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.
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...