Last year, the Flyers started the playoffs early. In their final regular season game of the season, they had to face the New York Rangers, who were one point ahead of them for the eighth and final playoff position in the Eastern Conference. As you may remember, the game had to be decided in a shootout. The Flyers ended up winning that game 2 to 1 behind Brian Boucher’s clutch goaltending, and Claude Giroux’s and Mike Richard’s goals to advance to the Stanley Cup Playoffs as the seventh seed. The Flyers rode that momentum and clawed their way to the Stanley Cup Finals. First, they eliminated the New Jersey Devils. Then, against the Boston Bruins, the Flyers trailed the Bruins three games to zero. The Flyers had to win out, and coach Peter Laviolette needed to light a fire under his team. He replaced Boucher with Michael Leighton, and they came from behind, to defeat the Boston Bruins. In the Conference Finals, the Flyers cruised past the Montreal Canadiens. Eventually, they ran out of gas and lost to the Chicago Blackhawks four games to two on Patrick Kane’s overtime winner.
Meanwhile, the Buffalo Sabres had a disappointing finish to a great season. The Sabres had a great regular season; they won their division and clinched the third seed in the Eastern Conference. Fans were confident that goaltender Ryan Miller would lead their team go on a long playoff run after his strong performance in the Olympics that took Team USA to the Gold Medal game. However, the Boston Bruins upset the Sabres in the first round, and ended any dreams of a possible Stanley Cup run.
This year is a whole new story. The Flyers had a strong season and now try to make it back to the Finals. They won their division, and clinched the second seed in the Eastern Conference.
However, the Flyers did not finish the regular season on a high note as they lost 13 of their last 20 games, and their rookie goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, who took over Boucher’s and Leighton’s job, was yanked in the final game.
In Buffalo, injuries to key players made it a difficult season for the Sabres. Yet, they grinded it out, and when the team was healthy again, they won 16 of their last 24 games to clinch the seventh seed. Now, Miller and the Sabres look for redemption, as they will try to become the second consecutive seventh seed to make the Stanley Cup Finals.
Who has the advantage?
Offense: Flyers. They have six players with 20 or more goals. Jeff Carter and Danny Briere lead the team with 36 and 34 goals respectively. Plus, the Sabres need to watch out for Mike Richards, Scott Hartnell, Villie Leino, Claude Giroux, and Kris Versteeg, who was a member of the Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks last year.
Defense: Philadelphia by a slight edge. Yes, the Flyers are not playing well right now, but they gave up fewer goals than Buffalo. The Sabres gave up 229 goals, while the Flyers only gave up 223. Yes, the Flyers are banged up at this position with their best defenseman Chris Pronger playing with a broken hand, and defenseman Oskar Bartulis looks to be out for this series. However, defensemen Andrej Meszaros and Matt Carle will bail out the Flyers, as they were both in the top five in plus/minus rating for all NHL defensemen. Each player had a plus 30 rating. For the fans who are not familiar with this statistic, if the player has a plus, it means that the team scores more goals than they give up when those players are out on the ice, and if they have a minus, then the team allows more goals than they score when they are out there. Meanwhile, the Sabres will be without defenseman Jordan Leopold, and that will hurt their offense because he provided 13 goals and 22 assists. Second-year defensemen Tyler Myers has the size to “battle with the big boys”, and veteran Andrej Sekera is a physical presence as well. Unfortunately for the Sabres, the Flyers have too many people to worry about.
Goalie: Buffalo has the advantage here.
Ryan Miller is on a mission. He wants to redeem himself for his poor performance in the team’s early exit last year. He also has to play at a high level in order to keep his job. When Miller was out with a minor injury last week, rookie Jhonas Enroth filled in nicely by going 3-1, which kept the team in the playoff race.
Players to Watch:
Danny Briere of the Flyers because he wants to knock out his former team.
Sergei Bobrovsky of the Flyers because this is the rookie goaltender’s first taste of the playoffs.
Ryan Miller of the Sabres because he is on the “hot seat”.
Tomas Vanek of the Sabres because the Sabres need him to continue scoring, he led the team in scoring with 32 goals, in order to have a shot at winning.
Flyers in six. This looks like it could be an entertaining series, as the two teams split the season series at two games apiece. The Flyers have the experience, which will help them in the end.
Stats provided by: NHL.com, NBC Sports, ESPN
Images provided by: Seatgeek.com (Stanley Cup Logo), Bleacher Report.net (Action Shot), Ottawa Citizen.com (Miller), NBC Sports (Hartnell), and Cdn.nhl.com (Bobrovsky)