lethal Flyer-killer since he’s been in the NHL. It’s impossible to forget Elias scored both goals in a 2-1 Flyers loss in Game 7 of the 2000 Eastern Conference Finals. The guy has 119 career playoff points and is a big game performer and Stanley Cup Champion. He is the type of player who elevates his game this time of year.
The Orange and Black have been thrust into a position where they have gone from heavy underdog to considerable favorite. This series has the potential to get chippy and personal very quickly. Any playoff series usually breeds some bad blood but as we’ve recently seen against Pittsburgh, when divisional opponents meet up in the post season it usually creates an unfriendly atmosphere from the get-go. Obviously, neither team has too much to worry about in terms of travel arrangements and other possible distractions. The battle of I-95 will surely be hotly contested as both teams battle for a right to advance in the quest for the Cup.
By: Brent Manara