Saturday, April 28, 2012

PREVIEW: #5 Flyers vs. #6 Devils - Eastern Conference Semifinals

Seriously, how could I not make this the cover picture for the series?

Here’s the beauty of the playoffs: both the Devils and the Flyers are coming off emotional, physical and at times crazy series (for many different reasons), but it’s time to quickly forget the past and get ready for the next series.  Of course, these two division rivals know each other very well, and they’re about to get even more familiar with each other.  It’s the #5 Flyers and the #6 Devils, and the winner will reach the Eastern Conference Finals.

First of all, let’s quickly recap what happened between the Devils and Panthers.  Many people thought this would be a quick series and that the more skilled Devils would blow by the Panthers.  I picked the Devils to win in 5, but everyone who knows either team knew that it would be a tough series, and it was just that.  The Florida Panthers’ first trip to the playoffs since 2000 was a very competitive series.  They gave the Devils everything they could handle, and were one goal in double-overtime of Game 7 away from knocking off the Devils.

The Devils played one of the best periods of hockey you’ll ever see in Game 1 against Florida.  They scored three times, had 26 shots on goal and established themselves as a true force in the series.  While they didn’t score after the first period of Game 1, they held on to win 3-2 and took the lead in the series.  They played a bit of a lackadaisical Game 2 until the third period, when they attempted to overcome a 3-0 deficit with two quick goals early in the third, but fell short, 4-2.

As the series shifted to New Jersey, many fans, myself included, expected the Devils to take over the series.  The Devils were up 3-0 by the 6:16 mark of Game 3, but that was quickly forgotten.  By the end of the first, it was 3-2 and by the end of the second period, it was 4-3 Florida, and they held on to win after a potential Devils tying goal was washed out as Steve Bernier was called for interfering with Scott Clemmensen.  

Florida took a 2-1 series lead, but the Devils responded with perhaps their best game of the series in Game 4.  Zach Parise scored in the second period on a power play and the Devils tacked on three more goals in the third period to win 4-0, and Martin Brodeur broke Patrick Roy’s playoff shutout record (24 for Brodeur).

The Devils played a disappointing Game 5.  They made life pretty easy for Jose Theodore.  Although he faced a lot of shots, he didn’t face many high-quality scoring chances until late in the game.  A Brodeur error behind the net on a puck that never left the “no play zone” resulted in a fluke goal for Florida, and they won Game 5, 3-0.

Game 6 was back in New Jersey, and the Devils needed a win or their season was over.  They absolutely dominated the Panthers in every way, in a game that featured a 2-0 Devils lead, terrible officiating, a 2-goal Panthers comeback and a Travis Zajac overtime goal.  The Devils played a desperate game and forced a winner-take-all Game 7 in Florida.

Anton Volchenkov gives awkward hugs.
It was a Game 7 for the ages.  Adam Henrique’s first playoff goal came 89 seconds into the game.  Stephen Gionta’s goal in the second period made it 2-0, but of course, no lead in this series was safe, and Florida used a dominant third period to force overtime.  At 12:17 A.M. the next morning, Adam Henrique scored again in double-overtime to lift the Devils over the Panthers and into the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2007.

So much for the “easy” series.  Anyone who thought the Panthers would roll over was mistaken.  It was a very even and intense series.  Anyone who wasn’t entertained by the series wasn’t paying enough attention.  But the Devils are where they wanted to be all along after round one.  As the saying goes: sometimes the first round is the hardest one to win.  Round two against the Flyers will be even more of a war.

For a complete recap of Game 7 and the series with the Panthers, click here on

Meanwhile, the Flyers battled it out with the Pittsburgh Penguins in their first round series.  They overcame a 3-0 deficit in Game 1 to beat the Penguins in overtime, then steamrolled Pittsburgh in Games 2 and 3 before the Penguins won the next two, including a 10-3 debacle in Game 4.  Philly closed out the Pens in Game 6 and clinched the series.  Basically, the Flyers won because their defense and goaltending wasn’t as bad as the Penguins, and the fact that they scored a lot of goals.

Devils vs. Flyers – a look at their regular season head-to-head (video highlights follow each game):

October 8th, 2011: Philadelphia 3, New Jersey 0 - Opening Night featured the Devils and Flyers at the Prudential Center.  It was the second game of Philly’s season, and they got a great goaltending performance from Ilya Bryzgalov, killed all 5 of the Devils’ power plays and cruised to a 3-0 win.  Claude Giroux’s goal held up as the game winner.  Perhaps beating the Devils was bad luck for Bryzgalov, who had a miserable first half of the season after that.  The Devils did kill all 8 of Philly’s power plays in the game.

