It's kind of been like old times in the Eastern Conference Semifinals with the Philadelphia Flyers and New Jersey Devils renewing their postseason acquaintances. After Thursday night's 4-3 overtime victory, the club from the Garden State leads the set by a 2-1 game count.
Though the Flyers have taken the past two more-recent playoff encounters, this series might be taking on a tone of frustration from a Philadelphia perspective more familiar to the meetings between the teams in the conference finals during the springs of 1995 and 2000. NJ took both of those battles on the way to winning Stanley Cups, but the methodology in which the end result has come to fruition has definitely been extremely different.
In those past clashes, the Devils employed Jacques Lemaire's version of the dreaded "Trap", which made the experience of observing many of those games closely resemble that of watching paint dry. As Philadelphia threw countless shots towards Martin Brodeur and stormed the New Jersey cage, the Devils would wait patiently for a Philly mistake and an opportunity to launch a counter-attack that usually led to a back-breaking goal. The Flyers would heavily outshoot and out-chance Jersey, but come up on the short end of the scoreboard when all was said and done.
Under Peter DeBoer, the 2012 version of the Devils have carried play for long stretches of play, choosing to instead go on the offensive rather than sit back in a defensive shell and await a chance to counter-strike.
Unlike past meetings, New Jersey has not had to throw its hopes on Brodeur stealing the series, but instead have relied on a furious forechecking game to pin Philadelphia in their own end for extended periods of time. The game plan has worked like a charm.
Following a Game 1 victory in which the Flyers were badly outplayed (and outshot 11-0 in the first 10 minutes of the series), but wore down a tired New Jersey club that had gone through a grueling double overtime of Game 7 against the Florida Panthers, the Devils have controlled play for much of the last two contests.
With Zach Parise, Travis Zajac, and Ilya Kovalchuk doing the Devils' work, along with the re-enlistment of timeless soldiers Patrik Elias and Petr Sykora from past wars, this Devils' club has been anything but counter-attackers. They’ve actually taken the Flyers own game of intense forechecking pressure and turned it around on Philly.
Not only did NJ outshoot Philadelphia in Game 2 by a wide 35-20 margin, they also led in missed shots, 12-5. Add in the fact that Flyers' skaters blocked 23 shots while New Jersey players only needed to block 12, and it produced a very lopsided 70-37 count in favor of the Devils between shots attempted towards the net.
That statistic was every bit indicative of which team had puck possession for the majority of the night, and which end of the ice the most of the action was taking place.
While Thursday night's Game 3 totals were much closer -- NJ outshot Philly, 31-28, missed their target more than the Flyers, 15-12, and required Philadelphia skaters to block 13 of their offerings while only having to block six Philly shots for a total of 59 shot attempts by the Devils and 46 for the Flyers -- the contest's eventual outcome was still the same.
The Flyers were able to find some measure of leveling the ice surface for good chunks of the night. But when it came down to crunch time, the teams went their separate ways in how they handled it. Taking full advantage of numerous mental lapses, spotty defensive zone coverage, and the Flyers' failure to capitalize on back-to-back power plays in the overtime, it was New Jersey who found a way to pull out the victory.
Another reason for that ability to overcome the favored Philly team is one that is exactly the same to those battles over a decade ago. Simply put, New Jersey is working their butts off, and the Flyers have not been able to consistently match their level of competitiveness.
Two sequences from Thursday's contest are perfect examples of this point.
Parise quickly got in on the fore-check on Matt Carle, and the Philly defender wrapped the puck behind the net for defensive partner Andreas Lilja. As the defenseman accepted the pass, Elias attacked and picked Lilja's pocket. The long-time Flyer-killer swiftly sent a pass behind the net to a cutting Parise, who had gained separation from and beaten Carle to the net. The Devils' captain snuck the puck past Ilya Bryzgalov before the goaltender could react to the play and cover the post, and New Jersey gained a lead.
The goal was rather symbolic of the Devils' old guard (Elias) and the new (Parise) doing all of the damage.
Speaking of Parise's ability to slip the Philly defense, it wasn't all too difficult all night. As this war wages on, it seems there is not too much of a physical price to pay for New Jersey forwards for venturing in front of the Philadelphia net.
Carle did manage to score a goal, but his willingness to engage physically seemed to be absent. In more than 31 minutes of ice time, the blue liner failed to register a single hit. And he wasn't the only rear guard, as Lilja (in more than 13 minutes of TOI) and Erik Gustafsson (nearly 16 minutes) also did not record a hit.
Though there are still at least two more encounters to go, and as many as four, for the time being the Devils are winning the battles, much the same way they did back in 1995 and 2000.
They're just going about it in a much different manner this time around.
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