Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Flyers vs. Devils: First Round Breakdown

Although they only made it into the playoffs by the slimmest of margins, the Flyers have to be happy with the opponent they've drawn in the first round of the playoffs. While the Devils are a formidable team loaded with talent, they are someone Philly knows and knows well, as evidenced by the Flyers 5-1 record against them this year. As they say, it's better to play the Devils you know.

With both teams very familiar with one another and the Flyers penchant for getting under the skin of the opponent, I would expect this series to be long and hard-fought with a winner emerging only after 6 or 7 games. Don't underestimate the Flyers, they may have stumbled their way into the playoffs as a 7 seed but they have a lot of depth and should make for a tough playoff out. In fact, the Flyers should be playing with nothing to lose, making them even more dangerous than they would have been had they clinched a week ago. It will be up to the Devils to try to match the intensity that the Flyers should be bringing every night. Let's take a closer look at how these two teams matchup and see who comes out ahead.

Offense: Few teams can match the Flyers depth at forward and the Devils are no exception. Sure, Philly doesn't have anyone as dynamic as Zach Parise or Ilya Kovalchuk, but the Flyers roll out three lines filled with offensive weapons littered throughout, including 9 guys that netted double digit goals. While most of the forwards had down years(Scott Hartnell, Simon Gagne), all hands are on deck and healthy, including Jeff Carter, and any one of them could break out at any moment. The Flyers also boast some of the best penalty killing forwards in the league, from the always dangerous Mike Richards to the steady, responsible Blair Betts. The ultimate wild card in the mix is Dan Carcillo; he always toes the line between being a nuisance to the opponent and a detriment to the Flyers. If he can annoy the Devils without parading to the penalty box and chip in a few goals here and there, Carcillo's impact could be huge.

As for the Devils, it all begins with the aforementioned Parise and Kovalchuk, who are two of the most dangerous snipers in the league. It will be up to the Flyers to figure out how to stop them, likely matching lines to ensure they will be shadowed by Chris Pronger and Kimmo Timonen all series long. After those two, the Devils do have some secondary scoring in Patrik Elias and Travis Zajac, but nothing that really needs to be game planned against. The Devils scoring punch starts to dry up after that as the 3rd and 4th lines are filled with competent defensive forwards and very few scoring threats, including former Flyers Danius Zubrus and Dean McAmmond. Because the Flyers have scorers up and down their lines to go with their mix of defensive forwards, I give the edge in forwards to the Flyers, but not by a wide margin. The Devils top-end talent is almost enough to keep up but you have to think a few of the Flyers forwards will get hot in the playoffs.

Defense: Individually, the Flyers have some serious talent on defense. When Chris Pronger, Matt Carle and Kimmo Timonen are on, there might not be a more talented threesome in the league. Collectively, though, this group has had way too many breakdowns. Too often, someone is caught out of position or makes a bad play on the puck that leads directly to an easy goal by the opposition. That kind of thing doesn't happen against the Devils, who individually don't have great talent but collectively play sound defense. So, really, it's a question of how you like your defense. Do you want difference-makers in the back end who will make occasional mistakes or do you want vanilla defenders who aren't going to do anything special but also won't hurt you? I call these two teams even on defense although Paul Martin's return to health might sway things in favor of New Jersey.

Goaltending: There is no argument here, Martin Brodeur is much better than Brian Boucher. Brodeur has advantages in experience, longevity and consistency over Boucher, who hasn't played a significant game in the playoffs since his run with the Flyers in 2000. Sure, that run in 2000 was magical and Boucher was at the heart of it but it was a lifetime ago; he can't be expected to do anything like that in 2010. Oh, and the team that eliminated Boucher and the Flyers in 2000 in the Eastern Conference Finals? Yep, that would be Brodeur and the Devils. The Devils have the huge advantage when it comes to goaltending.

Looking at everything on paper, the Flyers seem to be the better team in every aspect but goaltending. Their forwards are deeper, their power play is stronger and their defense can have a bigger impact on the game. For that reason, I am picking the Flyers to win the series in seven games. While goaltending is huge in the playoffs, the Flyers seem to have enough other strengths that can help neutralize their biggest weakness. You also can't ignore how good the Flyers were against the Devils this season, outscoring them 20-13 in 6 games.

While this matchup has all the makings of a 6 or 7 game series, there is something about how these two teams play that favors the Flyers. Philly wouldn't have had a chance if they played Washington or Pittsburgh in the first round but the Devils might turn out to be the perfect opponent for the Flyers as they play with nothing to lose against a team they know very well.

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