November 3rd, 2011: New Jersey 4, Philadelphia 3 (shootout) – Zac Rinaldo and Claude Giroux staked the Flyers to a 2-0 second period lead, but a Zach Parise backhander and Adam Henrique’s first career goal after Ilya Kovalchuk stripped the puck from the Flyers tied it up in the same period.  David Clarkson tied it up again in the third after Philly took a 3-2 lead before Zach Parise and Patrik Elias scored in the shootout to beat the Flyers, 4-3.

January 21st, 2012: Philadelphia 4, New Jersey 1 – This was a very physical game, and a game that featured far too many Devils penalties (47 penalty minutes by the Devils in total).  The Flyers opened the scoring, and then took a 2-0 lead in the second period, but Alexei Ponikarovsky’s first goal as a Devil seconds after the second Philly goal cut the deficit to 2-1.  Scott Hartnell’s second of the game midway through the third period was the dagger for the Devils.  An empty netter made it 4-1.  Ilya Bryzgalov again beat the Devils, making 30 saves for the win.

February 4th, 2012: New Jersey 6, Philadelphia 4 – The fourth meeting between the two teams was probably the most bizarre game of the season.  The Devils dominated the Flyers, scoring three goals in the first period followed by three more in the second period.  However, a 6-0 lead halfway through the game and after two periods was barely enough for the Devils, as the Flyers scored four goals in the third period, but the Devils hang on for a 6-4 win, led by Ilya Kovalchuk’s Gordie Howe hat trick.

March 11th, 2012: Philadelphia 1, New Jersey 4 – Games 5 and 6 between the Devils and Flyers came as a home-and-home series.  The Devils dominated the Flyers early in the game, but only scored once through two periods.  Claude Giroux tied the game 16 seconds into the third period before the Devils scored three times.  Anton Volchenkov’s second goal of the season held up as the game-winner and Martin Brodeur won his 650th career regular season game.

March 13th, 2012: New Jersey 0, Philadelphia 3 – The Flyers answered the Devils’ dominance two nights earlier by playing a dominant game of their own.  They didn’t overwhelm the Devils offensively, but they played a very tight defensive game in front of Bryzgalov, who beat the Devils for the third time of the season.  Martin Brodeur stopped 27 of 29 shots, but the Devils only took 17 shots on Bryzgalov, and got shutout, 3-0.

So judging by the season series, this will be a pretty even playoff series.  From the Flyers’ perspective, it won’t be the offensive slugfest that their first round series against Pittsburgh was, as Philly will be forced to work much harder to create offense against the Devils.  The Flyers will rely on their power play, which produced 12 goals against the Penguins.  The Devils also allowed 9 power play goals to the Florida Panthers in the first round, so the Flyers’ power play against the Devils’ penalty kill will be one of the scrutinized matchups in the series.

The Devils killed off 89.6% of power plays against in the regular season, but they look completely lost shorthanded in the playoffs so far.  Early on in the series against Florida, I blamed lack of faceoff success and poor play from Anton Volchenkov for the penalty killing woes, and that trend continued throughout the series.  The Devils were aggressive while shorthanded throughout the regular season, and 15 shorthanded goals reflect that, but they were unable to pressure the puck carrier and allowed the Panthers to set up their power play all series long.

The best way to counter the Flyers’ dangerous power play is to be disciplined and not take penalties.  Staying out of the box would go a long way towards having success in the series for the Devils.  If and when they are shorthanded, faceoffs will be a huge factor.  In round one, Travis Zajac, who won 58.9% of his draws overall, lost 10 of 13 shorthanded faceoffs.  Patrik Elias lost 12 of 18 shorthanded draws, Adam Henrique lost 6 of 10, Dainius Zubrus went 0-for-3 and Ryan carter went 2-for-2.

For the Flyers, Sean Couturier had a tremendous first round.  He won 57% of the faceoffs he took against the Penguins.  The only other Flyer over 50% against Pittsburgh was Claude Giroux (51.4%).  Couturier was also matched up against the regular season scoring champion, Evgeni Malkin, and did a phenomenal job taking away Malkin’s space on the ice.  He also registered a hat trick in Game 2.

Devils vs. Flyers by position:


I can hear "DOOP, DOOP, DOOP" just by looking at this.
The Flyers were tied with the Bruins as the league’s second-highest scoring team, and they outscored everyone in the first round of the playoffs.  Claude Giroux outscored everyone in the first round, as he picked up 14 points in 6 games.  Philly had 8 players, including 7 forwards, over 40 points in the regular season.  The line of Hartnell-Giroux-Jagr is perhaps the best line in the NHL.  Wayne Simmonds, Jakub Voracek, Danny Briere, Matt Read and Couturier are all tremendous “depth forwards” as well.  Still, Martin Brodeur is thankful that Devil-killer Simon Gagne isn’t in Philly anymore.

