Pictured: the lone goal the Devils have scored on Ilya Bryzgalov in the 2011-12 season. They'll have to do much more to have a chance in this playoff series. (Photo by Norman Y. Lono/Getty Images)
The New Jersey Devils will begin their second round playoff series against their second-most hated rival, the Philadelphia Flyers, on Sunday. It's great that the Devils returned to the playoffs after missing it entirely in 2010-11 and it's great that the Devils eliminated Florida after seven mostly close games. They avoided a bad bounce or a bad play to eliminate them twice in OT in Game 6 and 7; while the Devils benefited from them in winning both games. Meanwhile, the Flyers finished ahead of the Devils in the regular season, drew a tougher match-up on paper against Pittsburgh, and took care of them in six games after winning the first three. Their series featured a lot more offense, 1980s-style defending, and even worse goaltending. They are coming off a longer break, whereas the Devils only get two days before this series begins.
This post serves as a preview of both teams heading into this series. I will admit, it's not going to be as good as the last series preview but that's by design of the situation. It will feature both numbers from the regular season and the playoffs so far. Each team did play 82 games and if we want to identify a team's true strengths and weaknesses, it should show up there. However, this is the playoffs, a short-term tournament. Getting hot in one area or slump in another can make all the difference regardless of what happened in those 82 games. Yet, stats based on six or seven games - especially advanced stats - aren't going to tell us a whole lot given the small population sizes. I will do my best to convey all of the particulars for each team. And if I falter, well, you'll let me know about it.
If you're interested in the basic information like the schedule and recent play of both teams, then please read the series primer that went up yesterday. If you want our collective opinions heading into the series including predictions, then please read this morning's prediction post. Please continue on after the jump for a breakdown of both teams heading into Game 1 on Sunday.
I'm going to start with the goaltending because it's the most confusing part to predict. The match-up to start is straight forward: it'll be Martin Brodeur against Ilya Bryzgalov.
|2011-12 - Martin Brodeur||59||3392||31||21||4||136||2.41||1472||1336||.908||.911||3|
|2012 Playoffs - Martin Brodeur||7||408||4||2
Brodeur has been mostly good against Florida. At even strength, he's put up an excellent 95.6% save percentage. Over all situations, while the PK has been incredibly damaging (78.4%!), his save percentage against Florida is in line of what we've witnessed in the last three months of the season. Brodeur was perfect in Game 5 and massive in Game 7, particularly in the third and first overtime periods. That said, Brodeur will be going up against a deeper and more talented Philadelphia team. He can still allow a soft goal here and there and that was seen in the Florida series. Given the disparities elsewhere, it's crucial for Brodeur to be solid in net. The good news is that there's reason to believe that he will be fine.
|2011-12 - Ilya Bryzgalov||59||3415||33||16||7||141||2.48||1554||1413||.909||.921||6|
|2012 Playoffs - Ilya Bryzgalov||6||324||4||2||-||21||3.89||163||142||.871||.882||0|
Bryzgalov, on the other hand, is tougher to figure out. In the regular season, he had his moments of bizarrely poor nights and then moments of absolute greatness. He was particularly good against the Devils as he allowed only one goal against in 209 minutes against them - and that goal was a deflection. Over the whole season, he proved to be pretty good at even strength - better than Brodeur, in fact. The Flyers didn't sign him just for one hot season, so he definitely has talent. Yet, he was just a mess in the series against Pittsburgh. The Penguins are certainly talented, but Bryzgalov was giving up goals that an AHL backup would have stopped in the first four games. Bryzgalov and Philadelphia's saving grace was that Pittsburgh's Fleury was even worse somehow. In the last two games of that series, Bryzgalov performed closer to what is expected of him. Bryzgalov is definitely way better than his playoff stats suggest. Yet, I can't help but feel that if the Devils can attack him and catch a few breaks, the wheels on his bus may start falling off. That's a big "if," but do recall from the series primer that the Devils were mostly flat against the Flyers in those three losses to Bryzgalov. A more robust and prolific challenge could make a big difference. Or not. Who knows with Bryzgalov at this point?
The Forwards & Offense
What isn't a question mark is who's got the better offense. The Flyers clearly have the advantage. OK, their shots per game rate in the playoffs is an unimpressive 27.5 shots per game, the fourteenth lowest in the NHL. Even the Devils managed to get more on net against a conservative, defensive Florida team with 31.9 shots per game. Then again, the Flyers were too busy scoring to care a lot about upping the shot count against Pittsburgh. Their five-on-five shooting percentage was a league best 13%. Ah, the fun of small population sizes.
