Eastern Conference Semifinal: Flyers vs Devils

When four teams from one division make the playoffs, they’re bound to meet.  In our last installment of Semifinal previews, we’ll look at the series between Atlantic Division rivals Philadelphia Flyers against the New Jersey Devils.  The Flyers have won the last two playoff meetings between the teams after the Devils broke the Flyers’ hearts by coming back from a 1-3 series deficit in the Eastern Conference Final in 2000.

The Flyers earned their spot in this series by beating their hated rival Pittsburgh Penguins in a crazy 6 game series.  Way too many goals were scored as both defenses and at times goalies decided not to show up for very long stretches.  The Devils needed 7 games and double overtime in the last one in order to dispatch the 3rd seeded Florida Panthers.

I’ll start out with the topic everyone loves to talk about…the goalies.  The question for both teams is this: which goalie shows up?  Will we see the old Marty Brodeur or will we see the old Marty Brodeur?  Will we see the Master of the Universe Ilya Bryzgalov who sported a 0.29 GAA and a 3-0-0 record against New Jersey this year or will we see Ilya “I Look Like a Giraffe in Net” Bryzgalov?  Both goalies finished very strong in the last games of their series, but otherwise looked so-so (and downright bad at time for Bryz).  Brodeur can be susceptible to shots at his feet and it’s not rare for him to give up a bad angle goal along the ice targeted at the far post.  The Flyers will be best suited to just keep firing away at him.  Bryzgalov looked very slow moving laterally against the Penguins, and it was pretty clear that he wasn’t fully healed from his foot injury that saw him lose playing time at the end of the year.  The Flyers are hoping the rest allowed him to heal up.

The Flyers are also hoping that the rest doesn’t rust their gears up too much to start Game 1.  It’s no secret that the Flyers haven’t been getting off to good starts in the last few months of the season and in the playoffs, so the Devils really need to pour it on in the opening 10 minutes despite being the away team.  If the Devils can score a goal or two early on, they can set the tone and the pace.

One of the reasons that the Flyers were able to beat the Penguins was that coach Peter Laviolette was able to get the matchups against Crosby and Malkin that he wanted and his players were able to play effectively against them.  Crosby and Malkin scored their points in the series, but neither really dominated games at any point.  So if the Flyers were able to contain them effectively, shutting down the offense of the Devils should be a little bit of an easier job.  I would imagine that rookie Sean Couturier (who played against Malkin) will get Ilya Kovalchuk’s line and Claude Giroux will be paired against Patrick Elias’ line.

Devils coach Peter DeBoer seems to understand this issue, and according to Bill Meltzer at Hockeybuzz.com, the Devils lines have been shuffled to look like this:

Ponikarovsky – Zajac – Kovalchuk
Parise – Elias – Zubrus
Sykora – Henrique – Clarkson
Carter – Gionta – Bernier

This approach spreads some of the offense around and makes it more difficult for the Flyers to get favorable matchups.  The third line of Sykora/Henrique/Clarkson can score some goals if you don’t keep an eye on them (Henrique has been very good this year in all phases of the game).  But the big change is moving Zach Parise off the first line to Elias’ wing.  Elias is a player who should worry Flyers fans to a degree and even more so when he’s playing with a player of Parise’s caliber.  Fortunately for the Flyers, Nicklas Grossmann is back from his concussion and his big body and physical play will be huge for trying to contain Kovalchuk.  It also means that likely either Andreas Lilja or Pavel Kubina won’t have to be suited up to play.  The Flyers are also hoping to get Andrej Meszaros back from an injury.  Getting Meszaros back gives the Flyers so many more options on the back end.  Bryzgalov takes a lot of heat for goals given up, but the Flyers defensemen really need to support him.  If they don’t, it could be a long series for the Flyers.  And the longer the series, the better the chance the Devils have of winning.

The Devils are going to have their hands full containing the Flyers’ offensive attack.  It’s going to be a much different animal that they dealt with against the Panthers.  The Flyers have great scoring depth and every line can score.  Claude Giroux (although his numbers were inflated a bit by the Penguins defense) had an incredible opening round with 14 points.  Danny Briere scored 5 goals as he continues to be Mr. Playoffs.  What could be especially concerning for the Penguins is that James van Riemsdyk has had a few games back from his injury in the last round and some time to continue to heal up this past week.  If he can return to the Beast Mode that he showed last year, the Devils will be flat out overwhelmed by the Flyers offense.  Their best hope would be a shootout, but the Devils don’t have the firepower to hang with the Flyers in that kind of game.  Defenseman Anton Volchenkov is rumored to have a groin injury, so it will be very important for the Devils to play a total team defense so he’s not asked to do what he physically cannot.

This series might be determined by special teams.  The Flyers had a ridiculous powerplay against the Penguins, scoring 52% of the time.  The Devils, on the other hand, had an absolutely dreadful penalty kill despite setting a regular season record.  Clearly, these aren’t the norms for either team, but has enough time passed for either team to get back to their average play?  The Flyers aren’t the best faceoff team by any stretch of the imagination, but the Devils were pretty bad against the Panthers on draws, and that had a lot to do with their struggling penalty kill.  They literally couldn’t win faceoffs when the Panther had the powerplay.  It almost cost them the series.

My prediction: Flyers in 5.  Yes, it’s a little bit bold, but the Devils got the 6th seed as a result of a record being heavily inflated by shootouts.  And I was very unimpressed by the way the Devils held onto their 2 goal lead in Game 7 (actually, they didn’t hold onto the lead).  They only put three players on their own blue line (instead of five) and let the Panthers walk right in and set up.  Brodeur bailed them out on many occasions, but he’s going to get shredded if the team continues to play that lax on defense.

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