In many aspects, the 2012 Eastern Conference Semifinals series between the Philadelphia Flyers and New Jersey Devils has gone just the way the experts had predicted. One team has thoroughly dominated play through hard work and a furious forechecking attack, unleashing a barrage of shots at the opposing goaltender, who has yielded goals only after making a series of saves. The other club has had the tempo of each game dictated to it from the opening faceoff of the series. Pinned in their own zone for long stretches of time, frustration has set in and the usual discipline with which they have exhibited through the playoffs has dissipated.
While the prognosis of just how the series would play out has, indeed, been correct, the roles taken by each club have been completely reversed.
With a 3-1 series lead after their 4-2 victory Sunday night at the Prudential Center, New Jersey is on the verge of eliminating the heavily-favored Flyers.
What was originally thought to be rust when Philadelphia was out-shot 11-0 in the first 10 minutes of Game 1 has continued into a trend in just about every contest in the series, Even though the Flyers came back to win the first game in overtime, Peter DeBoer's troops have continued to outwork, outhit, and out-shoot the Flyers for the majority of the four games thus far.
In Game 2, Philly went almost the entirety of the second period without a shot on goal, finally recording two in the final 1:27 of the frame. Sunday night, it was a stretch of nearly 17 minutes after the team had taken an improbable 2-0 first period lead.
Surprisingly, the one part of Philadelphia's game that was predicted to be a possible Achilles heel has actually been their only saving grace. Literally.
Ilya Bryzgalov, the strangely off-kilter netminder who has had a season of extreme up-and-down play, has kept his team in each game despite being left alone much of the time. Although he has lost three of the four games the astronaut-turned-goaltender has kept his Flyers in every contest, and the final scores have been in no way indicative of the lopsided nature of play.
Philly's problems have been numerous -- and Claude Giroux's one-game suspension for his hit in Dainius Zubrus late in the second period of Game 4 -- and will almost certainly result in a handshake after Tuesday night's Game 5 unless adjustments are made to defuse New Jersey's forecheck and at least match their work ethic.
In no particular order of importance -- they're all equally damning -- and in addition to the Flyers' inability / unwillingness to match the Devils' work ethic, here's a list of what has been killing the Flyers over the course of the first four contests:
Defensive zone coverage -- After out shooting New Jersey by a 36-26 count in Game 1 it has been a veritable shooting gallery in front of the Philly cage, with Bryzgalov facing 109 shots to just 70 for NJ goalie Martin Brodeur. The biggest issue isn't necessarily with the quantity of shots being thrown at Bryzgalov, but rather the quality. The Russian back stop has endured a deluge of high-percentage chances, and most of the goals scored against him have been on players left all alone in front of him or pucks that have changed direction at point blank range. The "Why?" this is occurring is covered in the next point.
The Devils' forecheck and cycling game -- While the Flyers had dominated this area of play in a first-round upset of the Pittsburgh Penguins, New Jersey has taken the strongest point of Philadelphia's offensive attack and turned it around against them. Zach Parise, Ilya Kovalchuk, Patrik Elias, Travis Zajac, and company have all been quicker to the play, more physical than the Flyers when they arrive at the puck, and quicker in reacting when a play is about to be made. The furious forecheck for not giving any of the Philly defenders the time to make a clean outlet pass, and the extended periods of being pinned in their own zone has taken a toll on the Philadelphia rear guards.
A prime example of this point was fashioned on Sunday's game-winning goal.
After Philly defender Braydon Coburn had helped to take away a possible scoring threat on a two-on-one late in the second period, Petr Sykora sent the puck around the boards towards the back of the Flyers' net. Kimmo Timonen skated behind the net as if he were going to take the puck in stride, but was beaten to it when rookie Adam Henrique quickly took the fastest route to gain access of the disk, then wheeled and fired a pass to the slot where Zubrus was waiting all alone. The ex-Flyer had no trouble picking the corner past a surprised Bryzgalov, and the Devils took a 3-2 lead into the second intermission instead of on even terms.
One team passive, the other aggressive. It is the story of the series as a whole.
Health of the blue line -- Injuries to the defense has been nothing new to the Flyers, having lost captain and defensive spearhead Chris Pronger early in the campaign, and several regulars throughout the year.
But the loss of Andrej Meszaros in late-March and a concussion suffered by Nicklas Grossmann -- who after being acquired from the Dallas Stars had provided an immeasurable amount of defensive consciousness and stability to a blue line that had been in a state of utter chaos -- has made the position seem thin.
Grossmann has not been near the defensive presence he was prior to the hits by Malkin and Tyler Kennedy that caused him to be concussed, and the unit has appeared lost other than Coburn and Timonen.
Failure of the power play unit -- When they found themselves being outplayed at even strength by Pittsburgh in round one, Philadelphia could always rely on their blistering-hot power play to bail them out. Of the 30 goals they scored against the Pens, 12 had come on just 23 man advantage opportunities.
Even though NJ struggled on the PK in round one against the Florida Panthers, no one expected the Flyers to be able to sustain a success rate of over 50% against a Devils club that led the NHL with an 89.6% kill rate. But they've come up small when given tremendous opportunity to get back into the series.
Scoring just three times in 18 PP chances (16.6%), perhaps the two consecutive unsuccessful opportunities in the overtime period of Game 3 just before Alexei Ponikarovsky's game-winner will haunt Philly all summer long. It was a favorable time to take control of the series, but instead the hard work by the Devils' PK unit didn't allow the Flyers to even get set up on either chance.
