It took a while until the last matchup of the postseason was set, but the Philadelphia Flyers (47-26-9, 103 points, fifth seed in the East) and New Jersey Devils (48-28-6, 102, sixth) are set to renew their rivalry, meeting for the second time in the past three playoff years. After being tortured in the playoffs by the Devils in the Eastern Conference Finals in 1995 and 2000, the Flyers have won the last two meetings (2004, 2010), each in five games.
Philadelphia is coming off of the longest rest of any of the Eastern Conference teams, with down time since Sunday's 5-1 victory to close out the Pittsburgh Penguins, the team most experts favored to win the Stanley Cup. New Jersey needed a solid performance in Thursday night's 3-2 Game 7 double-overtime win in Florida to advance. It remains to be seen if the time off for the Flyers and extra duty in Game 7 will work in Philly's favor, but fatigue for some of New Jersey's older players could be a factor.
The Flyers held a slight edge during the season, 3-2-1, with a pair of 3-0 Philadelphia shutouts bookending the six-game set.
Philadelphia scored a ridiculous amount of goals in their six games against Pittsburgh -- 30. As Kimmo Timonen described him, Claude Giroux is the motor that makes Philly go. After finishing third in league scoring with 93 points, he delivered a huge effort and leads NHL playoff scorers in almost every category -- tied for first in goals (6), first in assists (8), first in points (14), and tied for the lead in plus/minus (+6). But Giroux wasn't the whole story offensively for the Flyers, as Danny Briere (5-3-8), Jaromir Jagr (1-6-7), Jakub Voracek (2-5-7), and Brayden Schenn (2-4-6) all averaged a point per game or more. The orange-and-black attack is one of the most formidable remaining in the playoffs, one of few teams to have 11 goal scorers to hit double-digits during the season.
On the other side of the ice, this is not the boring, strictly grind-it-out Devils squad that your parents grew up watching. New Jersey boasted five skaters that scored more than 20 goals during the year -- Ilya Kovalchuk (37), Zach Parise (31), David Clarkson (30), Patrik Elias (26), and Petr Sykora (21). Travis Zajac, who missed all but 15 games during the year with an achilles injury, led the Devils in scoring in their Round 1 victory, and has been perennially better in the playoffs than during the season. Rookie and Calder Trophy candidate Adam Henrique (who scored the series-winning goal against Florida in his first NHL playoff action), Flyer-killer Alexei Ponikarovsky, and former-Flyer Dainius Zubrus round out a solid NJ attack.
Edge: While the Devils' offense is better than in previous years, the Flyers still get the edge. One of top offenses in the NHL all year long broke franchise offensive records in first round.
The Flyers' blue line was dealt a crippling early-season blow when top defender and captain Chris Pronger was lost for the season with post-concussion symptoms, but many stepped up in his absence. Timonen was his usual solid self, and Braydon Coburn improved throughout the entire campaign. The big rear guard's performance was enhanced with the acquisition of and subsequent pairing with Nicklas Grossmann. Matt Carle played well, and rookie Erik Gustafsson, Andreas Lilja, Pavel Kubina round out a decent unit. Grossman was lost to the team with a concussion in Game 4 against the Penguins, but began skating in full contact mode in Thursday's practice. Andrej Meszaros, who underwent back surgery in late-March, started skating with the team on Tuesday and should be ready at some point during Round 2.
Always the backbone of any New Jersey team, the defense isn't what it once was in the Garden State. Big names from the past such as Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer and Ken Daneyko have been replaced by Anton Volchenkov, Bryce Salvador, Marek Zidlicky, Andy Greene, Mark Fayne and Peter Harrold. Salvador suffered an injury to his left arm late in Game 7 on a hit from Kris Versteeg but remained in the game. If he isn't ready to answer the bell when the series opens, rookie Adam Larsson could fill in in his absence.
Edge: While the corps for both clubs are pretty even, the Devils get the edge by virtue of their performance in the first round. NJ gave up 17 goals in their seven game set with Florida, and the Flyers gave up 26 in six games with Pittsburgh.
Philly's power play scored 12 goals during the first round, setting a franchise record, ending up with a 52.2 percent success rate. That's what you call lethal, as Giroux and Hartnell each scored a pair while on the man advantage.
The penalty-killing units were not strong points for either team in the first round, as the Flyers had a 69% kill rate, while New Jersey were just 66.7 percent. Philadelphia did score three shorthanded goals, and always seem to put offensive pressure on their opponents while a man short.
Ilya Bryzgalov had some rough moments in the first round and even though he won four of six games, the first-year Flyer didn't finish with great numbers -- 3.89 goals-against average, .871 save percentage. However, Bryz did come up with some huge saves in the early part of the series in two come-from-behind victories in Pittsburgh. He was also money against the Devils during the regular season, allowing just one goal and posting a 3-0 record with some pretty insane numbers -- 0.29 GAA, .987 save percentage, and two shutouts.
While Martin Brodeur is not playing nearly at the same level in his 20th season as when he was leading the Devils to Stanley Cups, he is still a legend. He had some shaky moments in the first round triumph over the Panthers, but played well enough to get the job done. He finished with a 4-2 record, with a 2.06 GAA, .922 save percentage, and a shutout.
Edge: This matchup could well be the biggest deciding-factor in the series and if Bryzgalov plays like he did against New Jersey during the regular season, the slight edge goes to the Flyers.
THE FLYERS WILL WIN IF ... Giroux can continue his ascension into the upper stratosphere of the NHL elite. He took it upon himself to lead Philly to a Game 6 victory after two straight losses, and Giroux is the type of player that can be a difference-maker on his own. The Flyers will need to stay out of penalty trouble, as Kovalchuk can came problems with one-time rockets from the left circle. Philly will need to get traffic in front of Brodeur and keep putting rubber at the Devils' cage. Bryzgalov needs to be solid and avoid any lapses in play for extended periods of time.
THE DEVILS WILL WIN IF ... Bryzgalov struggles and Brodeur outplays him. New Jersey's attack is something to be reckoned with, which was not always the case with the franchise. There are plenty of guys who can score, and many that have killed the Flyers in the past, Elias being the prime culprit. The Devils will need to keep the puck in Philly's end and keep pressuring Bryzgalov, while keeping the explosive Flyers' offense at bay.