The advantage lies with Philadelphia in just one word: depth. They have three scoring lines and an additional line that can chip in as well. Here's what they were running with in Game 6 against Pittsburgh, based on this comment from user Pursuit of Lappyness:
The Flyers’ lines you’re likely to see (with possible alterations, Lavy was playing around with the Briere line at the end of the Penguins series)
Hartnell – Giroux – Jagr
Schenn – Briere – Simmonds
Talbot – Couturier – Wellwood
van Riemsdyk – Read – Voracek
Goodness, this is a stacked lineup. No anchors, no goons, and no question marks. Their bottom six includes Jakub Voracek, one of Philly's top possession players in the regular season and third on Philly with two goals and five assists in six game. It also includes the talent of James van Reimsdyk and the rookie sensation Matt Read, who's not that much unlike Adam Henrique. That's a second-line-quality unit and they're in the bottom six. The non-scoring line features a pest in Maxime Talbot, another young player in Eric Wellwood, and a rookie center in Sean Couturier. That's another unit that can do some damage; if they break free, they can make it a long night for New Jersey.
Their top two lines are simply loaded. Claude Giroux finished third in the NHL in scoring in 2011-12 with 28 goals and 65 assists, and he's the current scoring leader in the playoffs with six goals and eight assists. Giroux is more than just production; he's been driving the play forward for the Flyers all season long as per Behind the Net. His linemates Scott Hartnell and Jaromir Jagr have definitely contributed on both fronts. That top line is as good as any in the NHL and it's going to be tough to handle. The second line can be just as dangerous. Danny Briere is behind Giroux in playoff scoring with five goals and three assists after putting up 16 goals and 33 assists in the regular season. He may have different lineups, but the rookie Brayden Schenn (two goals and four assists in the playoffs) and the beefy Wayne Simmonds (one goal, three assists) makes for a potent combination of skill, speed, and size. They weren't as good in possession, so if Briere can be quelled, then this may be a unit the Devils can focus on.
Yet, they may not. The big benefit of having twelve talented and useful forwards is that it gives head coach Peter Laviolette options on what to change. Someone's having a bad game? Wingers can be switched for a few shifts. Some forward is hurt during the game? Move someone up to take on more minutes and protect whoever the twelfth guy could be in the next game. Is there a match-up issue at home? Simply re-organize the lines to change it. Those lines posted above? Based on the end of this post at Fire & Ice by Tom Gulitti, the Flyers may put Briere with Voracek and van Reimsdyk; while Schenn was with Read and Simmonds. Still viable units and still a challenge for the Devils. That's the benefit of depth.
The only thing I don't expect Laviolette to change is their power play, which has by far the highest power play success rate in the playoffs with a staggering 52.2%. It's not that they're only super-crazy-hot either. They put up a higher success rate than Florida in the regular season at 19.7% and they were one of the better teams in the league at generating shots in 5-on-4 situations. The Flyers are simply threatening on offense at both even strength and power play situations.
What of the Devils? Well, they may have a new look on Sunday. Peter DeBoer has juggled the first three lines in Saturday's practice according to this post by Tom Gulitti at Fire & Ice:
Parise – Elias – Zubrus
Ponikarovsky – Zajac – Kovalchuk
Sykora– Henrique – Clarkson
Carter – Gionta – Bernier
These may not be the lines for Game 1, but the idea is clearly to strengthen the top six. It's not because the former top line of Travis Zajac, Ilya Kovalchuk, and Zach Parise was doing poorly. Zajac and Kovalchuk are #1 and #2 in team scoring in these playoffs, while Parise led all the Devils and the league in shots on net in the playoffs with 31. They haven't been shy in the regular season either. While Zajac missed most of 2011-12 with an injury, Parise finished 22nd in league scoring with 69 points and Kovalchuk finished fifth in the NHL with 83 points. These three have been active on offense. The fourth line of Stephen Gionta, Ryan Carter, and Steve Bernier has definitely contributed as well with a combined five goals (two each from Gionta and Bernier, one from Carter) in the Florida series. It's been very welcomed after the fourth line did nothing on the scoresheet all season long. I can't imagine they'll stay hot, but it would be greatly appreciated if they did.
