The I-295 Interstate that connects New Jersey and Philadelphia will anything but the road less traveled over the coming week-plus. The Devils and the Flyers are set to tangle in the NHL’s Eastern Conference semi-finals and TheSportsNotebook previews the coming Border War…
Philadelphia has home-ice advantage, holding the #5 seed, while New Jersey is #6. The Flyers are the more rested team, having closed their series win over Pittsburgh out last Sunday while New Jersey went to double overtime just last night to win Game 7 in Florida. But while the Flyers may have been the one Eastern Conference semifinalist not to go the distance to win its opener, they were anything but impressive.
Goaltending problems are not new in Philly, but now that they don’t have Pittsburgh’s Marc-Andre Fleury to beat up on, the Flyers are left with the reality that their own netminder, Ilya Bryzgalov, was woeful in the first-round series, as Philly and Pittsburgh played what was easily the worst defense in the postseason. Furthermore, Philadelphia did not execute well in the five-on-five game, relying instead on hammering the Pens with power plays. The negative to this is that’s not going to work against New Jersey, a team whose penalty kill is among the league’s best. The positive is that the Flyers’ poor play in 5-on-5 is a departure from an area that was a team strength all year along. Perhaps it was just a one-series aberration.
One area the favorites have no problems in is scoring goals, an area that holds a substantial edge over their rivals. Philly’s offense was the second-best in the NHL during the season, while Jersey was in the middle of the pack. The Flyers do a proportionately excellent job at shot generation, while the Devils are terrible in this area. With center Claude Giroux being one of the game’s best passing centers, and Scott Hartnell and Jaromir Jagr on the wings, Philadelphia will challenge a New Jersey defense that is equally strong at stopping shots.
New Jersey goalie Martin Brodeur was heroic in his team’s Game 7 win over Florida, but the Devils’ defense must return to more of its regular season form against Philadelphia. Stopping 40-plus shots against a weak Florida frontline is one thing. Doing it against a Giroux-led attack is quite another. The Devils were one of the league’s better defensive teams because they were precisely that—a team—and they will need to be again if they’re going to stop this offense.
I don’t pick bad defensive teams to win at this level of the playoffs in any sport, much less the NHL. So I’m picking New Jersey to win this series, but if they’re going to take advantage of Philly’s lousy goaltending situation they need to stay on the attack.
The Devils’ have capable scorers. Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise are the most noteworthy and the ones I mentioned most frequently through the first round, but we can also include David Clarkson, Adam Henrique and Petr Sykford as nice supporting pieces. The Flyer defense around the net is not bad—they are in the league’s upper third in preventing shots and certainly you can’t beat a goalie if you’re not attacking him. There were too many instances where New Jersey’s key people seemed to float in and out of the Florida series and they were fortunate to escape. I think they come out more consistent this time and win the series in six games, but if there’s any letup, the Flyers have the talent to exploit what the Panthers couldn’t.