Philly scored 16 goals against Devils goaltenders in 6 games this season, so the Devils were able to slow their skill down a bit.  Aside from a healthy Penguins team, this is probably the best and deepest lineup of forwards in the NHL, and you could argue that the Flyers’ forwards are better than Pittsburgh’s right now.  With that said, the Flyers, as a team, had a rather high shooting percentage in the first round against the Penguins, and that will likely level out a bit against the Devils.  Philly will have to work much harder to score than they did at times in the Penguins series.  The Flyers have a lethal top line, solid second line, and of course, some goons on the fourth line.  Let’s just hope Zac Rinaldo and the Flyers’ fourth liners don’t kill anyone.

On the Devils’ side, like I said before the Panthers series, this is a very skilled and very deep group of Devils forwards.  The biggest surprise of the series, to me, was how strong the fourth line played.  Steve Bernier and Stephen Gionta had two goals each and Ryan Carter chipped in with one of his own.  The third line of Ponikarovsky-Henrique-Clarkson was quiet until Game 7, when Henrique scored two goals, including the series winner, but the fourth line chipped in a lot.

Like the Flyers, the Devils had 7 forwards with 40 points or more in the regular season, led by Ilya Kovalchuk’s 83, and doesn’t include Travis Zajac, who missed most of the regular season.  Travis Zajac’s 6 points led the Devils in the first round of the playoffs.  All 12 Devils forwards registered at least a point in the first round.  Zach Parise’s 32 shots led all Devils in round one.

The Devils have a very solid group of forwards.  They’re not as explosive as the Flyers, but they’re better two-way forwards than Philly’s group.  It’s a group of forwards that likes to control play and forecheck like crazy.  The Flyers are more run-and-gun while the Devils like to wear the opposition down.
Now, even though the Devils do have a lot of depth and skill, it would be ridiculous to deny that the Flyers have an advantage up front.  They’re just that good right now.

Advantage – Flyers


The Flyers defense has obviously missed the captain of the team, Chris Pronger for the entire season.  He was the backbone of their blue line, which is why they gave up all the draft picks they did to get him.  He’s now a non-factor, but the Philly defense is still pretty solid.  They’ll likely benefit from the return of Andrej Meszaros in either Game 1 or 2 as well.  Kimmo Timonen and Matt Carle are two very good two-way defensemen and Braydon Coburn can certainly contribute in both ends as well.  To compensate for the long-term loss of Pronger, the Flyers added Pavel Kubina and Nicklas Grossmann at the trade deadline, which adds depth to their blue line.  Coburn and Carle have been logging the biggest minutes in the playoffs for the Flyers so far.

On the Devils side, there’s not a lot of two-way play from the blue line, but the mid-season acquisition of Marek Zidlicky did help in that regard.  Zidlicky and Bryce Salvador now eat most of the minutes and make up the best pairing on the team.  Andy Greene has helped since his return from injury that kept him out of the lineup for most of the first half of the season.  Anton Volchenkov is a strong, physical shutdown man when he’s healthy, but he struggled mightily in the first round against Florida.  Peter Harrold has stepped into the lineup and he’s done a decent job while Adam Larsson sits.

Neither team got a lot of goals from their blue line in the regular season.  Meszaros’ seven goals led all Flyers D-men, and they had a total of 28 goals from their blue line, plus three more against Pittsburgh in round one (then again, who didn’t score for the Flyers in round one?).  The Devils got just 13 goals from defensemen in the regular season, and none in the Florida series.  Philly does rely more on offense from their defense, as they had four D-men over 20 points in the regular season, compared to just one D-man on the Devils over 20 points (Zidlicky).

On the other hand, the Flyers were 20th in the regular season in goals-against while the Devils were tied for 9th.  While the Flyers’ team save percentage was a mere .906 in the regular season (compared to the Devils’ .911), the Flyers allowed 133 more shots against than the Devils did.  Philly allowed 17 five-on-five goals against the Penguins, while the Devils (who obviously faced a much inferior offensive team) allowed just six five-on-five goals to the Panthers.

Advantage – Devils


Ever since the retirement of Ron Hextall, goaltending in Philadelphia has been…a very bizarre adventure, to put it nicely.  They’ve gone through a “humongous big” number of goaltenders in Philly.  This season, they relied on a pair of Russians, including one who got a “humongous big” (okay, I’ll stop now) contract at the beginning of the season.  Yes, Ilya Bryzgalov and Sergei Bobrovsky manned the pipes for the Flyers this season, and well, the adventures continued.

