Flyerside Chat: Rev and Matt's Flyers-Sabres Playoff Preview

Flyerside Chat: Rev and Matt's Flyers-Sabres Playoff Preview

With the Flyers set to embark on their 2011 playoff odyssey on home ice tonight, Rev and I thought we'd touch on a few of the bigger questions facing the team heading into the opening round. The Sabres are a good team that could be dangerous coming out of the same seventh seed the Flyers rode to a Stanley Cup Finals appearance. The Flyers have a team built to win it all. We should be in for one hell of a series. 

Matt: Starting off with a look at the past, the Flyers have faced the Sabres as much as any other team in their playoff history, including defeating them in the 1975 Stanley Cup Finals. Personally, I'm not one to put much weight on past outcomes when trying to get a handle on what's about to happen, and the previous matchups between these two are somewhat dated given the current rosters. I mean, a young Brian Boucher beat Buffalo over 10 years ago, and the Sabre who scored an OT winner in 2006 just had his career-best goal scoring season—as a Flyer.

Do you think past playoff series are a factor when there's this much time between them and any bad blood harborers have either retired or are on other teams entirely? I could see if they'd played last season, or even the year before, but with all the personnel turnover, is there any reason besides the fun of reminiscing to dig through the past series for meaning?

Rev: No. Unless of course the post-traumatic stress of Roman Cechmanek suffering a meltdown against Buffalo gives you enjoyment. Other than providing a convenient walk-down-memory-lane pre-series talking point, the past playoff history between these teams means absolutely nothing. It's fun for fans to discuss, but much like those money management commercials on TV are forced to state, "past performance is not an indicator of future success." However, I'll never tire of the memory of John LeClair being credited for a goal which went through a hole in the outside of the mesh net against the Sabres back in the 2000 playoffs. It almost makes me feel bad for Buffalo.

Matt: Although for the moment Brian Boucher isn't penciled in to play a major role in this series, Danny Briere very likely could. His best moments last year came in the postseason, when he led the Flyers' top scoring line. Known for being clutch in the playoffs, Danny also seems to enjoy playing against his former club, with 3 goals and 5 assists in 4 games this season and 15 points in 18 career games versus Buffalo. The Briere-Hartnell-Leino line slowed down a bit after Danny's appearance at the All-Star Game, but he and Hartnell seemed to catch a little fire down the stretch. I doubt will see last year's playoff numbers from this line, but  I do expect them to set the tone in the opening series.

Rev: The Flyers obviously struggled down the stretch. They enter the playoffs having won just seven of their last twenty. I don't think anyone would argue that they played with any sense of urgency over the last month or so. Do you have any faith that they can simply flip the switch and up their intensity?

Matt: Midway through what was an amazing run for most of the regular season, it didn't feel like we were going to have to worry about this. Fortunately, it was only this time last year where we saw that they can in fact flip the switch the moment the playoffs begin. As excitingly improbable as that run was though, I didn't want to have to count on it twice in two years. The other thing in play here is that the Sabres are coming in pretty hot, having won four straight and eight of their last ten. The end of the regular season doesn't benefit the Flyers in this season, if it factors in at all. 

Also, not to beat a dead horse, but removing the shootout and OTL-point safety net that hangs beneath each regular season game may also change the stakes once the playoffs start. Mixed into the awful stretch to end the season was a four-game string of shootout decisions. That's over now, and I'm hoping, perhaps foolishly, that knowing these win-or-go-home games will be decided by actually playing hockey will benefit the Flyers, who seemed to forget that something was on the line as the season wore on.

Rev: I am all over the place on this. On the one hand they have a ton of depth and talent. They won their division, finished second in the conference, and are coming off of a pretty remarkable regular season. You pretty much have the exact same group of guys who made the run to the Finals last season. They've paid the price and know what it takes to win in the playoffs. I hate saying this, but based on their performance and Peter Laviolette's less than rigorous practice schedule down the stretch it certainly seemed like they were pacing themselves. So, perhaps they will be able to flip that proverbial switch.  On the other hand playoff seeding means less in the NHL playoffs than any other sport. It seems like teams who have to scratch and claw to make the playoffs, who play with a level of urgency night in and night out, enjoy more success in the postseason. I have no empirical evidence to back this up, but it certainly feels that way. You'd think that their improbable comeback against Boston last season would have earned them the benefit of the doubt in terms of their heart and willingness to go all in, but you never know.  Can you tell I have absolutely no idea what to expect?

