Regulation wins with good performances by the Devils yield more momentum than the Flyers' limping into the playoffs. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
Originally, I was planning on writing a playoff series preview between the Philadelphia Flyers and the New Jersey Devils. You know, the same standard practice of reviewing who's got the edge at each position, special teams, perhaps an intangible, and then make a prediction. But by now, what's the point? When you have the following out here that is well worth reading to get knowledgeable for the first round.
-Rich Chere held a live chat at NJ.com that's worth your time where he revealed his thoughts. Of the most interest is this quote, as FanShotted by Cherno77; though I'm immediately reminded of this post at Behind the Net that would refute that notion, so take it as you will.
-Chere also had these posts up today, highlighting that the Flyers may crash the net; this story about Brian Boucher playing against the Devils in the playoffs after a decade; and Chris Pronger regarding his own team as "underdogs" in the series.
-User Cherno77 broke down the special teams performance in particular in this FanPost. Special teams in any game is usually important, but the game stats between these two really hammer home the point for New Jersey. The power play has to get going and the penalty killing has to (remain) playing well.
-This general preview at NBC Sports serves well as a neutral point of view. I found this through the predictions made by Brandon, James, and Joe at ProHockeyTalk (they chose the good guys). More neutrality can be had at the NHL's official site with this video preview.
-For a more statistical outlook at each team, The Falconer pulled the stats of playoff teams against playoff and non-playoff opponents. Sunny Mehta threw together this preview at Behind the Net, which led to this addendum on goaltender impact by Gabe Desjardins. A few hours ago, I put up this quick comparison of each team's defense proving that, well, they're both pretty good.
-The opposition-supporting blog Broad Street Hockey has this playoff eve round up of Flyers-centric stories.
-And I'm sure there will be something at Puck Daddy and other sites and newspapers tonight and tomorrow.
I suggest checking all of that out. So I'm taking a different path altogether, I'm focusing on what I think is the most important factor for this playoff series. Something Devils fans can feel real confident about going up against a Flyers team who beat them 5 times out of 6 in the regular season. Momentum.
Let's take a step back. I initially didn't want this match-up to happen. I have said and written that I least wanted the Flyers among all potential playoff opponents. The Devils only beat them once, which would make it a third-straight first round playoff opponent that the Devils struggled to play against in the regular season. The Flyers would be energized by engaging in a rival that they've beaten several times in 2009-10. The Flyers' physical styles can hinder New Jersey at best and truly wear them down at worst. The Flyers boast a talented group of forwards, Chris Pronger on defense, and a goalie who only has to be "good enough." The road games would feature hostile crowds compared to, say, Montreal where Martin Brodeur's owned the rink for seemingly forever.
But then, a comment from Sunday's GameThread stuck in my mind from user elesias. Consider it the first half:
Play hard. Play to win. Play clean. Don’t get sloppy. Don’t do anything that would risk injury. If we lose, it’s no big deal so long as we go into the playoffs feeling good about our game.
User elesias was right in context when I was feeling down about the potential of the Devils playing the Flyers in the first round. As it turned out, New Jersey beat Buffalo and that's exactly how it turned out. Yet, as I said in my recap of the 2-1 win, one couldn't say the Devils ended the season poorly - winning 4 out of their last 5 and winning those games decisively.
To review, here's the links of all of the Devils' recaps in April: a 2-1 SO loss to Chicago; a 4-0 win in Carolina; a 3-0 win in Atlanta to knock them out of the playoffs; a 3-2 loss in Florida due to Scott Clemmensen; a 7-1 beat down of a win over the Islanders; and the 2-1 season-ending win against Buffalo.
A summary: Not once in any of those six games did the Devils play poorly. The offense forced the opposition goaltender to be great, the defense held the best it could, and Martin Brodeur played like, well, Martin Brodeur. The only player you could say went "missing" was Jamie Langenbrunner and he got the empty-net winner against Buffalo which could inspire him further. The performances alone is a reason to feel good: the Devils go into the postseason with every reason to feel confident in their game.