It's the two lines behind them that haven't done so much. Patrik Elias, Dainius Zubrus, and Petr Sykora did OK in possession and they've faced tough competition all season long according to Behind the Net. Yet, in the playoffs, that unit did very little on offense outside of Game 1. They would win their match-ups but only get a couple of shots on net as a unit. Elias seemed off at times at making otherwise easy passes for him in the Florida series; Sykora has been particularly quiet; and Zubrus hasn't been as big as he is either. Therefore, I think DeBoer is trying to strengthen that unit by giving Parise to Elias (who could use him to finish plays) and Zubrus (who could use him to help out down low), sending Sykora down to protect him a bit, and hope that the new top six can get it done in both ends. Given the Flyers' depth at forward, success is just about a requirement. The same goes for the new third line, which (with Alexei Ponikarovsky) had a very good performance in Game 7 after not doing much in the first six games against Florida. Sykora may slow that unit down; but he may give them a different look. Either way, the Devils need more shots and more production out of these guys. The top three forwards can't do it all themselves.
Incidentally, the Devils can feel somewhat good about their shot production - especially on the power play. While not as super-crazy-hot like Philadelphia, the Devils did convert on 20% of their man advantages in the Florida series. They also led the league in shots on net per sixty minutes in 5-on-4 situations at 62.9 per Behind the Net. It's a surprising fact since they were in the bottom third of the league in that same stat in the same situation in the regular season. Still, the Devils have upped their shooting rate in the postseason. Likewise, they were very good in close-score Fenwick% in the postseason, especially compared to Philadelphia. Though, I wouldn't count on it continuing. The Devils were one of the better possession teams in the NHL in the regular season, but Philadelphia finished just ahead of them in close-score Fenwick%. Therefore, it shouldn't be a surprise if the Flyers enjoy having the puck more often at evens in this series.
Overall, the Flyers have better depth, more options up front, and plenty of players who not only drive the play but also finish them. I doubt they'll still shoot at such a high rate; but they can definitely pour it on. I could see DeBoer's new lines working to a point; but that unit of Sykora-Henrique-Clarkson may be picked on by the Flyers unless they get off to a good start.
The Defensemen & Defense
This is an area where I think the Devils do seem to be the superior team. I can't be too confident in them due to the forwards they are about to face; but they've done a very fine job overall against Florida and in the regular season. The Devils have the lowest shots against per game rate among teams still in the playoffs; they put up the second lowest shots against per game rate in the 2011-12 season; and those two rankings hold among SA/60 rates in 5-on-5 situations at Behind the Net both in the regular season and in the playoffs. The Devils, relative to the rest of the NHL, just haven't allowed a lot of shots on net.
None of the Devils defensemen will stick out by name, but five out of the six have been very solid. According to Behind the Net, Andy Greene and Mark Fayne have combined for one goal against on the ice at evens and each have a on-ice SA/60 rate below 20. For two defensemen playing significant minutes, that's just incredible. Marek Zidlicky has become more and more important on the Devils. He leads the defensemen in ice time per game (25:43) and shots (18). DeBoer has given him plenty of defensive zone starts with Bryce Salvador; they're not easy minutes at all. Their SA/60 rates are a little higher, which is more than understandable given the situations they get. The only weakness lies on the third pairing, where Anton Volchenkov has had a poor series. The coaches had to limit him to less than 15 minutes per game and even then, he's been beaten or got caught in the wrong position for a goal against. He's gotten less horrible as the games went on against Florida, but he's still slumping. If he can get out of it, then the Devils can have a solid blueline across all three pairings. They're going to get a big challenge, but they've played well enough such that I don't think they're going to get rolled over.
The Flyers' defense hasn't been as strong as the Devils in 2011-12. They've been middle-of-the-road in the playoffs with 30.2 shots against per game; though they were a top-ten team with 28.4 shots per game. They've sorely missed Chris Pronger for the vast majority of this season. They're missing Andrej Meszaroes to a degree. Kimmo Timonen has been their top defenseman throughout the season in terms of competition, minutes, and driving possession as per Behind the Net. However, he's been relegated in the Pittsburgh series behind Braydon Coburn and Matt Carle, who each has been averaging over 25 minutes per game. Coburn and Carle have been good but not great in their roles in the postseason and in the regular season. That makes me wonder about Timonen's performances if his minutes have been cut for those two. The Flyers could get a boost to their blueline with the return of Niklas Grossman as Gulitti noted at the end of this article. Anything to get less minutes for Andreas Lilja and/or Pavel Kubina could help. Needless to say, the Devils should pick on their depth, not worry so much about their offense (the Philly defenders have a combined 37 shots on net and 13 points; the Devils defenders have a combined 48 shots on net and 10 points) and if Timonen, Carle, and/or Coburn aren't so strong, then the Devils should go at them all night long. They were able to generate a good amount of shots against a defensive Florida team. They may be able to put up the same unless the Flyers are going to be a lot tighter than they were in the Pittsburgh series.