Matt: No doubt. And while I'd love to still have that feeling I had a few months ago, when I was sure the Flyers were among the absolute elite in the league, uncertainty breeds excitement too. I'm definitely not in the "one and done" camp, though I imagine that's true of most fans.

Moving on, the Flyers once again enter the playoffs without the mythical "true number one goalie." Although Sergei Bobrovsky has earned a lot of fans in a fine rookie season, the guy at the other end of the ice is without a doubt the type of established, dominant goaltender that Flyers fans have sought for two decades (although 2010-2011 wasn't quite as good as his Vezina-winning season in the prior campaign). No one, including me, is giving the Flyers a check mark in the goalie matchup. But this team wasn't built to rely on its goalie to win them a Cup, and lately, the latter hasn't necessarily been a winning formula. That's not to say it isn't a major factor from the opening puck drop though.

Which are you more concerned about—that the Flyers goaltending will let them down in the opening series, or that Ryan Miller will dominate it?

Rev: I am more concerned that the Flyers goaltending will let them down. Now, that's not to say that I lack confidence in Bob. I think he'll be fine. It's just more a reflection of how I feel about Ryan Miller. I mean, if given the choice between either goalie you'd be crazy not to take Miller. But, as we saw last postseason strange things can happen like Brian Boucher outplaying Marty Brodeur and Michael Leighton recording three shutouts against Montreal. As a Flyers fan I suppose I am hanging my hat on the recent success of guys like Antti Niemi and J.S. Giguere. Again, I think Bob will be fine, but as you mentioned the check mark for goaltending clearly goes in the Sabres column.

Matt: And, at the same time, the Flyers had some success against Miller this season, scoring 5, 4, and 3 goals on him in his three starts against them. He also missed time at the end of the season with the ol' upper body injury. Of course, in relief of Jhonas Enroth
in that last Flyers-Sabres game, Miller hung a perfect frame to close out a Buffalo win. The Flyers' successes against Miller came when they were scoring more efficiently than they were down the stretch. I'm not necessarily as concerned with our US Olympian being the factor so much as the Flyers going cold regardless of the goalie they're shooting on. 

Rev: Finish this sentence and explain your choices: If the Flyers are going to win this series their Three Stars will be________________ , ________________, and ______________.

Matt: Danny Briere, Sergei Bobrovsky, and Mike Richards. Yeah I went chalk with the 2010 playoff hero/guy facing his old team, the goalie we're pinning our hopes on, and the captain we're charging with getting this team's head out of its own ass. There's no reason to think all three won't deliver either. Honorable mention to Andrej Meszaros, who could step up to be a force whether Chris Pronger plays or not. Big Mesz has had a great season, and I think we'll see him continue to get dangerous shots on net and play big minutes and steady D.

Your mad libs?

Rev: Danny Briere, Andrej Meszaros, and Sergei Bobrovsky. Briere because he has a knack for lifting his game come playoff time. Add in the fact that Briere has had success against his former team and the #48 arrow is pointing up. Also, unlike Richards, Carter, and Giroux, Danny does not have to worry about expending energy on the penalty kill. His shifts will come either five on five or on the power play. He has to make his minutes count. You alluded to the Hartnell-Briere-Leino earlier. As we saw last postseason they can be dominating.   I chose Meszaros because at this point I do not know how much Chris Pronger will play. Meszaros had a phenomenal regular season. In my opinion he was their best all-around defenseman. It'll go a long way towards curing their power play problems if he's able to get shots through from the point. He plays in every situation, so he'll need to be big.  Bob is my final choice...for obvious reasons.

