Thursday, April 14, 2011

Flyers vs. Sabres: First Round Breakdown

What a difference a year makes for the Flyers. Last season, expectations were low for a Flyers team that barely squeaked into the playoffs. This season, expectations are sky high for a Flyers team that was the best in the Eastern Conference until they coasted for the final month of the season. We all know what ended up happening last season as the Flyers went on an improbable run to the Stanley Cup Finals, so what lies in store for the Flyers this season?

The biggest question facing the Flyers will be whether they can flip the proverbial switch. Having shown little effort in losing 5 of their last 6 regular season games, it's fair to wonder whether the Flyers can ratchet their play back up to elite level simply because the playoffs have started. While the Sabres don't present a huge threat to the Flyers, they still have great goaltending and are a difficult team to score a bunch of goals against. The key for the Flyers in the series will be to get an early lead in each game and force the Sabres to push the issue offensively, opening them up for a number of odd-man rushes. Of course, if the Flyers play with the amount of effort they've shown in the last few weeks, getting that early lead will be difficult. Read on for a closer look at how these two teams matchup.

Offense: Nobody in the Eastern Conference can match the depth the Flyers have at forward. With 7 players with at least 19 goals and 6 with at least 49 points, the Flyers can beat you with any of their top three forward lines. While they don't have the best top-end talent in the league, the Flyers have more weapons than most teams can handle, even boasting a little-used player like Nikolay Zherdev who can strike at any time. This group also has a ton of playoff experience, as a handful were huge contributors on the Flyers run to the Cup Finals last year and they've even added Kris Versteeg, who was a solid role player for the Blackhawks team that downed the Flyers in the Finals.

As for the Sabres, they don't come anywhere close in matching the Flyers forward depth, though they do have 4 players that chipped in 20 or more goals. Their top two lines are pretty strong, with Thomas Vanek and Drew Stafford leading the scoring attack, but things drop down from there, as most of their depth players are muckers and grinders and they aren't big threats with the puck. Because the Sabres simply can't match their depth, I have to give the big edge at forwards to the Flyers.

Defense: While the Flyers will be much, much better with Chris Pronger in the lineup, they still have plenty of depth without him to survive at least one round. The Flyers biggest issue in their Cup run last year was their third defensive pairing that got exposed anytime they stepped out on the ice. With Pronger out, that third pairing is Sean O'Donnell and Nick Boynton or Oskars Bartulis, not a great pair but certainly a solid one. Buffalo once again can't match the Flyers depth, though they are solid in their own end. Tyler Myers is a beast, but he alone isn't enough to slow down the Flyers attack. Give the Flyers the edge on defense, too.

Goaltending: Finally, we get to the one aspect of the series where the Sabres have an advantage. We all know about Olympic hero Ryan Miller and his talents, though he hasn't put up great numbers this season. Still, Miller is capable of getting hot at any time and carrying the Sabres through a few rounds of the playoffs. The Flyers once again have more questions than answers in goal, as Sergei Bobrovsky will be given first crack as the starter. Luckily, the Flyers are strong enough defensively in front of Bobrovksy that he shouldn't have to stand on his head every night to get a win. The Flyers are also fortunate to have one, and possibly two, other goalies to turn to should Bob falter. Regardless, the Sabres have a comfortable edge in goaltending over the Flyers.

On paper, the Flyers are the better team in this series. Sure, the Sabres have a pretty big edge in net, but the Flyers depth at every position just can't be matched. We know that doesn't always translate to the ice, but if they play anything like they did for the first few months of the season, the Flyers should win the series in 6 games. Should Chris Pronger come back early in the series, I would even be tempted to bump that up to 5 games. While Buffalo is no pushover, the Flyers talent should be enough to carry them out of the first round.

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