First off, a little classic music to set the tone:
It’s playoff time! With round one approaching, it’s time to have some fun and analyze the match up of the Buffalo Sabres vs. the Philadelphia Flyers. Philly enters the Dance as the 2nd seed in the East, Buffalo as the 7th.
Let’s break it down.
FIRST TAKE (FROM NHL.com):
Philadelphia (106 points)
“Clinched the Atlantic Division title by outgunning the New York Islanders 7-4. The bad news was that coach Peter Laviolette again had to pull rookie goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky after he allowed three first-period goals.”
Buffalo (96 points)
“Won 5-4 at Columbus to cap a surge that saw the Sabres go 28-11-6 since Jan. 1 to earn the most points in the East during that span and propel them into a playoff berth. Starting goaltender Ryan Miller allowed one goal while playing the first half of the game and should be ready when the Sabres face the Flyers.”
The Flyers boast some real offensive power, with Jeff Carter (36), Daniel Briere (34), Claude Giroux (25), Scott Hartnell (24), Mike Richards (23), and James van Riemsdyk (21) all posting 20 goal seasons. Ville Leino (19) just missed the cut, and Nikolay Zherdev’s 16 goals in just 56 games played can’t be overlooked either.
However, with all that firepower, the Flyers managed only a 16.6% success rate on the powerplay. Their sharpshooters did work their way into the PK, however – while the Flyers claimed only 82.8% of their kills, they also scored 13 short handed goals, good enough for 2nd best in the NHL.
Comparatively, only 4 players cracked the 20 goal mark for the Sabres this season – Thomas Vanek (32), Drew Stafford (31), Jason Pominville (22), and Tyler Ennis (20). There are plenty of others, however, that the Flyers will have to beware. Nathan Gerbe scored 16 goals in just 64 games, and is red-hot coming into the playoffs. Tim Connolly notched 13 goals in only 68 games. Jochen Hecht had 12 in 67 games. Meanwhile, Brad Boyes is ready to taste post-season glory again, having scored 2 goals (and 3 points) in the only 4 playoff games he ever played with the Blues. Boyes had 17 goals split between St. Louis and Buffalo in the regular season.
Buffalo’s depth of scoring has been a major factor this season. Their power play percentage of 19.4 was actually an improved mark since anchors Derek Roy and Jordan Leopold were lost to injury. Not so lucky on the penalty kill, their modest success rate of 83% is compounded upon by the fact the team only scored 2 short handed goals over the season.
While the personality and punch of the Flyers’ defense might lie in the hands of the injured Chris Pronger, the rest of the squad are far from slouches. Matt Carle, Andrej Meszaros, Braydon Coburn, Kimmo Timonen, Sean O’Donnell, and Danny Syvret are a slick and gritty mix of youth and veterans, capable of playing solid shut down hockey while contributing to the power play. While the offense lead the Eastern Conference with a prodigious 259 goals for, the defense was able to keep up, allowing 223 goals.
The Sabres young defense, as discussed earlier on buffalo74, might very well be the Achilles’ Heel of the team. Veterans Jordan Leopold, Steve Montador, and Shaone Morrisson are the only guys on the back-end over 24 years of age – and a combination of injury and inconsistency has shown that none of them are NHL elite. Meanwhile, the young crew of Andrej Sekera, Tyler Myers, Chris Butler, and Mike Weber were at least able to pull together in front of rookie netminder Jhonas Enroth when Ryan Miller went down with an injury. It was clutch play at a critical time late in the season for the green defensemen, but they will have a lot to learn and prove in the first round of the NHL playoffs this year. Overall, the Sabres offense put up 245 goals, (3rd in the East), and the defense was able to catch up to that mark, allowing 229 by season’s end.
Rookie Sergei Bobrovsky carried the load for the Flyers this year, posting a 28-13-8 record with a 2.59 GAA and a .915 save percentage. However, he has struggled down the stretch, and is unproven in the playoffs. Brian Boucher will provide backup, but has struggled to find consistency over his NHL career. Michael Leighton hasn’t been the same since allowing Pat Kane’s Cup-winning stealth goal in the Finals last season, but will be available in case of crisis.
Ryan Miller is an elite, all-world goaltender, but will have to show there is no rust in his game after missing time to injury down the stretch. Given his career history, he should have no trouble handling the workload. If necessary, the more than capable Jhonas Enroth is available as backup.
INSIGHTS & INTANGIBLES:
The NHL playoffs are all about clutch hockey, and one of these teams has displayed the ability more than the other since rounding the 4th quarter post of the regular season.
While both teams carry offensive depth, the Flyers’ might be a bit deceptive. “The Hockey News” was quick to lock into the issue – in their April 4th edition they noted “The line of Daniel Briere, Scott Hartnell and Ville Leino has been Philly’s most productive, but the trio was partly responsible for the team’s struggles in February. In 16 games leading up to a March 8 victory, the trio was a combined minus-22. It combined for just 8 goals and 20 points in those 16 games.” Further, the absence of Briere, due to a lower body injury, contributed to a late season spiral for Philly, who went 9-9-7 over their final 25 games, and an abysmal 1-3-2 in their last 6.
Meanwhile, Buffalo lost key veterans such as Derek Roy, Jochen Hecht, Mike Grier, Jordan Leopold, Patrick Kaleta, and Ryan Miller – all this after losing their captain Craig Rivet to waivers. Unlike Philadelphia, the Sabres’ depth responded with resounding success, with key players such as Nathan Gerbe and Jhonas Enroth helping to spark an incredible NHL-best 16-4-4 record down the final stretch.
Another key issue will be the condition that the Flyers are now in, after last season’s deep playoff run that brought them all the way to game 6 of the Cup Finals. Teams that go that deep into the abusive playoffs have difficulty remaining healthy the next season, and at least for Briere (now 33 years young), that has been an issue.
Goaltending will be a major concern for both teams. While Ryan Miller looks to be ready to go, he may be rusty coming off of his injury. Meanwhile, Sergei Borbrovsky has been less than stellar as the Flyers have stumbled, and was pulled after allowing 3 goals on 10 shots in their final regular season game. Brian Boucher will backup Bobrovsky, with Michael Leightonen in the wings in case things go very sour.
The Flyers will be hard pressed to overcome their recently exposed faults, especially with the Sabres pressing hard as the hottest team in the league. The series will be hard fought, but overcoming wear and tear, a late season collapse, faltering depth, and a suspect netminder in the crease will be too much for Philly to overcome. The Sabres’ consistency, proven depth, and goaltending should allow them to outlast the Flyers’ best efforts.
Sabres in 7.