Bryz using his spare time to think about
the universe.  And bears.
Bryzgalov’s first half/two thirds of the season were nothing short of a disaster for the Flyers.  Any shot he faced seemed like a difficult save early on for Bryz, and at one point, it looked like he might be yet another terrible goalie contract.  It still might be, but he did turn his season around.  He put up three straight shutouts, and four of five in early March, and played pretty well until the playoffs started.  Neither team played much defense in the Pens-Flyers series, especially in Games 1-5.  His save percentage topped .900 in just one game in the series (Game 6).  If there’s one thing Bryzgalov can think about, it’s that he allowed just one goal in three games to the Devils this season.

Meanwhile, if there’s one thing that hasn’t been a problem in New Jersey since the Hextall days in Philly, it’s been goaltending.  There were almost two things that you could guarantee from 1993-present: the Devils would make the playoffs and Martin Brodeur would play well in net.  This season, as last season was, Brodeur has shown signs of his age, as he’ll turn 40 years old on the day of Game 4 of this series.  His save percentage hung around .900 for the first half of the season, as he was inconsistent more than anything, but he and his team started playing much better in the second half.  He posted three shutouts and a .921 save percentage after the All-Star break.  Marty had an up-and-down first round against Florida, highlighted by his shutout of the Panthers in Game 4 and 43 saves in the double-overtime win in Game 7.

Even with Brodeur aging, there are so many question marks surrounding Bryzgalov.  As inconsistent as Brodeur was at times, Bryzgalov was even worse, and Bobrovsky wasn’t any better.  Unless they prove otherwise, this matchup favors the Devils.

Advantage – Devils

Special teams:

Let’s start with each team’s power play.  The Flyers’ power play was just absurd against the Penguins.  It operated at a 12-for-23 pace (52.2%) in the six-game series, which is incredible.  The Flyers move the puck as well as anyone and have the personnel to make passes that other teams’ coaches would cringe at seeing attempted.  In the regular season (a much larger sample size), the Flyers operated at a still-impressive 19.7% (6th in the NHL, one spot better than the Panthers during the regular season).  They did allow 9 shorthanded goals against, which is the only blemish on an otherwise brilliant power play.

The Devils had a pretty good power play in the regular season, too.  It didn’t start that way, but it climbed up the rankings as the season went on.  It scored 17.2% of the time, but did allow 13 shorthanded goals against (although a severe majority of them were pre-All-Star break).  They went 5-for-25 in the Panthers series, which is a solid 20%, although it looked pretty bad at times in the series.

Travis Zajac takes a lot of faceoffs for the Devils,
mostly because nobody else can.
As far as penalty killing is concerned, it’s been well-documented that the Devils had the best PK in league history during the regular season (89.6%, 15 shorthanded goals for), but they’ve struggled dramatically in the playoffs.  Only the Penguins allowed more power play goals than the Devils in the first round.  The Devils struggled in the faceoff circle while shorthanded and allowed Florida to set up far too often.  They surrendered a pair of power plays goals in the third period of Game 7, which cost them their lead.  The Devils have success when they take fewer penalties, thus have to kill fewer penalties.

The Flyers’ PK was mediocre in the regular season (81.8%, 6 shorthanded goals, 17th in the NHL), but has been much worse in the playoffs so far.  Philly took far too many penalties against Pittsburgh and allowed 12 goals 4-on-5 in round one.  Their PK had a better percentage than the Devils, but the Flyers were shorthanded far more often.

The misery of both penalty kills washout, and because the Flyers’ power play is much more consistent, Philly has the edge in special teams.

Advantage – Flyers

As far as the matchup is concerned, I detailed the season series between the two teams above.  They’re quite even when they play each other.  Both teams want to control puck possession, the Flyers’ offensive skill compensates for their goaltending woes and while the Devils don’t play the run-and-gun game as much as the Flyers do, they focus much more on defense.  Unlike the 2010 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, which was a quick series win for Philly, this will be a long battle, and I’d be very surprised if it didn’t go to at least six games (the Devils were also 1-5 against Philly that regular season).

I can’t pick against the Devils at this point.  The way I look at it, the Devils got a huge emotional lift after Games 6 and 7 against Florida, and they’ll carry that with them into this series.  They can play with the Flyers this year, and they’ll give them a hard time.  The Devils have four quality lines of forwards, and their depth will be crucial in this series.  I’ll pick the Devils in 7 (another Game 7?  Why not?!).  Their path to the Cup in 1995 and 2000 featured trips through Philly, so perhaps it was just meant to be that these two teams face each other this year.