Barely clinching a spot thanks to some last second shootout heroics in the final game of the season, the seventh seed Flyers may have feared matching up against one of their higher ranking opponents.
However, looking at the team they’ve been pitted against, they can’t be more confident.
While still a very talented team, sporting a potent offense in front of hall of fame goaltender in Martin Brodeur, the Atlantic Division champion New Jersey Devils should instill fear in opposing teams. This time, it may be them that should be worried.
The Flyers won five of the six games in the season series against the Devils, picking up wins when it mattered most, including a home-and-home series sweep going into the Olympic break and a 5-1 win to snap a five game losing streak at the end of March, when points were hardest to come by.
The rock-paper-scissors style that took hold in the Atlantic went all season, as the Flyers controlled the Devils, the Devils swept the Penguins, and the Penguins continued their domination over the Flyers. Philadelphia and their fans are hoping this will continue through the playoffs, at least until a possible series against the dreaded Penguins.
Brian Boucher started two of the six games against the Devils. One being a 4-1 loss in early December, right as the team took one of its worst skids, and the other being their recent 5-1 win.
If he continues to play as the Brian Boucher we’ve seen in the past week, stopping all of the shots he can be expected to and then some, the Flyers have a good chance of taking this playoff series. His record in wins has not looked good, but much of that falls on the team in front of him, who failed to score any more than two goals in ten of the games in which he kept the opposing team to two or fewer. Three of these ten ended up being wins despite his team’s lackluster offense.
A tight defensive squad, led by Chris Pronger and Kimmo Timonen, should be able to limit second and third opportunities, while Boucher is forced to fight off the hard shots off the stick of a player like Ilya Kovalchuk.
Kovalchuk, brought on as a rental player from the rebuilding Thrashers to a team looking at an immediate run, hasn’t had a particularly stellar post season showing in the past. Only having played four games as his Thrashers were swept by the New York Rangers in ’07, Kovalchuk posted only a goal and an assist.
A veteran like him should be able to handle the pressures of a playoff atmosphere, yet he remains relatively untested in this setting.
Another question for the Devils lies in their defense. While not exactly young, they’re a bunch of relatively no-name players. The biggest breakout has been Andy Greene, with a 37 point year over a previous career high of 10 in ’07-’08.
As for the Flyers and their offensive capabilities, they should be relatively well off going forward. Their lines have been reverted to where they were during their most successful run through January and February, and Jeff Carter is continuing to work his way back into the lineup. Look for him to add a much missed scoring touch.
One thing the Flyers will need if they hope to make a legitimate playoff run is more depth of scoring, the likes of which we saw in their Conference Final appearance in 2008 and last season, with six 25 goal scorers. This means Scott Hartnell, James van Riemsdyk, Claude Giroux must all step up their game; as well as the energy line players like Arron Asham and Darroll Powe. If they can get contribution from every line, the Flyers will be a dangerous and deadly team to face throughout April, May, and hopefully even June.
WHAT TO WATCH:
Special Teams: The Flyers are the NHL’s second most penalized team, while the Devils are the third least. If the boys in the orange and black can’t reign in their emotions and play disciplined hockey, look for the special teams unit to carry the load, which may turn into the Flyers’ downfall should it get out of hand.
One thing to note: the Flyers power play and penalty kill both rank above the Devils’.
Line Changes: Laviolette finished the season using his tried and true lines from the Michael Leighton-led days, and it worked. Despite only scoring one goal outside of the shootout, the Flyers were the dominant team.
He may or may not lead the series off with these lines. Chances are that he will stick with them until they grow stagnant, which may even prompt a mid-game rearranging of the roster.
As the series changes, especially if the Flyers are falling behind, look for Laviolette to mix things up and experiment with some stranger groupings. The defense should stay relatively constant, but the forwards are nearly all interchangeable, with the only two staying together through it all being Blair Betts and Ian Laperriere.
It is also possible that trade deadline pickup, Ville Leino, recently seen on the healthy scratch list, will make his way back into the game after putting up a goal and an assist in the most recent game against the Devils as he lined up with Simon Gagne and Danny Briere.
Keep all these things in mind, and keep your head up. Playoff hockey starts this Wednesday, as the Flyers face off against the New Jersey Devils across the river in Newark. They’ll return home for the first of two (and possibly three) home games on Sunday, as the throngs of screaming fans show up to see their team take another win.