It’s that time. Time for hot goalies, OT thrillers, and for casual fans to start paying attention to hockey. The Flyers will never want for diehards. In the last few weeks as the Flyers stumbled a bit, lost the #1 seed, it was interesting to see the reactions to the articles I read online. If I went to Comcast’s website, an article about the Phillies game might have 10 comments. An article about a Flyers loss, or their goalie situation might have 120. That’s those maniacs that live and die with every Flyers period all year, and now they’ll be joined in the ranks by those who can’t deny the excitement of playoff hockey.
If you live in a cave, I’ll remind you the Flyers are coming off a Stanley Cup Finals run last year. It was the most improbable Flyers playoff season of my lifetime. They slipped in on the final day, overcame a 3-0 deficit to Boston, and came within Michael Leighton’s 5-hole of possibly forcing a game seven in the Finals. This year, established as favorites of a sort, they streaked out to a huge lead in the East and then set it in neutral. Still a popular pick among some pundits, we’re back to square one, starting every Flyers playoff run of the last couple of decades with the same thought: Almost nothing would surprise me. And, we’ve got a familiar foe, and familiar questions. Things to look at…
The Flyers come into the playoffs riding a good 6-week stretch of mediocrity. They burnt through a big cushion in the East and ended up with the #2 seed. The Sabres spent a good portion of the season as an afterthought, but finished with a 16-4-4 stretch, and locked up their playoff spot in the final week of the season. This is a close series for a 2/7. The line tells you that, and the Flyers despite having the much higher seed only won 4 more games than Buffalo did this year. Over the course of a season that isn’t much difference. The Flyers have talked about “flipping the switch,” a lot. Their plan to return to their early season form. If they don’t have that switch, this will be a dog fight.
It’s hard to imagine the Flyers can make a long run again if Chris Pronger isn’t healthy and playing effective hockey, and providing leadership. Pronger broke his hand and hasn’t played in a game in about a month. The good news is that he should be fresh otherwise, but as is always the case there is a lot of mystery surrounding Pronger’s actual status. He’s a game-time decision for the opener Thursday night. Other than “Prongs,” the playoffs are always a war of attrition. Luck plays a part, but also when you have the better team you have to close things out. You don’t want to be playing long, grueling 7-gamers from the opening round on.
If you are trying to zero in on an edge that Buffalo has in this match-up, this is certainly the first place you’d look. The Flyers are deeper up front than any team in the league. Their defense, especially if Pronger is close to 100%, is capable. But, there’s always that goalie question. This year, the Flyers enter the playoffs with Sergei Bobrovsky in net. The rookie from Russia started strong, has shown streaks of brilliance, but has looked vulnerable at times, as well. He was pulled from the last game of the regular season. There’s almost no question that Brian Boucher will also see time this post-season and if things get desperate, maybe Michael Leighton, too. The Sabres have last year’s Vezina trophy winner, Ryan Miller. He hasn’t had a great year, but he’s proven capable of elevating his game. He’s the one goalie on either side that you think could steal the series. Is it likely to happen? Probably not, but the possibility exists.
Some Flyers Keys:
- Power Play–When you get these opportunities in the post-season you have to take advantage. The Flyers have plenty of skill, but have been inconsistent, sputtering to the bottom half of the league overall. If they win the special teams battle, they’ll be very dangerous.
- Contain Thomas Vanek–The Sabres aren’t loaded with household names. Vanek is a guy that’ll make you nervous when he has the puck.
- Claude Giroux–Giroux has had brilliant flashes in the post-season. This year he led the Flyers in points. If he could find even just a slightly higher gear, the Flyers may have a playoff assassin.
- Game One–I honestly think tonight is pretty big. Because it’s home, because the Flyers have talked about turning it on, because it’s Bob’s debut, a win seems very important.
Will the Razors come Out?
My prediction is Flyers in five. The basic five-gamer. Win the first two, split on the road, close it out at home. The post may not have sounded terribly optimistic, but I think the Flyers will play better than they did at the end of the year, I don’t think Miller will stand on his head, and there’s just way too much offensive talent on Philly’s side to be contained. If you struggle with Buffalo, you probably aren’t going anywhere, so might as well start things off optimistically.