PHILADELPHIA, PA – It’s the Islanders. They haven’t won in Philly since 2007. No sweat, right? Not quite. It took a couple of scares, a couple of blown leads and battles through spurts of sloppy play. However, when the Flyers defeated the New York Islanders 7-4 in regulation on Saturday night it finally became official. The Flyers now know who their opponent will be in round 1 of the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Flyers will square off against the streaking Buffalo Sabres. The Flyers win secured them the no. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference which is where I predicted them to end up in my early March piece. They avoid the Flyers buzz saw known as Tampa Bay but they run into another buzz saw in Pegula’s boys who have been terrific for the last third of the season. While the Sabres have a 16-4-4 record since new owner Terry Pegula took over in Buffalo, the Flyers know that when they are playing at the top of their game they can beat anyone. This has the makings of a great series, but only if the Flyers can get back to playing at the level they are capable of.
The Flyers and Sabres always seemed to end up meeting each other in the playoffs fairly often in the 90’s and then again in 2005-06 after the lockout. Sure, a lot of time has gone by since this “blast from the past” series last took place in 2006. Ken Hitchcock was still the coach and we hadn’t hit Forsberg’s foot saga yet and he was playing great. The two teams have had some very memorable playoff matchups over the years, especially in the 90’s. From bench clearing brawls, to “trying to frustrate” Dominik Hasek to get him riled up, to pucks ripping through the side of the net and counting as goals, and Ken Hitchcock and Lindy Ruff’s post game presser wars. There is no shortage of memories for me when it comes to Flyers-Sabres. Contrary to popular belief among some, I think Buffalo is an excellent hockey town with very good and knowledgeable fans. I remember watching the old series’ that went back and forth between the Spectrum and the Aud in Buffalo and remembering how loud those buildings were night after night. It was special.
While that was then, this is now. Gone is the era of knocking guys on their rears that stand in the crease with a cross check. These days, the refs are going to call it. Gone are the brawls that would probably cause suspensions in today’s NHL when back then it would be nothing more than a misconduct. However, this should be a fun series to watch if the Flyers bring their “A” game and it should create some new memories. Faster game, different players, less fisticuffs, but nobody doubts the entertainment level of playoff hockey and it’s superiority over other sports leagues.
When analyzing this series, I have to be blunt and honest. And for me to say anything other than “It doesn’t look good for the Flyers” right now would be a lie. It doesn’t look good. However, I think the Flyers can win. I think they can play better. I think they just might feel that playoff pinch, especially with Pronger returning. We can throw out statistics all we want. The Flyers have played a horrendous last month and a half or so. But there’s no time to dwell. Here’s a breakdown of how I think the series will shake out and what the key factors are:
Offense: The Sabres have some talented young players in Tomas Vanek, Drew Stafford, and Jason Pominville who can put the puck in the net. But let’s face it. The Flyers offense on paper is scary. Briere, Giroux, Richards, Carter, Leino ,Versteeg, Hartnell. The Flyers have offensive weapons that can strike from anywhere. And hopefully getting Pronger’s big shot from the point back will be huge as well. A guy like Meszaros isn’t too shabby from the blue line either. Offense wasn’t really the issue for the Flyers. Sloppy play and turnovers were. These guys can score. And they should give Ryan Miller everything he can handle. I give the edge to the Flyers on offense.
Defense: This is an area the Flyers have not played well in lately. They have turned the puck over a lot and have not held leads. Before the Pronger injury and for the first half of the season this was not a concern and the Flyers looked to have one of the best defensive corps in the league. Buffalo has a steady defense with veteran Steve Montador leading the way with a +16. Mike Weber and Andrej Sekera have also played solid defensive games this season. Tyler Myers who was a sophomore slumper at the beginning of the season has played better in the last couple of months and the former Kelowna Rocket is looking forward to the start of the new season (the postseason). What I like about this Flyer D though is their experience. Experience counts and that’s big when you’re countering a lot of young players on the other side. With Chris Pronger coming back and the veterans Timonen and O’Donnell ready to go with the younger guys Coburn, Carle, and Meszaros, I give the slight edge to the Flyers if these guys play to their potential. It really is a very impressive playoff 6 and a huge upgrade over last season (Krajicek-Bartulis-Parent).
