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...

Several reasons behind Brandon Graham's seemingly sudden emergence

Several reasons behind Brandon Graham's seemingly sudden emergence

With three sacks in three games, Brandon Graham is off to the fastest start of his career by far, already almost halfway to his career high of 6½. Naturally, the Eagles' defensive end is excited about the production, but not nearly as excited as he was with the defense as a whole after a 34-3 romp over the Steelers on Sunday.

"For us, I was just happy we stayed together, we played together and the outcome was good," Graham said postgame. "Hats off to Pittsburgh because we did a lot of planning for them. We respect them a lot.

"I am just happy to get this win and I am happy in the style we did it."

Graham was one of four Eagles players to bring down Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, marking the first time the seventh-year veteran has recorded at least one sack in three consecutive games. In fact, prior to this season, Graham had never posted a sack in Week 1.

For once, the numbers are taking care of themselves for Graham — although that's not what he's focused on.

"Since I've been here, I've never gotten a sack in the first game, and I've never been consistent," Graham said. "I'm just trying to be the leader, go out there, get W's and be relentless."

There are plenty of explanations for Graham's seemingly sudden emergence.

This is only his second season as a full-time player in the NFL after injuries, then depth conspired to keep the 2010 first-round pick on the bench early in his career. Perhaps all he needed was an opportunity. The switch back to a 4-3 defense and wide-nine front no doubt helped rejuvenate Graham's career as well, allowing him to move from outside linebacker back to his natural position at defensive end and focus on rushing the passer.

With Connor Barwin, Vinny Curry and Marcus Smith all rotating in at end, Graham is also being kept fresh. Last season, the Eagles lacked the quality reserves to provide many breathers for Barwin and Graham on the outside.

"It's a great feeling because there's no pressure to hurry up and get back out," Graham said. "I feel like everybody is just as good and there's no drop-off when we come out of there.

"It's definitely going to help us later on in the year. It's been helping now."

There are all sorts of schematic reasons why Graham could finally be on his way to a breakout season. This will be his first full season as a starter at D-end in a 4-3, it's the first time since 2012 he's in a wide-nine and the defense no longer has to be worried about being exhausted by Chip Kelly's offense's uptempo approach.

Graham was also blessed with a new addition to his family during the offseason — a baby girl. The 28-year-old admits that changed his perspective as well, making him want to work even harder toward achieving his goals.

"Just the preparation and then the work this offseason, I took it up to another level," Graham said. "I guess because I had a daughter this offseason, everything is kind of viewed a different way for me.

"I know we have a good defense — that helps out a lot, too. I couldn't ask for a better defense right now."

Clearly, those goals are not individually motivated. Graham wants to be part of something great, and with a dominant performance against the Steelers in Week 3, the Eagles and their defense passed a huge test.

"I feel like we improved," Graham said. "We got a lot better. We stopped a good team, a great team, a well-coached team. Our hats off to them because they made us work this week."

Few people were expecting the Eagles to handle a trendy Super Bowl pick the way they did, and Graham actually prefers it that way.

"I hope we still get overlooked because it feels so good when people are talking the way they did," Graham said. "It added a little fuel. We watched a little bit of the TV (Sunday) morning, and they were just saying how [the Steelers] were going to dog us.

"I'm just happy that we came out and did what we were supposed to do, and I hope we stay the underdog because, for us, nobody gave us a chance and we stayed together. If we stay together in here, that's all that matters."

Through three games, the Eagles lead the NFL in fewest points surrendered with a paltry 27 and rank fourth in yards allowed. They're also tied for third with 10 sacks and tied for seventh with six takeaways.

If the defense stays together the way Graham says they have, how far does he think the Eagles go this season?

"I don't know," Graham said. "If we keep playing like that, there is no ceiling."

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Flyers Notes: Promising performances from young defensemen

Flyers Notes: Promising performances from young defensemen

The most impressive thing about the Flyers' 4-0 preseason win over the Islanders on Tuesday night was the play of the their young defense and the outstanding work by the penalty kill.

