It’s a new series and a new turnpike. Instead of traveling East-West along the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the connecting corridor for the Flyers-Devils Eastern Conference semifinal series is the New Jersey Turnpike.
The Devils aren’t the Penguins. They don’t have the so-called “two best players in the world.” They don’t have the NHL’s points leader. And they don’t generate the same emotions as Sidney Crosby and the Penguins.
None of that makes the Devils any less formidable. They finished one point behind the Flyers in the Atlantic Division. They have solid goaltending and a team-wide commitment to defense that surpasses that of the Penguins. Don’t expect teams to score eight or 10 goals in a game during this series.
The opponent may be different, but the good news for the Flyers is they can win the series simply by being the Flyers. They will roll out four lines, pressure the Devils’ defensemen and count on their scoring depth to carry them through the series.
The following is a preview of the Eastern Conference semifinal series between the Flyers and Devils.
Thanks to first-round victories by the Capitals (over the Bruins) and the Devils (over the Panthers), the Flyers have home-ice advantage in this round. The series opener is Sunday (3 p.m.) and Game 2 is Tuesday (7:30 p.m.), both in Philadelphia. The series shifts to New Jersey for Games 3 and 4 on Thursday (7:30 p.m.) and Sunday (7:30 p.m.). If necessary, Game 5 would be Tues., May 8 in Philly; Game 6 would be Thurs., May 10 in New Jersey; and Game 7 would be Sat., May 12 in Philly.
The Flyers and Devils have met four times in the playoffs. The Devils won the first two meetings, both times in the conference finals. The Flyers have won the most recent meetings, both times in the first round.
The Devils denied the Flyers a trip to the Stanley Cup finals in 1995 and 2000. The lasting image of the first series is Claude Lemieux firing a stoppable shot past Ron Hextall, virtually sealing the Flyers’ fate as the Devils won in six games. The lasting image from 2000, in which the Devils rallied from a 3-1 deficit to win the series, is Devils defenseman Scott Stevens ending Eric Lindros’ Flyers career with a vicious check just inside the blue line during Game 7.
The Flyers’ victories are less memorable, possibly because they occurred in the first round, or because there wasn’t too much drama about the outcome. The Flyers’ won both series, in 2004 and 2010, by 4-1 margins. The 2010 series victory also occurred just before the Flyers’ historic comeback from a 3-0 deficit against the Bruins, so it is sort of the forgotten series of that run to the Stanley Cup finals.
The Flyers and Devils split six games this season. A pair of 3-0 Flyers wins, both times with Ilya Bryzgalov in goal, serves as bookends to the season series. The Devils won three of the four games in between, including one via shootout. The Flyers’ other win was a 4-1 victory on Jan. 21.
Don’t expect a repeat of the histrionics that occurred during the Penguins series. There is less hatred between these rivals. The series, however, should be physical. The Flyers, in particular, want to wear down the Devils’ defensemen.
The Devils had the top penalty-killing unit in the NHL. They killed off 89.6 percent of opponents’ power plays. The Flyers were 3 for 33 on the power play against the Devils, which is only slightly worse than the league average against the Devils.
The numbers changed during the first round of the playoffs. The Devils allowed nine power-play goals to the Panthers. The Flyers’ power play scored on an incredible 12 of 23 attempts against the Penguins.
The Flyers only killed off 81.8 percent of opponents’ power-play opportunities during the regular season. As I pointed out in my preview of the Penguins series, however, those numbers are skewed because of the Flyers’ goaltending issues during the middle of the season. The Devils’ power play (17.2 percent) ranks 14th, right in the middle of the pack.
The Flyers can’t count on their power play continuing to convert at a 50 percent-plus clip. But the Flyers must still maximize their power-play opportunities.
PLAYING FROM BEHIND
Against the Penguins, the resilient Flyers proved once again that falling behind doesn’t faze them. They came from behind in their first three victories of the series. But falling behind, especially by two or three goals, is a habit the Flyers need to break during their series with the defensive-minded Devils.
The Devils barely escaped the first round, needing a double-overtime triumph in Game 7 to slip past the Panthers. Before we make too much of the Devils’ struggles, remember that the Bruins and Canucks needed overtime wins in Game 7 of their opening series last year, yet made it all the way to the finals.
With three days off before the start of this series, the Devils shouldn’t be tired or worn down entering Game 1. The toll from the first round may not be evident until later in the series, especially if the well-rested Flyers establish a physical presence in the Devils’ defensive zone.
Another intangible is leadership. Claude Giroux firmly established himself as the Flyers’ leader during their first-round victory over the Penguins. He has veterans such as Kimmo Timonen, Jaromir Jagr and Danny Briere to support him, but Giroux leads this team with a grit and determination that match his outstanding talent.
The Devils’ goalie is the same guy that has been their goal in the previous four playoff series with the Flyers: Martin Brodeur. This future Hall of Famer ranks second in NHL history with 103 playoff victories.
In other words, he has won as many playoff games as Briere has played in during his career. Brodeur has won more playoff games than Flyers rookies such as Sean Couturier, Brayden Schenn and Matt Read have played in during the regular season and playoffs of their young NHL careers. It’s as if Brodeur won playoff games for a full season and one quarter of the next season.
Brodeur also ranks first in NHL history with 24 playoff shutouts. He reached that mark during the first-round series against the Panthers.
Fortunately for the Flyers, they’re not facing the Brodeur of five, 10 or 15 years ago. He posted a 2.06 goals-against average and .922 save percentage during the first round, but he was also pulled in one game after the Devils blew a 3-0 lead. Brodeur can be terrific, as he was during Game 7 against the Panthers, but he is no longer considered invincible.