Now, let's talk about the penalty kill. The Devils had the highest success rate in the regular season and one of the lowest in the NHL in the playoffs. Some of the power play goals allowed have come from bad bounces, but in general, the Devils just got worked over by the Florida power play in the larger picture. The Devils had one of the league's lowest SA/60 rates in 4-on-5 situations; but they finished the first round with the third highest in the . league. That's just bad. Interestingly enough (and good for the Devils), the Flyers have been just as bad. Their success rate in the regular season was around league average; but they finished the first round just ahead of New Jersey in killing penalties in the playoffs. That's just heinous. They had an even lower SA/60 rate than the Devils in 4-on-5 situations in the regular season; but that also ballooned in the playoffs as they have a higher SA/60 rate than the Devils (and just below the highest - Florida) after the first round. Both teams have simply fallen flat on their faces on the penalty kill in the playoffs. As much as we bang on the Devils to avoid taking stupid penalties, I'm sure the Flyers faithful says the same thing. It's simply in the best interest of both teams to stay out of the box as much as possible as their penalty killing units have been suspect after superior regular season performances.
What the Flyers Need to Do
The Flyers need to come at the Devils in waves. After a series where their defense was exposed, their goaltending has proven questionable at best, and their penalty kill was blown up, their one strength has become clear: forwards. They have one of the best forwards in the league in Giroux; they have a mix of youth and veteran experience; and Laviolette has the depth to mix and match his lines such that each of them can do it all from banging bodies around the boards to making slick passes in the offensive zone for shots. The Devils don't have the depth up front to match-up well with Philly. More importantly, Laviolette can and will utilize his last change to full effect at home - always a key for the team with home ice. They need to stay confident with their attack and hope they get decent performances everywhere else. That alone might make the difference for them. If they lose sight of that and get caught elsewhere, then the Devils can and will have the opportunities
What the Devils Need to Do
The Devils have to remain calm. This is a rivalry, this is a playoff series, and so emotions are going to run higher than usual. Should the Devils want to avoid a power play that has been wildly successful in the last two weeks, then they need to avoid losing their cool and take retaliatory calls or unnecessary violent fouls. This also applies to the other aspects of the game. The defensemen need to remain composed as they take on a team that's stronger up front than Florida. If they get too crazy chasing guys or getting up on them early, then this team can and will exploit that lost position for scoring chances. Martin Brodeur needs to stay cool. Brodeur's usually good about bouncing back after a bad goal or a bad game; so I'm not too worried about him. It still applies. The forwards have to keep a good perspective on what's ahead. The Flyers defense isn't as threatening as Florida's and I'm not certain whether Laviolette will constantly tell his skaters to drop back like Dineen had his team do to New Jersey. There could be more space to work with. Yes, Bryzgalov has shut them out twice this season and allowed only one goal in the other game he started. That really means he needs to be challenged more. They got to force him to be great; just as they did to Jose Theodore and Scott Clemmensen - two goalies who had better seasons than Bryzgalov. If he's great, then so it goes. If not, then keep firing away and force the Flyers to bail him out. The Devils aren't going to win this series by getting salty or overly nervous; they need to keep their wits about them and play some very smart hockey.
You've read the series primer, you've read our predictions, and now you've read this monster of a series preview. Now it's your turn to have your say about this series as the first game approaches. How do you feel about the Flyers' offense? Can the Devils' defense slow them down? Can the Devils forwards do a good job in matching with their lines? If then, what would you want to see different so they can do better? Do you think the Devils really have the edge in net, or will Bryzgalov play like it's 2012 in this series? Were you surprised to learn that both teams have had very poor penalty killing in their respective first round series? Will both teams stay out of the box if only to avoid each other's power play? What do you think will happen? Please leave all of your answers and other thoughts about this second round series in the comments.
Thank you for reading. Let's go, Devils.