Round 2: Flyers Favored, But Jersey's Devil Could Be in Their Dormant Balance

Round 2: Flyers Favored, But Jersey's Devil Could Be in Their Dormant Balance

Once again paired against a divisional rival, the Flyers' second-round matchup with the New Jersey Devils feels very little like the opening round battle against the Penguins. Despite having played the Devils as frequently as the Penguins for years and even facing off in a recent (2010) playoff series, Jersey certainly seems the less familiar foe. 
The flames of the rivalry aren't quite as intense as they were a decade ago, at least not at the moment. Something tells me by this time next week, they'll be rekindled if not roaring. 
If you're entering this series at a bit of a loss for the who these Devils are, you're not alone. Aside from the nearly 40-year-old Martin Brodeur and high-priced sniper Ilya Kovalchuk, they don't have the star power to stand out like the Penguins or Rangers. And yet, they finished right in the thick of the best division in the NHL. 
To beat the Devils, the Flyers will have to shut down an underrated offense anchored by a dominant top line but peppered with scorers throughout. They'll have to beat a goalie who once owned them but can no longer lay claim to their title and deed. And they'll have to sidestep a few agitating landmines who will aim to tilt the special teams seesaw away from the end that would appear to decidedly favor the Flyers. 
Superstitious as we are, we'd never start a series by disrespecting the opponent's ability to win it. But if the Devils do so, it will be as a decided underdog. They are not as good as the Penguins were, and the Flyers topped Pittsburgh in six games while New Jersey needed double OT in game 7 to outlast an artificially weighted Florida Panthers team. Take a look back at the first round though, around the league. Once the puck hits the ice, all bets are off, and being the favorite doesn't mean a damn thing. 
Upset the BalanceA huge reason for the Flyers' ability to advance out of the first round was their silencing of Evgeni Malkin for most of the series. Another series, another Russian to keep off the sheet. Ilya Kovalchuk is the guy whose contract was as laughable as it was illegal, the missing ingredient that ruined the stew, the man deserving of the nickname Kovalchoke. In 2010. He still posted numbers, but they rang hollow, and he disappeared for stretches of the Flyers' five-game series win in the 2010 postseason. 
But in 2012, with the Devils are playing a more attacking style of hockey while also posting a top-10 defense/goals allowed, Kovalchuk fit in better on his way to a 37-goal, 82-point season. Against the Panthers, the dangerous top line trio of Kovalchuk, Travis Zajac, and Zach Parise (18 goals/36 pts in 40 career games vs PHI) combined for eight of the team's 18 goals. (Yes, they scored 18 goals in 7 games and won… Not quite the barn-burner we witnessed at the poles of Pennsylvania, huh?)
Kovalchuk is rumored to be playing hurt, but he still scored three times last series. He's not quite as self-destructive as Malkin proved to be either. We're looking forward to seeing Sean Couturier and Braydon Coburn try to stuff him in a sack over the next week-plus. 
To beat the Flyers, the Devils will need more of the balance they saw in the regular season. David Clarkson had 30 goals, but has yet to light the lamp in the postseason. Patrik Elias (33 goals/75 pts in 76 career games vs PHI) had 26 goals and 78 points, but scored only twice in the opening series, going completely silent in games four through seven. Adam Henrique emerged as a hero in game 7 last round, scoring a pair of goals and could be dangerous in round 2. 
Plus: Poni and ZubrusIn eight games against the Flyers this season (he got two more due to being traded from the Hurricanes), Alexei Ponikarovsky scored four goals. Since being traded away from Philadelphia, Dainius Zubrus has brandished the dagger 12 times against his former team, and while he hasn't been a dangerous threat in the playoffs since 2006, his size can still pose matchup problems. 
In the Flyers' quest to again silence the opposing top line, they'll have to be careful not to let a few dangerous scorers get loose from the Devils' second and third lines. Jersey's balance was somewhat dormant in the opening round, but it's still there. 
Special TeamsThe Devils boasted the league's best penalty killing unit in the regular season, stifling nearly 90% of all opposing power plays. The Flyers scored on more than half of their man advantage opps against a Penguins PK unit that ranked third in the regular season. This will surely be a matchup to watch, although when speaking with WMMR's Preston & Steve, Peter Laviolette warned that the regular season and opening round trends can be thrown out the window once a new series begins. The Devils showed why agains the Panthers, when their PK unit was picked apart by Florida's power play for nine goals on 27 opps. 
Again, they're still the unit that was amazingly stingy for 82 games, and their 15 shorthanded goals should be reason enough to think their first round woes may not continue in round two. We'll see.  
More Like 'Voljerkoff' Amirite?The Devil most likely to send the series into a special teams battle is Anton Volchenkov, who has a long history of agitating the Flyers. Remember the insanity he helped to cause while still a member of the Ottawa Senators in March 2010? 
Volchenkov will likely goad the Flyers into a few penalties, but also give a few of his own. He also checks in as the series favorite to land a suspension for intent to injure a far more talented player. 
Bryz vs BrodeurIn some ways, every playoff matchup comes down to which goaltender is better in the best-of-seven. Ilya Bryzgalov may have some games he wants back from the opening round, but he clamped down in the final two games, when his defense was much better than the previous four. New Jersey may have some serious weapons, but on paper, ice, stone, pavement, and any other surface, their offense is nowhere near as dangerous as the Penguins'. A week off may have helped with the pain of a chip fracture in his toe and a rumored hip injury, too. Plus, Bryz was dominant in three starts against the Devils this season. Small sample size, but it favors my argument, so I'm using it anyway. 
Martin Brodeur… Do we even need to say anything about Marty? He'll hear his name teased, taunts about his weight, and maybe even a few about his sister-in-law. But hopefully he'll also hear the deafening sound of the goal horn. This isn't the Panthers' attack, which gave Marty troubles in the opening round, and he's not the perennial Vezina favorite he once was. But did you see him in game 7? On a game-by-game basis, he can still play like a Hall of Famer, and he may steal a win or two in this series. The Devils will likely need him to. 
Call me crazy but I still like the Flyers' advantage in net for this series. You?
Overall…It's hard not to feel good about the Flyers' chances in this
series. But today, there's a possibility they come out a little flat after a long layoff. Hopefully the Pens series exorcised their afternoon-game demons too. If not, we know a crappy start won't sink the ship. The Flyers are in every game, regardless of the score after the first period. 
I might be trying to convince myself that the Devils are better than they are because I'm uncomfortable with how comfortable I feel. Sure they have more balance than they showed last series. But if you can believe it, so too do the Flyers. What happens if Wayne Simmonds and Scott Hartnell start going off? JVR? 
The Flyers' firepower is among the best, if not the best, left in the playoffs. They clamped down on defense with the series on the line against Pittsburgh, and it appears they'll get Nick Grossmann back today. When it comes down to it, I'm more worried about the generic "anything can happen" nature of the NHL playoffs, regardless of opponent, than I am anything in particular the Devils bring to the table. 
If they lose this series, something will have gone massively wrong. 

