Monday, May 1, 2006
Habitual Flyers trying to catch up to new-age Sabres
By Scott Burnside ESPN.com
PHILADELPHIA -- Every time the whistle blows to start a game in this Buffalo-Philadelphia series, the Sabres spill onto the ice like someone has left the coral gate open to a gaggle of frisky colts.
The Flyers? Well, how about a gaggle of Clydesdales?
In the first five games of this Eastern Conference quarterfinals series, the colts, er, the Sabres, have run circles around the Flyers early on, forcing them into early penalty trouble and scoring the first goal in five straight games. Heading into Game 6 on Tuesday, the Sabres have taken a lead no later than 6:05 into each contest.
The Sabres have done a consistent job of beating the Flyers to the puck in their first-round series.
Twice the Flyers have been able to rebound from the frenzied Sabres attack to win games. But three times, they have not, putting the Flyers on the brink of elimination.
"They start frantic," Philadelphia coach Ken Hitchcock explained Monday. "Furious pace, get the lead and pull out.
"I think we've got to match the frantic pace of the start without making big errors. But we've got to match the frantic pace."
As is so often the case in the playoffs, this series has become a test of wills.
It's not necessarily a test of which team can mimic or react to its opponent, but which team can exert its will over an opponent? It is a battle the Flyers must win or face a 31st straight spring without a Stanley Cup.
"It's about not reacting to what the other team does. It's about drawing [from] what you do well. You don't want to be making changes based on the other team. Nobody does it. You are what you are when you come into the playoffs," Hitchcock said.
"We've got the character and guts to come back," he added. "But you can't keep mounting comeback upon comeback and not expect to pay for it down the line."
Beyond the immediate implications, what transpires in the next 24 to 48 hours between these two teams will be watched closely by NHL GMs around the league.
At almost every level, the Flyers and Sabres represent diametrically opposing views in terms of philosophy, style of play, even financial history.
Not so many years ago, the Sabres were bankrupt, their previous owners the subject of criminal proceedings. Prior to the lockout, the team spent as little as possible on payroll and enjoyed periodic success (a trip to the 1999 Stanley Cup finals) in spite of that.
The Flyers are old school all the way. They spend big, they think big and, physically speaking, they are perpetually big. They haven't won a Cup since 1975, but every year for the past decade, they begin the season fully expecting they will. This season was no different with the addition of Peter Forsberg, Derian Hatcher, Mike Rathje and Mike Knuble.
They are, said one top scout, always a dangerous playoff presence.
Indeed, the imposing Flyers lineup was a preseason Stanley Cup pick for many observers. Now, that belief is 60 minutes away from being proven delusional.
"That's certainly an element of the whole thing, how the teams are constructed and styles of play that we have. They're obviously built a little smaller and quicker. Every guy, up through the lineup, they've got a lot of skilled guys," explained Knuble, who signed as a free agent prior to the lockout and who has been one of the team's steadiest players this season. "We try and be physical and slow them down. A couple of games it's worked for us, a couple of games it hasn't.
"I don't know if it's going to have any bearing on other teams," Knuble added. "I don't know if our series does, but maybe people are looking at how they want to build their teams for the future. You can point to one or the other, probably, after our series."
Over the first five games of this series, the Sabres have exploited a Flyers team that appears now to be less imposing and more slow-footed, especially along the blue line, especially in the new NHL.
Using their superior speed to forecheck aggressively, the Sabres have forced the Flyers to take penalties. It has led to early goals, which in turn has forced Hitchcock to shorten his bench prematurely.
"There's nothing to fear in today's game. There's no fighting. Nobody can beat you up," Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff told reporters in Buffalo on Monday before the team flew to Philadelphia. "For a young team like ours, the noise level and their enthusiasm at times got us on our heels. But from a sense of being afraid, I thought what really hurt us was we tried to make too many pretty plays, which led to careless
By the mid-point of the first period of almost every game, Hitchcock has as many as five players who have essentially not played.
"I'm telling you, chasing the game takes such energy out of you," Hitchcock said. "And not necessarily during that game, but heading into the next game because there's so little time to recuperate."
If the Flyers cannot use their veteran presence, their superior physicality to choke off the smaller Sabres and play significantly more time 5-on-5, then Philadelphia's hard lesson will send a significant message to the rest of the league.
If, however, the Flyers can assert themselves, force the Sabres into a more physical battle, the jury will remain out at least for a couple of days.
"It's two teams that are certainly different the way they are built," offered veteran Flyer defenseman Eric Desjardins. "We have our own style. We don't want to play their game and they don't want to play our game. That's what it is in the playoffs. Whoever's getting caught playing the other team's style is going to end up losing."
After 82 games, you have an identity, Desjardins explained. "You've got to know who you are."
For the Flyers, it's not a question of who they are, but whether that identity is good enough for the new NHL.
Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.