The Philadelphia Flyers enter the 2011 NHL postseason as the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference, while the Buffalo Sabres enter as the No. 7 seed. If you were to look at the teams since January 1, however, you'd notice two teams probably in the exact opposite positions.
The Flyers have struggled down the stretch with inconsistent play and an apparent disinterest in the regular season schedule, while new owner Terry Pegula has seemingly brought an entirely new vibe with him to the organization. The Sabres went from the doldrums of the Eastern standings to a relatively comfortable qualifying position in just a few months.
These teams are going in opposite directions as the playoffs begin, but is that enough to get the Sabres over the hump and into the second round?
There's no secret that the Sabres have fantastic goaltending. Ryan Miller is as good as they get, even if he's had a bit of a low season this year. He's also been out of the lineup of late with one of those upper-body injuries, but he should be good to return for Game 1 on Thursday. Even if he can't go, Jhonas Enroth provides very capable play in the backup role.
Meanwhile, goaltending is still a question in Philadelphia, as always. Most people around the NHL have the idea that Sergei Bobrovsky has been a real issue lately for the Flyers, mostly because he was pulled twice in just the final stretch of the season. The reality is that Bob has been quite solid for the Flyers, and being pulled in Game 82 against the Islanders was not a true indication of how he played.
Even if Bobrovsky does stumble in the playoffs, the Flyers have plenty of capable options in Brian Boucher and Michael Leighton. Surely, one of those players can provide good-enough goaltending in this series behind a rock hard defense, but are any of the options better than Ryan Miller?
Of course not. Edge: Sabres.
Philly's forward depth is what makes them tick. They have six 20 goal scorers on the team this season, plus Kris Versteeg who split 21 goals between Philadelphia and Toronto. Oh, and Ville Leino sitting at 19 goals. And Nikolay Zherdev, who scored 16 goals in just 56 games.
The Flyers can score up and down the lineup unlike any other team in the Eastern Conference, and while the Sabres certainly have some skill and some scoring depth, it can be contained much easier than that of Philadelphia. Edge: Flyers
Neither team has completely healthy groups of defensemen, with Jordan Leopold out for the Sabres and Chris Pronger ailing for the Flyers. Pronger hopes to return for Game 1, while there's an outside chance that Leopold could return at some point in the first round. The Flyers are deeper on defense than the Sabres, especially if Pronger comes back.
He really is the X-factor here, not only on defense but in the entire series and in the Flyers' hopes to return to the Stanley Cup Finals. If he's in, the Flyers have a big edge. If he's not or he's not 100 percent, it's only a slight edge. Unfortunately for Buffalo, the Flyers' defense is still quite good after Pronger, with Kimmo Timonen, Andrej Meszaros, Braydon Coburn and Matt Carle leading the way. Edge: Flyers
Looking at the Flyers power play numbers, despite their insane offensive depth, you'd think that they'd have no hopes at winning a special teams battle. Matched up with Buffalo's middle-of-the-road power play and penalty kill units, though, special teams might not be a huge factor in this series.
Philadelphia's power play won't score many goals if they continue as they have for the entire season, but the Sabres shouldn't expect to score many on their own power play, considering the Flyers lead the league at preventing shots on the penalty kill. Edge: Push
Game 1: Thu., April 14 at 7:30 p.m.
Game 2: Sat., April 16 at 5 p.m.
Game 3: Mon., April 18 at 7 p.m.
Game 4: Wed., April 20 at 7:30 p.m.
Game 5*: Fri., April 22 at 7:30 p.m.
Game 6*: Sun., April 24 at 3 p.m.
Game 7*: Tues., April 26 at TBD