Bryzgalov’s numbers against the Penguins (3.89 goals-against average, .871 save percentage) aren’t pretty. But that was one of the highest-scoring series in history. This series should be played at a less frenetic pace. If you’re looking for positive signs, Bryzgalov (above) won all three of his starts against the Devils this season, including a pair of 3-0 shutouts. He allowed just one goal in 76 shots.
It would be too much to ask Bryzgalov to match his regular-season stats (0.29 goals-against average, .987 save percentage) against the Devils. In fact, he shouldn’t even have to outplay Brodeur. If he earns a draw in the goaltending battle, the Flyers should win the series. If Bryzgalov outplays Brodeur, the Flyers should coast to victory.
The Devils don’t have any big-name defensemen. They don’t have anyone who contributes on offense like the Penguins’ Kris Letang. In fact, Devils defensemen did not score a goal during the seven-game series with the Panthers.
Marek Zidlicky, acquired from Minnesota at the trade deadline, is the Devils’ most dangerous defenseman with the puck. The rest of the defense, led by Bryce Salvador and Andy Greene, lean more toward the stay-at-home model. Anton Volchenkov is the fiercest hitter on the Devils’ blue line, but he can be undisciplined. Mark Fayne and Peter Harrold round out the Devils’ steady defense.
The Flyers will attempt to pressure the Devils defensemen, as much to wear them down as to create turnovers. They will likely be especially physical with Zidlicky, in an attempt to slow him down. Salvador appeared to injure his arm late during the Game 7 victory over the Panthers. Expect the Flyers to test that arm with physical play as well.
After a week off, the Flyers defense looks better now than it did at the end of the Penguins series. Nicklas Grossmann returns from a concussion that caused him to miss the end of the first round. Kimmo Timonen (above), who never appeared on an injury report but played just 15 minutes during Game 6 against the Penguins, has had a week to rest and heal whatever undisclosed injuries he’s fought through.
Furthermore, rookie Erik Gustafsson, who played Games 5 and 6 in place of Grossmann – even scoring during Game 6 –, gained experience and confidence. Gustafsson is likely to be in the lineup even though Grossmann is back. Veteran Pavel Kubina is likely to be the odd man out when the series begins.
Braydon Coburn played monster minutes against the Penguins. It may have been the best stretch of hockey Coburn has played in his career. Matt Carle continues to quietly play big minutes, turning the puck over too often but also making good plays in the offensive zone that lead to scoring opportunities. Andreas Lilja also played solid defense, which is another reason why Kubina is likely to be scratched.
On the horizon, Andrej Meszaros could return to action this series after recovering from back surgery. When he returns, the question will be whether Gustafsson or Lilja comes out of the lineup. Having too many defensemen is a problem head coach Peter Laviolette won’t complain about.
Ilya Kovalchuk is the star. He led the Devils during the regular season with 37 goals and 83 points. He followed that up with three goals during the first-round series with Florida.
But the Devils are not a one-man team. Head coach Pete DeBoer has the depth to roll out four lines.
Evidence of that depth came in Game 7, when rookie Adam Henrique scored twice, including the game-winner in double overtime. The overtime hero in Game 6 was Travis Zajac, who was limited to 15 regular-season games due to injuries, but led the Devils in the first round with six points (3 goals, 3 assists).
Captain Zach Parise, mainstay Patrik Elias (26 goals, team-leading 52 assists) and fourth-line players Steve Bernier and Stephen Gionta scored two goals apiece against Florida. Ryan Carter, another fourth-line player, also scored against the Panthers.
The Devils beat the Panthers without a goal from David Clarkson, who scored 30 goals this season, or Petr Sykora, who scored 21. Alexei Ponikarovsky (14 goals) also was scoreless during the first round. Former Flyer Dainius Zubrus had a goal and an assist.
The Flyers’ scoring numbers are much better than the Devils, in part because the Flyers scored more goals (20) during the first three games of the Penguins series than the Devils scored (18) in seven games against the Panthers.
Briere (left) continues to be Mr. Playoffs, scoring five goals and assisting on three others against the Penguins. Briere has 104 points in 103 playoff games.
Maxime Talbot scored three goals against the Penguins, two of them shorthanded. Couturier registered a hat trick during Game 2 and was a defensive presence, shadowing Evgeni Malkin the entire series.
Jakub Voracek, Brayden Schenn, Scott Hartnell and Matt Read scored two goals apiece. Jaromir Jagr scored the game-winning goal in Game 2 and racked up six assists. Three potential sources of additional offense are Wayne Simmonds (1 goal, 3 assists), Eric Wellwood (0 points) and James van Riemsdyk, who was scoreless in two games after returning from a long absence following surgery to repair a broken bone in his foot.
The Flyers have the edge. Laviolette won a Stanley Cup with Carolina and seemingly pushes all the right buttons to get the most out of his players. DeBoer just notched the first playoff series win of his career.
The Devils endured a seven-game series, but they have remained remarkably healthy. They used the same 18 skaters in all seven games against the Panthers. By contrast, the Flyers lost two defensemen from an already depleted defensive corps against the Penguins and still survived.
I suspect the Flyers are going to test the Devils’ resolve. If the Flyers are able to employ their physical forechecking style, I’d be surprised if the Devils were able to use the same six defensemen for this entire series.
The Devils have some talented players (Sykora, Clarkson, Ponikarovsky) who have yet to score during the playoffs, but the Flyers have a significant wild card of their own in van Riemsdyk.
The Devils’ best chance to win this series is if Brodeur badly outplays Bryzgalov. Unless that happens, I think the Flyers have too much depth and ability, on offense and defense, for the Devils. FLYERS in 6