Poor play / lack of production from the top players -- From the usually-reliable top line of Scott Hartnell, Giroux, and Jaromir Jagr on down, the lack of production from the Flyers top skaters has been evident. Even though the trio has been split up in an attempt to generate some sort of offense, nothing has really worked as of yet.
After posting an NHL-high six goals and 14 points in the first round, Giroux has managed just two goals and three points in the four games, finishing a -1 in each contest.
Those totals include a goal and two points Sunday, but other than the spots where he's actually scored goals, Giroux has actually been pretty invisible the entire series. This has led to a heightened level of frustration for the player that head coach Peter Laviolette called "the best player on the planet" after the club's dispatch of Pittsburgh, one that saw him take a run at Zubrus with less than four seconds left in the middle stanza.
With the supplemental discipline of a game suspension being levied by Brendan Shanahan, the club faces an elimination game with their best player sitting in the press box.
Hartnell has also posted three points, but the team's regular season leading goal-scorer has been able to register just one goal, a Game 4 first period power play redirection of a Giroux shot directly in front of Brodeur. Hartnell has also been on the negative side of the plus / minus ledger in all four tilts with a collective -6 jumping off the stats sheet.
The mop-haired winger has not displayed any of the reckless abandon and agitating presence that we've become so accustomed to seeing. His effectiveness and mobility may be extremely limited after he took a shot off the ankle during Game 1, and if his club is eliminated, it's probable that he is injured and one of the walking wounded the Flyers have been attempting to keep under wraps.
While Brodeur turned 40 yesterday with great fanfare, Jagr, who is the same age, has been struggling immensely.
Through the first four games, JJ has posted just one assist while posting a -2 rating. It's not known if the nagging groin injuries that bothered him for much of the season have returned or not, but the jump he had shown even in the Pittsburgh series has been absent and the play of the winger just hasn't been the same against New Jersey. He hasn't been able to control the puck while fending off a defenseman, and appears to be laboring.
Danny Briere scored twice in the series opener, including the OT game-winner, and has continued to be one of the club's premier clutch scorers. He and James van Riemsdyk combined for a dominating Game 1, both instrumental in the biggest moments of the contest. But they've been sparsely heard from since, with each picking up points in Game 3 only while finishing on the minus side of the ledger.
They will need to help pick up some of the slack with Giroux's absence in Game 5 if the Flyers will have any hopes of forcing a Game 6.
Supplemental scoring -- There were times during the regular season and in the first round where Philly's top scorers production had dropped off, and the club's bottom six forwards and rookies stepped up and made up the difference. The balance was perhaps one of the club's most lethal weapons as they rarely missed a beat during the season.
That has not been the case through the first four contests with NJ. While the top players have struggled against the Devils, there has not been the supplementary contributions coming from the foot soldiers.
Wayne Simmonds was at times an unstoppable force during the year, scoring a career-high 28 goals and regularly contributing. But he has posted just one goal -- against the Penguins in round one -- and has just two assists versus New Jersey.
Max Talbot also recorded a career-high goal total when he netted 19 during the season, then was a force against his ex-teammates in the first round with three goals, including two while the Flyers were shorthanded. But Talbot has also hit lean times offensively against the Devils, managing just one assist in the four games thus far.
Matt Read led all NHL rookies with 24 goals this season, but has fallen on hard times against the Devils. He has scored just once (Game 2) for his only point of the series.
Sean Couturier was the shutdown forward that kept the Evgeni Malkin line under wraps in round one, and netted a hat trick versus the Pens to boot. But the 19-year-old has been battered and bruised since, taking unpenalized cheap shots from frustrated Pittsburgh forwards James Neal and Malkin, then suffering a knee injury in Game 3 against New Jersey. Even when playing, he hasn't seen the same effectiveness prior to Neal's width of the ice charge into the defenseless center man.
The Philadelphia defense had chipped in offensively during the regular season as well as the Pittsburgh series, but have posted just one goal (Matt Carle in Game 3) in round two. As mentioned above, the Devils' forecheck has pinned the pairings deep in their own end and as a result taken a physical toll on the unit.
Turnovers -- Another product of the Jersey forechecking pressure is Philadelphia's ineffective clearing attempts and turning over of the puck. Game 4's numbers were an absolute exclamation point on this aspect, as the turnovers were 20-5.
Despite the New Jersey domination, thanks to Bryzgalov this has still been a very close series. Two of the four games have gone to an overtime period, with each having pulled one out on home ice. The Flyers could have pulled out Game 3 with a little bit of luck, and the series would be tied, 2-2. But it could also be argued that if NJ had been able to find a way to get the OT winner in Game 1, the series would be over already.
Teams make their own breaks and rise to the occasion in the face of adversity, and Philadelphia has done it time and again during the course of the year. With Giroux not available for Game 5 and the team likely drained from the physical toll taken over the 10 postseason contests thus far, the Flyers will need an all-out effort to stay alive Tuesday night.
We will find out a lot about just what kind of resiliency this team has within it, and it has to start with matching the Devils' work ethic and physical effort, and spending more time in the New Jersey zone. If Game 5 goes along with the same script as the previous four, there may end up being the unwelcome sight of a handshake line at center ice late Tuesday night.
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