Now that we uncovered that, here's the second half that led to my epiphany: this post about Brian Boucher by Geoff Detweiler at Broad Street Hockey from April 10, 2010. An absolute gem of a post, as he added his own opinion to a lovely column by Timo Seppa at Puck Prospectus. The moment I finished it, it was like a thousand lightbulbs flashed on inside my head.
|2009 - Brian Boucher||33||1742||9||18||80||2.76||796||716||.899||1|
Yes, Boucher’s been bad, but the team in front of him has been far worse. Philadelphia’s chances of beating out New York and of pulling off a first round upset rest with the Flyers’ skaters, not with their goaltender. - Timo Seppa
Geoff and Timo are right: Boucher's goaltending performances have been exacerbated to be worse-looking than reality because the Flyers have not played consistently well enough in front of Boucher.
That's right, the Flyers have essentially been unable or refuse to rally around their third-string goaltender! Given that Boucher's been moved up to start in goal for Philly since March 16, they basically have slumped at the most crucial part of the season.
Frankly, I now see them as a very vulnerable team. A team with flimsy confidence. I know this because when the Devils were slumping, a bad occurrence did them in someway. Like New Jersey earlier in 2010, they struggled to just win two straight games since Boucher had to be the starter in March with only one exception: April 4 and 6. Where was the leadership in all of this? What was Peter Laviolette doing? Who was being held accountable, if anyone? No wonder they nearly blew their shot at the playoffs and needed a shootout on the final day of the season to get in. Of course, I could be wrong. Maybe it was just coincidence the team's performances and results suddenly became inconsistent and poor when Boucher was forced to be the #1 goalie in March. Maybe everything truly is fine among the Flyers.
Sure, they rolled the Devils 5-1 on March 28 with Boucher in net. (Quick Aside: That game was the second time Boucher started in a Devils-Flyers game this season. The first time was the one time the Devils beat Philadelphia: a 4-1 win on December 13.) Here's how they did after that game, with the recaps coming from Broad Street Hockey: a 6-4 loss to the Islanders; a 1-0 shutout loss at home to Montreal; a 4-3 win over Detroit at home; a 2-0 win over Toronto; a 4-3 loss to the Rangers; and a 2-1 shootout win to preserve a playoff seed over the Rangers. I implore you to check out those recaps - the team's form changed so much from game to game that it's hard to say they're going into this series with any true momentum. It's definitely not as ideal as the Devils' performances in April.
From this realization, does the fact that they beat the Devils 5 times out of 6 even matter? To me, it doesn't anymore.
Let's bring this full circle. Should the Devils want to win this playoff series, they need to make the most out of this momentum. They absolutely, positively need to win Game 1. I'll take any win in the postseason, but the more decisive the win, the better. That means dictating the tempo. That means bombarding the net with pucks like they have in recent games. That means playing smart if and/or when the Flyers try to thug up the game. Such a win would essentially eliminate any good feeling about the Flyers winning 5 out of 6 games. It would make the season series pointless going forward. It would force the Flyers to seriously question their approaches and force them to adjust. Most of all, the Devils can't let off the gas - they would be wise to continue on until the general feeling on the ice favors New Jersey without a doubt. Winning Game 2 would be massive - especially since the Devils haven't won two straight playoff games since 2007.
Will it be easy? Of course not. The Flyers have been a talented team and any success they can get in the first two games will keep their own spirits up. A win in Game 1 or a decisive one in Game 2 would not only flip the team's momentum streams going into the playoffs, but further embolden them to emphasize that they're still the Devils they owned in the regular season. They're going to want to make a statement that screams that this is just like another regular season game with them. They're going to play this one as if it was another rivalry game. The seeding, how they got into the playoffs, how they've played in Boucher - they're going to act as it doesn't matter. All the more reason for the Devils to come out with ice in their veins and control the game with precision from the first second at the Rock.
If the Devils' recent performances and results as well as the Flyers' own problems aren't enough to convince you, then all I have left is this quote from this interview Tom Gulitti did yesterday:
Do you think this team is better equipped to go far in the playoffs than last season?
"I never try to compare teams in any way, but I think we’re playing better right now going into the playoffs. In fact, I know we are. I certainly liked last year’s team. This team appears to me to have something special."
Lou Lamoriello thinks he has something special. When Hall of Famer Lou Lamoriello, President, CEO, and GM of the New Jersey Devils since 1987 - winner of 3 Stanley Cups, thinks he sees something special in a team: he means it.
Just another reason for the Devils to feel confident. Now is the time for the Devils to apply it as hard as possible on the Philadelphia Flyers. That will be the key for New Jersey to win the series.