Matt: I'd love to see it be Giroux. He showed us that potential to be great this season, but he was also one of the Flyers who did get a little too comfortable down the stretch in my opinion. Some of the more talented puck handlers on the team got too casual with their decisions, and turnovers really had a negative impact. In a game as fluid as hockey, a quick change in the direction of the action can be a great equalizer, letting a decent set of forwards blow past even a great defense pairing.  I do think G has as much potential as anyone in the NHL to be his team's playoff MVP though.

Is there any reason to think the Flyers' power play will suddenly find a groove in the postseason?

Rev: Considering their depth and talent it remains a mystery as to why they struggled so much on the power play. Yes, they obviously missed Pronger, but they're too skilled not to convert at a higher rate. My main complaint is that they lack a Mike Knuble-type who is willing to plant himself in front of the net, take the abuse, screen the opposing goalie, and bang in loose pucks. Perhaps the heightened sense of urgency of playoff hockey forces them to simplify things. Hartnell is the most likely candidate to reprise that trash man role. They don't have that traditional power forward. Perhaps JVR can be that guy down the road, but his talent almost gets in the way. He's either playing the point, or is content to hang out behind the net or along the half-boards. Beyond that, if they're going to succeed with the man advantage they'll need to win the puck battles and pay the price.

Matt: As far as concerns go, this one is high on my list. It seems so inexplicable that they can't score more on the man advantage with all that firepower and an extra man on the ice, almost like it's their Achilles heel.

Series predictions...?

Matt: Is there any chance we don't both pick the Flyers to advance? Six games-ish? I'll go with that.

Rev: Flyers in six just sounds right.

Feel free to leave your responses to the questions above in the comments below...

Robert Covington, Sixers show 'swagger' without Joel Embiid in comeback win

Robert Covington, Sixers show 'swagger' without Joel Embiid in comeback win

BOX SCORE

The Sixers began the season looking lost without Joel Embiid. Now they are finding ways to win when he is not on the court. 

Embiid suffered a left knee contusion in the second half of Friday’s 93-92 win over the Trail Blazers (see story). He was sidelined for the decisive 8:50 of the game (see Instant Replay).

The Sixers trailed, 81-78, when he subbed out for the second time because of the injury, and outscored the Trail Blazers, 15-11, from that point on.

So how was this team that battled with inconsistency and reliance on Embiid able to pull out a comeback win punctuated in the final seconds? Ask the Sixers and they’ll give varying answers, a sign they are getting the job done in multiple ways and aren’t relying on just one key to success.

The most glaring difference was the hero of the game. Robert Covington drained two three-pointers in the final 40 seconds. His trey from Dario Saric with 38.2 remaining cut the Trail Blazers' lead to just one, 91-90. With 4.5 to go, he nailed the game-winning three from T.J. McConnell to give the Sixers their eighth victory in 10 games (see feature highlight).

“That’s resilient Cov,” Nerlens Noel said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a good shot or a bad shot; he’ll pull it in your face. That’s the confidence he has and that’s the confidence we need him to have. He steps up and makes two big shots like that, that’s enough said. He won us that game.”

Critics have called out Covington’s up-and-down performance from three all season. (They’ve made their feelings known with loud boos at home games.) Covington shot 5 for 12 behind the arc on the night but his 2 for 3 performance in the fourth was what mattered most. 

“I am a fighter, that’s what I have been my whole life,” he said. “Just because fans are booing me at one point doesn't mean anything. I just keep working. I am not going to let that deteriorate my game. It goes in one ear and out the other.”

Without Embiid in the game, the Sixers had to rely on a total team effort. After he went to the bench, the final points were scored by a combination of Covington, Gerald Henderson, Noel, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and McConnell.

“Ball movement,” head coach Brett Brown said. “We had 25 assists out of 36 made baskets. It’s not like we’re going to give the ball to Damian Lillard (guard for the Blazers). That’s not who we are. Whatever we do, it has to be done by committee, by a group, by a team. It’s even more exposed when Joel isn’t in the game. They did that. Unlikely people ended up with the ball sometimes in unlikely spots. … You have to move the ball. That’s what the team has learned without Joel.” 