Ivan Provorov, Travis Sanheim and Philippe Myers each gave a strong accounting of themselves while veteran Andrew MacDonald proved why experience helps with some terrific PK work during an extended five-on-three Islanders power play in the third period.

“Overall, they did a good job,” head coach Dave Hakstol said. “I look at some of the opportunities we gave up, especially in the second period, we gave up three or four Grade A opportunities that Mase (goalie Steve Mason) was great on, but I put those on our forwards.

“We’re still not into regular-season form on our play without the puck. I thought as a whole, the group of defensemen did a good job and the young guys in there were good tonight.”

Sanheim had strong plays the entire game from the point and picked up two assists (see highlights). He gets the puck quickly on net and joins the play up front.

“It took me a little bit, even in this game,” Sanheim said. “As I play more, I started to jump up more and you start to see my game more. It’s something I want to bring to this next level.”

Provorov logged 21:43 of ice time following nearly 29 minutes at New Jersey. He had 5:17 on the PK. Some of his clears weren’t deep or hard enough, at times, possibly because of fatigue.

He also took a bad boarding hit on Joshua Ho-Sang in the third period that set up an Isles five-on-three power play. It became extended because of a trip call to Myers but MacDonald did yeoman’s work on the extended PK.

Provorov quarterbacks the first-unit man advantage for now until Shayne Gostisbehere joins the crowd. He had some very skillful passes. The Russian can find the seam up the ice on the breakout quickly and had a no-look, hard pass to Nick Cousins in the second period for a quality one-timer on net.

Expect Provorov to handle the second-unit power play during the season, should he make the roster.

The goals
Although the Flyers, using a better NHL lineup, were lacking for offensive chances early against the Isles' "B" squad, they found their way in the final four minutes of the opening period.

First, Dale Weise had one of those pinball goals as a bouncing puck hit a couple of players in the slot, including goalie Chris Gibson, to make it 1-0 during four-on-four play.

That was the Flyers' first goal of preseason in three games. A little more than a minute later, Wayne Simmonds scored off a rebound just as a Flyers power play ended. Simmonds had two goals in the game, including a wrister from the left circle to open the final period.

Smallish (5-foot-7) — but bullish — centerman Andy Miele, a former Hobey Baker Award winner as college hockey’s top player (Miami-Ohio), made it 3-0, out-battling Thomas Hickey for the rebound of Michael Raffl’s shot.

The shield
Simmonds is wearing a visor for the first time. It’s an experiment for now.

“Everyone is all over me about it,” he said. “We’ll see what happens. It wasn’t too bad tonight. The only thing is trying to track pucks in the sky when you are getting the glare from the lights. A little bit of an adjustment."

He said neither his mother nor girlfriend had pushed him as hard to wear the shield as someone else: “Ron Hextall,” he said flatly. “He gave me a call.”

Because of his tenacious play in the slot where sticks are high and pucks are deflected, a shield makes sense.

“Yeah, I think so, being that front guy and doing work on the PK,” he said. “Getting sticks in lanes like that, the game is really fast and pucks get deflected.

“Sometime you don’t know where they’re going and can’t react to that. Obviously, the shield is good for that."

He added he would wear the shield in a fight, too.

“Every time I fight and someone has a shield on, I’m at a disadvantage so I guess this evens it up,” he said.

Loose pucks
Weise did a nice job sticking up for teammates late during a melee after a Ben Holmstrom crosscheck to linemate Nick Cousins. “It was a bad crosscheck and you’re defending your teammates,” he said. “The ref was in the way and I kind of went overtop him. That’s what I’m about. Guys take liberties on my linemates, I’ll stand up for them.” … Matt Read had just 6:54 ice time through two periods. Fourth-liner Boyd Gordon had more ice time there — 9:39 — but Read finished with 13:55 to Gordon’s 13:41. More than half of Gordon’s ice time was on the penalty kill. … Goalie Steve Mason faced some point-blank chances among the first 17 shots he faced and finished with 23-save shutout.