Flyers answer Ron Hextall's plea with comeback OT win over Islanders

Flyers answer Ron Hextall's plea with comeback OT win over Islanders

BOX SCORE

NEW YORK — Shayne Gostisbehere’s fist pump was so vicious and mighty, the celebration was probably felt back in Philadelphia.

This was an exultation the entire Flyers felt, too.

When it started to look like the bye week wasn’t the break they needed, the Flyers reached down deep and got one Sunday night at the Barclays Center in the form of a 3-2 overtime victory over the Islanders (see Instant Replay).

“It allows you to take a breath,” head coach Dave Hakstol said. “That’s one thing for sure.”

A sigh of relief for a team beaten and bruised — losers of three straight by a combined score of 15-4, not to mention 3-9-3 in its past 15 games. The Flyers had lost the day prior on home ice to the Devils, 4-1, with a performance not exactly inspiring confidence following five days off.

On Sunday, they trailed 2-0 in the second period.

“We've got to get better at dealing with adversity when something goes wrong,” general manager Ron Hextall said bluntly before the game. “We need to get back on the horse and get back going. Big deal, a team scored a goal. We need to react better to it.”

Finally, the Flyers reacted the way their GM had been hoping.

They flipped the deficit into a victory when Gostisbehere skated behind the net and put the puck on Claude Giroux’s stick for the game-winner with 1:40 left in the extra session. Gostisbehere whipped his arm through the air and embraced Giroux, along with Jakub Voracek, who started the play by stripping Islanders captain John Tavares.

“On a lot of different levels, it’s an important win,” Hakstol said. “It’s huge. And more importantly for us, a great effort. Thought we deserved the two points. Sometimes maybe that’s what it takes to get over the hump — a tremendous effort for 60-plus minutes. I thought we got that out of everyone tonight.”

For Giroux, it was his first goal since Dec. 21.

For Steve Mason, his first win since Dec. 21.

And for the Flyers, their first road victory since Dec. 14, as they went 0-6-3 in the previous nine games away from home.

Yeah, “it was needed,” as Wayne Simmonds said of the win.

“We’ve been fighting it lately and I thought that was a good game from start to finish,” he said. “I thought everyone played well. I think we made bounces go our way tonight instead of hoping and waiting.”

Simmonds scored what might have been the biggest goal of the game. The Flyers, down 1-0 in the second period, came up empty for 33 seconds of a 5-on-3 power play and the proceeding 5-on-4 advantage. The Islanders then padded the lead to 2-0 moments later, putting the Flyers’ backs against the wall.