Several of the players on the court in critical moments were from the second unit. Since Brown locked in on his rotation, the reserves don’t have a drop-off in confidence from the starters. 

“It’s the mentality,” Covington said. “Everybody has that swagger about us right now because once Joel comes out, the next person steps in and fills that void. It’s a matter of that contagious feeling that trickles into the second unit that’s making us that much more valuable.”

Then there's always defense, the foundation of any solid NBA team and a focal point for the Sixers. Noel saw that as the difference-maker when subbing in and out. The Trail Blazers scored just two points in the final 1:56. 

"The second unit goes there and does a great job guarding the yard, not letting up easy baskets," Noel said. "The offensive side is fluid motion. Guys get shots, pick-and-roll, it opens up open threes for guys, driving lines, pump fakes, it’s a great unity."

Embiid liked what he saw from a distance. He will not travel with the team to their game on Saturday against the Hawks in Atlanta. 

"I’m just happy we’ve been closing out games, and the main thing I’m really happy [about] is they’ve been able to do it without me," he said. "That’s going to give us a lot of confidence when I’m missing back-to-backs. My teammates are going to have more confidence to come in and play the same way."

Joel Embiid feels 'great' after injury scare to left knee

Joel Embiid feels 'great' after injury scare to left knee

Of the nearly 20,000 people in the Wells Fargo Center on Friday night, Joel Embiid was seemingly the least concerned when he came down and injured his left knee. 

Fans held their breath and the Sixers looked on anxiously as the standout big man got up in visible discomfort and limped off the court (see highlights). Embiid, however, wasn’t worried. 

“I knew it was OK. I just landed the wrong way,” he said after the Sixers' 93-92 win over the Trail Blazers (see Instant Replay). “I’m great. The knee’s fine. They did an MRI and stuff, everything looked good.”

Embiid ran off the court on his own, was diagnosed with a left knee contusion and was cleared to return to the game. He aggravated his knee again driving to the basket and this time, the team held him out to be careful.

“The review is that he hyperextended his left knee,” head coach Brett Brown said. “There was a minor tweak again, and for precautionary reasons only, the doctors did not allow him to return. There will be more information given as we know it. But quickly, that's what we know.”

Embiid understood the team’s decision to sideline him for the final 8:50 while the Sixers went on a comeback run (see feature highlight). He still finished the game with an 18-point, 10-rebound double-double, five assists and four blocks in only 22 minutes.

“Obviously those guys, the front office, they care about my future, so they just shut it down,” Embiid said. “But I was fine.”

Embiid will not travel to Atlanta for Saturday’s game against the Hawks (pre-scheduled rest). He expects to be available for Tuesday’s home matchup against the Clippers. 

"You know how tough he is," Nerlens Noel said. "If it isn’t anything serious, he’ll be right back. At the end of the game, he was telling me was he was feeling great and there was no pain. He wanted to come back in the game … he’s a trooper. He always gives it his all and always plays hard."

Injuries to any player are worrisome, especially a franchise centerpiece with two years of rehab (foot) behind him. The Sixers have been methodical and cautious with his playing time. Embiid is on a 28-minute restriction and can play in only one game of a back-to-back series. 

The same player who is so closely watched, though, also plays with sky-high energy that doesn’t have a brake pedal. 

“You're concerned,” Brown said of seeing Embiid get injured. “It's clear to all of us that he plays with such reckless abandon. I think that we're all going to be seeing this and feeling this regularly. From flying into stands to stalking somebody in the open court to block a shot to the collision he often is in trying to draw fouls. That's just who he is. 

“I think that as he just plays more basketball and continues to grow, to not necessarily avoid those situations, just to perhaps manage them a little bit more. Right now, he's just a young guy that's just playing that doesn't know what he doesn't know and has a fearless approach underneath all that attitude.”

Fearless is an accurate description considering Embiid's trouble-free reaction to the awkward way his leg bent (he hadn’t seen a replay). 

“I kind of had that in college, too,” he said. “I think I’m flexible, so it’s supposed to happen.”