Most observers agree the first round of the Western Conference sets up to be a lot more compelling, with more potential for upsets, than the Eastern Conference. But the one exception to that rule in the East is the series pitting the New Jersey Devils against the Philadelphia Flyers, which begins Wednesday night in Newark, N.J.
The Flyers were a colossal disappointment this season and after finishing 15 points behind the Devils, should set up as first round fodder. But the Flyers enter the series knowing they owned the Devils this season, beating Martin Brodeur five of six times and outscoring the Devils 20-13 in the process.
Given the fact the Flyers underachieved so badly and have a veteran presence that can rise to the occasion, perhaps teams should be a little wary of meeting them in the post-season. After all, given the Flyers’ talent, they probably should have been able to hang with the best teams in the East this season.
“We have a really good hockey team,” said Flyers coach Peter Laviolette. “When I won the Cup with Carolina (in 2006), Edmonton came into the playoffs as the 14th seed. Was anybody worried about them? People were probably a lot more worried about Detroit and San Jose at the time and the Oilers ended up making it to the final. Once you get in, anything can happen.”
The fact the Flyers needed a shootout win in their final game of the season just to get into the playoffs and the fact they faltered badly down the stretch, losing nine of 11 and five in a row at one point during March, should have shaken their confidence. But historically, as difficult as it is to believe, a team’s play down the stretch isn’t the playoff bellwether many believe it to be. Although conventional wisdom suggests a team can’t “turn it on” once the playoffs begin, there is ample historical evidence to suggest upsets are commonplace once the playoffs begin.
The fact the Flyers stumbled, or that they won three of their final four games to grab the seventh spot in the East, probably won’t have as much bearing on how they do in the series as how well prepared they are for the Devils. And the Devils certainly have a few playoff skeletons of their own to overcome.
“There’s nights that we play like the top two or three teams in the conference,” said Daniel Briere, “and then there’s nights that we play like we’re one of the bottom teams.”
So, the key for the Flyers is to play more like the former than the latter and if they’re going to do that, at least they go into the series with the confidence they’ve done it five of six times this season against the team they’re facing in the first round of the playoffs.
Of the last four games the teams played against each other this season, the Flyers won three of them. Two of the wins were picked up by Michael Leighton and one by Brian Boucher. Defenseman Chris Pronger was particularly effective against the Devils this season, picking up seven assists in six games, while Claude Giroux had a goal and five assists. Jeff Carter led the way in goals with three.
BEHIND THE UNDER-18 BALL
Canada certainly put itself in a hole in the World Under-18 Championship by losing 3-1 to Switzerland Tuesday. With Sweden and a powerful USA team, along with Switzerland and Belarus, in its group, Canada has some work to do in order to finish in the top three and move into the playoff round.
Some scouts are wondering why Hockey Canada insisted on choosing the team so early. If it had waited until the second round of the Ontario League playoffs were over, it could have had a first line of John McFarland of the Sudbury Wolves with Tyler Toffoli of the Ottawa 67’s and Tyler Seguin of the Plymouth Whalers, that was lights-out for Canada in last summer’s Ivan Hlinka under-18 tournament.
This year, the playoffs in the OHL started earlier and the under-18 tournament started later, so if Hockey Canada had left a few spots open, it could have had some prime talent in the lineup in time for the first game.
Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appear Wednesdays and Fridays and his column, Campbell’s Cuts, appears Mondays.
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