But Simmonds kept his team from uncoiling with a goal at 14:10 of the period, giving the Flyers life at second intermission. If not for that score, who knows how the Flyers come out in the third period, trailing by multiple goals yet again.

"I think we were plying well,” Giroux said. “We had a lot of chances and [the puck] wasn't going in. Everybody on the bench was frustrated. When Wayne got that first goal, I think [there was] a little relief on the bench. I haven't seen a team celebrate so much just for a first goal. It was kind of a relief and we had a little boost out of that.”

Ivan Provorov scored the equalizer 1:47 into the final period when he maintained possession from the blue line to the circle, adeptly skating around two Islanders to put the puck on net. Provorov’s pass to Travis Konecny hit off the skate of New York’s Adam Pelech and into the net.

“I came off the bench and I saw [Brayden Schenn] was going into the zone, so I took a few hard strides, got the puck from him and I saw it was kind of an odd-man situation,” Provorov said. “I held on to the puck a little bit, saw T.K. going backdoor, passed it there and it went off their D skate.”

Just as important as the timely goals was the Flyers’ discipline. Against the Devils, the Flyers compiled 19 penalty minutes, forcing them on seven penalty kills. This time, the Flyers sharpened up, not allowing the Islanders a power play until midway through the third period. In total, they had just four penalty minutes and killed off both power plays faced.

That gave them a chance.

“We just kept saying it the whole time, ‘Keep going, keep going, guys,’” Simmonds said. “We just need one [goal] and from one comes two, and Mase held the fort.”

Mason made 17 of his 36 saves in the third period and overtime combined.

Now, the Flyers at least go into another important back-to-back — starting Wednesday at the Rangers before welcoming the Maple Leafs Thursday — with some confidence instead of a lost weekend.

“I thought the focus was purely on going out and playing well,” Hakstol said. “And you know, that’s harder to do than you might know — when you start to feel some of the pressure without a win in a little bit. I really liked that side of it. Even in that situation, all the guys played well. Hopefully that puts our entire team in the right direction.’’

Best of NHL: Crosby scores league-leading 28th goal in win vs. Bruins

Best of NHL: Crosby scores league-leading 28th goal in win vs. Bruins

PITTSBURGH -- Conor Sheary scored two goals, Sidney Crosby added his league-leading 28th and the Pittsburgh Penguins won their fourth straight game, 5-1 over the Boston Bruins 5-1 on Sunday.

Pittsburgh led 2-1 through two periods before breaking out in the third with three goals in a span of 2 minutes, 57 seconds.

Sheary scored his 17th and has nine goals in nine games. Bryan Rust added his 12th and Patric Hornqvist his 11th for the Penguins, who won a season-high seventh straight at home. Pittsburgh the NHL's best home team, is 13-0-1 in its last 14 home games.

Evgeni Malkin had two assists for a season-best seven-game point streak. Crosby added two assists for a three-point game. Matt Murray made 44 saves to win his fourth straight game.

David Krejci scored his 11th for the Bruins, who have lost four straight and five of their last six (see full recap).

Rangers shut out Red Wings in 1-0 OT win
DETROIT -- J.T. Miller scored at 1:56 of overtime to lift the New York Rangers to a 1-0 victory over the Detroit Red Wings on Sunday.

Henrik Lundqvist made 21 saves for his second shutout of the season and 61st of his career. The Rangers managed only 19 shots in a game that featured few memorable chances by either team.

The winner came when Mats Zuccarello and Miller swooped in alone on Detroit goalie Jared Coreau. Zuccarello made a simple pass to Miller, who lifted the puck over Coreau for his 16th goal of the season.

Detroit defenseman Niklas Kronwall played for the first time since Jan. 4, returning from a lower-body injury. The Red Wings put forward Drew Miller on waivers (see full recap).

Atikinson lifts Jackets over Senators in wild OT win
OTTAWA, Ontario -- Cam Atkinson's second goal of the game at 1:09 of overtime lifted the Columbus Blue Jackets a 7-6 win over the Ottawa Senators on Sunday night.

Atkinson had a breakaway after a shot by Senators captain Erik Karlsson missed the Columbus net and went around the boards out to Atkinson, who was at center-ice.

The Blue Jackets trailed 5-3 after two periods before Lukas Sedlak and Matt Calvert scored 31 seconds apart to tie it less than 2 1/2 minutes into the third. Atklnson then gave Columbus a 6-5 lead with 9:10 remaining, before Kyle Turries tied it for Ottawa on the power play less than 2 minutes later.

Nick Foligno, Scott Harrington and Zach Werenski also scored for the Blue Jackets, and Joonas Korpisalo finished with 28 saves.

Zach Smith and Mike Hoffman each had two goals and Mark Stone also scored for the Senators. Mike Condon had 22 saves (see full recap).