The Flyers on a skid, the Sabres riding a hot streak. But when the playoffs start, that doesn’t really matter. The only thing that matters is who can turn their game up to playoff level and take control first.
They call it the “second season” for a reason – it’s a brand new start, a brand new atmosphere, and a clean slate for every team fortunate enough to make it.
The Flyers come in as the 2nd seed facing Buffalo’s 7th seed. Oddly enough, though, the Flyers crossed the finish line stumbling, winning just 3 of their last 10 games. The Sabres, on the other hand, won 8 of their final 10 to fight their way into the playoffs and secure the 7th spot.
On paper, the Flyers simply match up line for line against the Sabres.
The only area where the Sabres come out on top is goaltending.
The Flyers will field rookie upstart Sergei Bobrovsky. Bob has proven himself a talented stopper, but hasn’t been without a few moments of weakness. On multiple occasions this season, he’s seemingly cracked in net and let the game get out of hand.
Backing him on the bench, though, is the veteran presence in Brian Boucher. If it comes down to pulling Bob from a game, Boucher will be reliable stepping in for him. And Boucher, despite the language barrier, is also the kind of calming voice that Bobrovsky needs to handle the pressures of the postseason.
With this tandem working to their best, the Flyers aren’t too bad off in net. It’s not their strong point, but it shouldn’t be a weakness, either.
On the other hand, Ryan Miller is a world-class netminder, Vezina trophy-winner, and international MVP. There’s no doubt that he will be a wall in net for the Sabres. But it’s not as if he can’t be beat.
All it takes is an offense that’s willing to work for its chances, get in front of the net, and fight for rebounds. Which leads to one of the Flyers’ biggest advantages:
Offensive depth. The Flyers can roll three lines of scoring threats without pause. That kind of assault over the course of sixty minutes, much less a seven game series, is too much for most teams to handle.
The Sabres can run two dangerous scoring lines and a third line that’s still a threat. The Flyers – three scoring lines that could rival most teams’ top line. Neither team has the kind of lineup that features a single star to shut down, but player for player, the Flyers have the upper hand.
Defensively, this is what the Flyers were built for. They found out last year that relying on two lines – even two lines featuring the talent of Pronger, Carle, Timonen, and Coburn – doesn’t work when teams these days can hurt you with three lines. So in the offseason, the Flyers’ acquired Andrej Meszaros – who recently won the team award for best defenseman – and Sean O’Donnell – a reliable sixth defenseman and veteran leader.
Meszaros is going to be stellar. With or without Pronger, the Flyers are going to have the advantage in depth. If Pronger is missing from the lineup, its going to hurt, no doubt. They’ll miss his locker room presence, his ability to suck up minutes like a sponge, and his shutdown talents.
But if a healthy Chris Pronger returns, this Flyers’ defensive corps turns from good into great. The young, mobile Meszaros can settle into the third line to back up Sean O’Donnell, whose aging legs can only carry him so far so fast, and the minutes can be spread out much more evenly.
Outside of how the players match up on-ice, the Flyers may also have something else going for them mentally.
Though Buffalo is the hotter of the two teams, this Flyers squad knows the difference between the regular season and the playoffs.
Most of them coming from last year’s Cup contending squad have seen and experienced the kind of play that it takes to make it deep in the playoffs. For the Flyers, newcomers Jody Shelley and Nikolay Zherdev, along with Andreas Nodl, are the only skaters who haven’t seen considerable playoff time.
For the Sabres, only a small group of veterans from their back-to-back Conference Final appearances in ’06 and ’07 remain, and Rob Neidermayer stands alone as the only Stanley Cup winner (he took home the trophy alongside Chris Pronger and Sean O’Donnell as part of the ’07 Ducks). Most of the rest only have last year’s first round exit to look back to for experience.
That means that the Flyers, when the pressure is on, are going to be less likely to crack, and will instead thrive under the pressure. Think back to the incredible emergence of the LBH line – Danny Briere, Scott Hartnell, and Ville Leino combined for one of the most magical lines in recent history. This trio has been getting hotter as the postseason draws near, and is sure to leave their mark on any team the Flyers face.
So don’t let their recent records fool you – the Flyers reached the top by beating the best team, and they know what it takes to flip that switch and reignite their game.
Once the puck drops and the playoffs start, they’ll remind everyone how they did that, and the Sabres are going to have to contend with one tough team.