Special Teams: This has been the Achilles heel for the Flyers all year. The power play has been poor for them. The Sabres power play is ranked 9th at 19.4% after a late season surge that bumped them up a few spots. The Flyers are 19th at 16.6%. The teams are virtually even on the penalty kill. The Sabres are at 83.2% while the Flyers are at 83%. Chris Pronger’s return should help, but even when he was in the lineup the Flyers power play wasn’t good this season. I witnessed the media asking Pronger game after game about the power play. Edge goes to the Sabres here for sure.
Goaltending: The Sabres have a proven goaltender in Ryan Miller who can just flat out steal games on some nights. We have seen him do it in the NHL playoffs, and we have seen him do it in the Olympics. The Flyers will be starting an unproven playoff rookie in Sergei Bobrovsky and nobody knows how he’ll do. Some games he looks unbeatable and the next game he gets pulled after giving up 5 goals. The inconsistency he is experiencing now is mostly due to the poor play in front of him. If the Flyers shore up their play in their own zone, this will be much less of an issue. However, the Sabres still get the nod here.
Coaching: Peter Laviolette is a proven Cup winner. Lindy Ruff is the longest mainstay for any head coach active in the NHL today. Ruff’s teams are always in the race every year, even during years where the talent pool wasn’t as high for the Sabres. He’s a terrific coach. He’s never won a Stanley Cup, but he was two games away in 1999 and I have a feeling a guy like this could have won in different cities. Two great coaches. Toss up in my opinion.
While the Sabres have been streaking and I can easily see this series going either way, I am banking this prediction on Chris Pronger returning for Game 1 and instilling that calming presence in the defense that he seems to always be able to do. The Flyers are far too talented to lose this series. Can they? Yes. It would take more of the same of what the Flyers have been doing lately, which is not playing two way hockey, and experiencing some shotty goaltending. I think it will be a long series, but I do see the Flyers waking up when it counts under Peter Laviolette and Chris Pronger’s leadership. Flyers in 7
Random Flyers Notes & Upcoming Series Notes:
* With the win tonight, The Flyers clinched the Atlantic Division for the first time since the lockout ended. They last won the Atlantic in the 2003-04 season when Keith Primeau, Jeremy Roenick and the gang took the Flyers within 1 game of the Stanley Cup Finals.
* Danny Briere will be returning to play in Buffalo for the postseason for the first time since he left for the Flyers following the 2006-07 season. After the win against the Islanders, a reporter asked Danny if it’s more emotional than a normal series to go back to Buffalo and play a series there. “I mean, it’s been a few years so it’s a little different than if it were the first year after I left,” Briere said. “It’s been quite some time now so it’s probably not as crazy but there’s still a little something there. It’s going to be special, there’s no doubt about it. I’ll be facing a lot of friends but for a couple weeks there we’ll have the leave that behind us. I’m definitely excited.” Briere struggled with some nagging injuries and played for the better part of the last month through pain, but still had a very good year for the Flyers. He scored a career high in goals with 34 and his line was the most consistent throughout the season. He will be a big key as the Flyers head in to Buffalo.
* The Flyers will face the Buffalo Sabres in a playoff series for the ninth time, which is the second most of any opponent the Flyers have faced in the playoffs. The Flyers are 5-3 against Buffalo in the playoffs. Their last meeting was in 2006, when Buffalo took a 4-games-to-2 win in the first round. The Sabres have won three of the last four series between the clubs dating back to 1998. Prior to that, the Flyers won four in a row between 1975 and 1997. (courtesy: Flyers PR)
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