Second-round preview: Flyers-Devils
It took the New Jersey Devils perhaps longer than many expected to dispose of the Florida Panthers -- into double overtime of Game 7 on Thursday night -- but they moved on to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2007. Their reward will be to travel to face the high-flying Philadelphia Flyers.
The Flyers have been cooling their blades since Sunday after defeating the Pittsburgh Penguins in six games. They blew past the Pens with a dizzying arsenal that averaged five goals a game. They will be looking to keep that rolling against a Devils team that struggled to maintain leads in the first round but found a way to keep the playoff machine rolling behind all-world netminder Martin Brodeur.
1. The Thin Blue Line: The Flyers will have been off almost a week by the time they get things revved up for their second-round tilt against the Devils, but that time doesn't seem to have helped useful defenseman Nicklas Grossmann, who doesn't look to be ready to start the series on Sunday. He suffered an injury after being crunched by Tyler Kennedy and Evgeni Malkin in the first round. Playing with Braydon Coburn, Grossmann helped to neutralize Malkin and his forward unit through much of the first-round series with Pittsburgh, so his prolonged absence is an issue.
With Marc-Andre Bourdon still out after being injured in Game 1 of the Pittsburgh series, Peter Laviolette will likely continue to employ Pavel Kubina and Erik Gustafsson, neither of whom played at the start the playoffs. Gustafsson, another impressive rookie, scored a big goal in Game 6 versus the Pens and played well in his first playoff experience. Still, without captain Chris Pronger and Andrej Meszaros longterm and Bourdon and Grossmann out for some time, do the Flyers feel the pinch from losing the war of attrition across the blue line? Certainly, the Devils' game plan has to include putting as many pucks as possible behind the Flyers' blue line and trying to force them into mistakes or penalties.
2. Not So Special: During the regular season, the Devils were pretty much unbeatable when it came to killing penalties as they led the league in penalty-killing efficiency. Not so much in the playoffs. The Panthers scored eight times on 26 opportunities and that, as much as anything, allowed the Cats to stay in a series that appeared on many levels to be a mismatch.
If that trend continues, the Flyers will eat the Devils for lunch as they destroyed another fine penalty-killing unit from Pittsburgh, torching the Pens for 12 goals on 23 opportunities in the first round. We saw how the Flyers' domination became a mental thing for the Penguins. It will be up to the Devils to find a way to negate that threat.
Speaking of mental, what about those blown leads? The Devils blew a 3-0 lead and lost Game 3 to Florida. Then they blew 2-0 leads in the final two games but came back to win in overtime in both games. The Flyers, meanwhile, spotted the Pens an early 3-0 lead in Game 1 and then a 3-1 first period lead in Game 2 and won both those games. This won't be like some of the other series we've seen and can expect to see moving forward where leads are to be sat upon like a giant egg. Not against the Flyers.
3. G, He's Good: Claude Giroux, the guy they just call "G," certainly enjoyed a banner first round against some high-profile competition in Sidney Crosby and Malkin. Indeed, there was much discussion in the wake of the Flyers' series victory about whether Giroux, who hovered on the edge of the Hart Trophy discussion as regular season MVP, is the best player in the world right now. Such heady praise might be a tad premature, but it certainly makes for interesting discussion as the Flyers continue to look for their first Cup win since 1975. Giroux did it all against Pittsburgh, scoring key goals, directing a potent power play, killing penalties and helping as the Flyers scored three times shorthanded. He also continued to engage in non-stop chirping and was never far from any of the action, whatever form that action took. Giroux leads all players with 14 points in six games.
4. Runaway Train: While the rest of the NHL seemed to operate at 33 1/3 RPMs in the first round, the Flyers were at 78, pouring an average of five goals a game past the Penguins. Part of that was a function of a high-powered power play and shaky goaltending and defense by the Penguins. Still, the Flyers represent the most dangerous offensive team left in the playoffs. Thirteen different players have scored and, even more impressive, eight have at least two goals.
"Yes, I believe they will keep up their offensive prowess," former GM and national analyst Craig Button told ESPN.com. "They are big, fast and wear down defenses."
That's not good news for the Devils' defense, which has been successful based on a collective effort as opposed to a dominating duo or stud anchor the likes of Scott Stevens or Scott Niedermayer. By comparison, the Devils have goals from just nine different players and none from their blue line.
5. So, What About Bryz? (And That Other Guy): In a series that featured a myriad of storylines, the discussion of Ilya Bryzgalov wasn't key to the narrative in the Penguins-Flyers clash. You have to figure that's a good thing for a netminder who has been up and down both in terms of his on-ice performance and handling the pressure of being "the man" in the Philadelphia goal for, oh, the next decade or so. Still, Bryzgalov turned in a rather pedestrian 3.89 goals-against average and .871 save percentage against the Penguins. He was good when he had to be, such as in Game 1 when the Flyers battled back from a 3-0 first-period deficit to win in overtime. But now he's going to face a living legend in Brodeur, who backstopped his team to a rare second-round appearance. Although he'll turn 40 on May 6, Brodeur was vintage in Game 7, turning aside 43-of-45 shots he faced. Although the winningest goaltender of all time still displays the odd wobble -- he was lifted in Game 3 -- he certainly looks to provide a much sterner test in goaltending adversaries than Marc-Andre Fleury did in the first round. If the Devils win the goaltending battle, then this series takes on a different look. If Bryzgalov can saw off Brodeur, then the odds swing heavily toward the Flyers.
6. Fabulous Firsts: Both head coaches, Pete DeBoer in New Jersey and Peter Laviolette in Philadelphia, have placed significant trust in first-year players and have been richly rewarded for such trust. The Flyers are regularly icing six rookies with Sean Couturier, Matt Read and Brayden Schenn in particular enjoying strong opening rounds.
The Devils, meanwhile, saw Calder Trophy nominee Adam Henrique open the scoring in Game 7 and then end it early in the second overtime period. Although the goals were the first of the playoffs for Henrique, he is crucial to establishing the kind of scoring depth that will be imperative for the Devils to stay in the hunt with the Flyers. Speaking of rookies, this spring marks DeBoer's first playoff adventure and so far he's perfect.
• Devils' top live versus Sean Couturier: The Devils' big line of Zach Parise, Ilya Kovalchuk and Travis Zajac -- the overtime hero in Game 6 -- combined for eight goals and seven assists in the first round. If they roll, the Devils roll. They can expect to see a lot of Sean Couturier, who was so good at shutting down (not to mention annoying) Malkin in the first round.
• Philadelphia's James van Riemsdyk: Last spring, van Riemsdyk had seven goals in 11 postseason games for the Flyers. But this season injuries limited the big winger to just 43 regular season games and 11 goals. He returned to the Flyers' lineup in the final two games of the Pittsburgh series and has yet to register a point as he tries to make his presence felt in this series.
• New Jersey's Ilya Kovalchuk: The big winger leads all NHL forwards in ice time this spring by a country mile, at 25:42 a night. While he is the motor that drives the Devils' offensive engine, he is also prone to some wobbly moments defensively. High risk. High reward. That's the Kovalchuk way.
• Devils fans always insist that I don't pick their team to win in the playoffs as some kind of ritual. Bottom line is they haven't been very good in the playoffs since the lockout. And in spite of an impressive performance against Florida, the Flyers are in a different league. Flyers in five.