Wednesday, April 13, 2011

#2 Philadelphia vs. #7 Buffalo Preview

Can the Flyers prevent this
from happening again?
The Eastern Conference is full of classic match-ups.  Obviously, the Original Six meeting of the Boston Bruins and the Montreal Canadiens is the most storied of the first round, but another match-up with some significant history is the Philadelphia Flyers and Buffalo Sabres.  This will be the ninth playoff meeting between these two teams, and there have truly been some memorable games in the previous eight encounters.  There's definitely some history here, and the guys over at Die By The Blade have compiled some good clips from the previous playoff meetings between the Flyers and Sabres. The Flyers have won five of the eight previous match-ups, but the Sabres have won three of the last four encounters.  One of the most memorable games (or infamous, depending on whom you ask) was the 8-0 drubbing Buffalo gave the Flyers in game six of the 2001 Conference Quarterfinals.  And, if you've been watching since the lockout, you will no doubt remember R.J. Umberger getting destroyed by Brian Campbell in 2006 (by the way, film of the games mentioned here are all included in the link above).  But before the Sabres beat Philly in 1998, the Flyers had defeated Buffalo all four times they had met in the playoffs, including a fight filled event in 1997 on the way to being swept in the Stanley Cup Finals by the soon-to-be dynastic Red Wings.  But perhaps the most famous match-up between these two teams was their first, in the 1975 Finals.  Specifically, game three.  Also known as the Fog Game, this game included (but was not limited to) a crazy bat with a thing for hockey players and a thick fog covering the entire ice surface as the game continued.  Just two games later, the Flyers lifted the Cup as the first Expansion team to win it all. But all of this history aside, what can we expect this year?

Well, that's really a hard question right now.  If you just looked at the final standings, the Flyers sit in second place in the East with 106 points and a 47-23-12 record, just one overtime loss worse than the first place Capitals.  Buffalo went 43-29-10 for 96 points.  But, of course, as any respectable sports fan could tell you, standings are worth next to nothing on their own.  A couple more points of interest can be gleaned from a basic team stat sheet here.  First of all, the Flyers set a franchise record with 25 road wins this season.  This bodes well for Philly as it is certainly to their advantage to take one of those games away from Buffalo in game 3 or 4.  Buffalo, however, has had equal success on the road and at home, so they too may prove dangerous in the Flyers' barn.  One last statistic worth noting here: goal differential.  The Flyers have the league's fourth best differential (this is a measure of how many more goals you have scored than your opponents have scored against you), with a +36.  Buffalo, meanwhile, is a +16, good for twelfth out of 30 in the league.

This season, the two teams have split their season series 2-2, with each team winning one at home and one on the road.  So who has the advantage?  Recently, Buffalo has played exceedingly well, going 13-4-3 over their last 20 games.  Meanwhile, the Flyers have limped into the playoffs, going 7-7-6 over their last 20, and just 1-3-2 in the final six games of the season.  Spells doom for the Flyers, huh?  Not necessarily.  This is a team that played near-flawless hockey for the better part of the season.  Don't expect them to just fade away.  This is a team that needed a shootout to make the playoffs last year, pulled off a comeback from down 3-0 in the series and in game seven against Boston, and was one fluky goal from forcing a game seven in the Stanley Cup Finals.  They know what it takes in the postseason.  Let's take a quick look at the positional match ups.

The perennial question mark for the Flyers, or at least so the media would like you to believe, is their goalie situation.  Philadelphia is relying on the goaltending tandem of rookie Sergei Bobrovsky and veteran back-up Brian Boucher.  Meanwhile, the Sabres have Ryan Miller, the reigning Vezina Trophy winner.  Let's take a look at the season numbers for these three.  Miller has not had such a fantastic season, going 34-22-8 in his 65 starts, with a 2.59 GAA and 0.916 SV%, along with 5 shutouts.  Meanwhile, Bobrovsky has gone 28-13-8 in his 52 starts, with a 2.59 GAA and a 0.915 SV%.  Boucher started 29 games, going 18-10-4 with a 2.42 GAA and a.916 SV%.  Maybe not his best year, but if Miller is considered one of the elite goaltenders in the NHL, can anyone explain to me the Philly media's "woe is me" routine?  It seems that, if Buffalo is happy with Miller in goal, Philadelphia should be more than happy with their tandem of goalies playing at a similar caliber this season.  Last season is not such a great indicator for Flyers goaltending (seeing as they started 7 different goalies during the regular season), but if you look at the two previous years, Philly had Marty Biron in net with similar numbers as well (0.917 SV% and a 2.67 GAA over those two years).  A bit of a tangent, but the point is clear: Philly's goaltending should inspire more confidence than the media often gives them credit for.  In this match-up, I'll give the (slight) edge to Buffalo, only because Miller has far more playoff experience (40 games played) than Philadelphia starter Bobrovsky (about the play his first NHL playoff game).

Looking at the scoring of these two teams, there are some interesting similarities.  The Flyers have seven 20+ goal scorers, including Kris Versteeg (who has only scored seven in the 27 games since he came over from Toronto), and 10 goal scorers in the double digits.  Meanwhile, Buffalo has just 4 20+ goal scorers, but 11 players with 10 or more goals.  The Flyers have a bit more depth at the top end, Buffalo certainly poses a scoring threat.  The top scorer on each squad couldn't be more different.  For Buffalo, Thomas Vanek (32-41) is opportunistic, gritty, and physical.  You're more likely to see him score in close with rebounds and taking body position than on a beautiful shot from the face-off dots.  Meanwhile, Philly's Jeff Carter (36-30) is a guy that's most often going to score stepping off the wall or on a good feed in the high slot.  He's got a wicked wrist shot, and he uses a maximum length stick (six feet) to get some real power behind it.  Unfortunately, as Flyers fans know all too well, he has a reputation for missing the net entirely.  This past season, he missed 114 shots (mostly high and wide).  The season before, it was 141, and in 2008-09, when he scored 46 goals, he also missed 116 shots.

As far as defensive play goes, the Flyers boast more depth than the Sabres by far.  Matt Carle and Andrej Meszaros (both +30 and averaging over 21 minutes a game) had truly stand out seasons, Kimmo Timonen quietly - as usual - anchored the team, and Braydon Coburn also played solidly this year.  This all without even mentioning Chris Pronger, who has missed significant time to injury this season.  Certainly an upgrade on last year's blue line.  The Sabres are solid, but not as deep.  Jordan Leopold is a scoring threat, with 13 goals this season, as is sophomore Tyler Myers (10 goals of his own).  Steve Montador and Andrej Sekera both played serious minutes and posted decent plus/minus numbers, for what little that stat is worth.

At the end of the day, I think this match-up goes in the Flyers favor, but only if - and it's a big if given their recent play - they can get their intensity back.  Chris Pronger wouldn't hurt either.  If Philly continues it's languid play, look for Buffalo to make this a miserable and short postseason for the Flyers.

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