It’s Round One of the 2009-2010 Stanley Cup playoffs, and there is a feast for the hockey fan as old rivalries are renewed, new ones are forged, and we hockey fans can now have the fun that all those “March Madness” types had last month with all those first round games. The East has playoff rivalries of the “first time” (Caps/Canadiens) and rhyme (Pens/Sens), of I-95 (Devils/Flyers) and I-90 (Buffalo/Boston). So, let’s get to it…
New Jersey (2) vs. Philadelphia (7)
Game 1 (Oct 3/@NJD): Flyers 5 – Devils 2
Game 2 (Nov. 16/@PHL): Flyers 3 – Devils 2
Game 3 (Dec. 12/@NJD): Devils 4 – Flyers 1
Game 4 (Feb. 8/@PHL): Flyers 3 – Devils 2
Game 5 (Feb. 10/@NJD): Flyers 3 – Devils 2 (OT)
Game 6 (Mar. 28/@ PHL): Flyers 5 – Devils 1
Why the Devils will win. Team Automaton has been methodically preparing for this since the Olympic break. They finished 11-6-4 – not great, but consistent. They did not win more than two games in succession in that span, but they did it four times. It was a case of two steps forward, one step back. Do that often enough, and you end up with a very good record. Then there is the penalty killing. This strikes to the heart of the one ace-in-the-hole the Flyers bring into this series. The Flyers finished the year third in power play efficiency (21.4 percent), but the Devils killed off 45 of 50 shorthanded situations after the Olympic break (90.0 percent). More important is that number “50.” Allowing 2.4 power plays per game to the opposition is the very definition of not beating themselves. Then there is Marty. Mark Twain’s comment about death applies here, that reports of Martin Brodeur’s death as an elite goalie after the Olympics are greatly exaggerated. Since the break he is 11-5-3, 2.01, .921, with two shutouts. In other words, “Marty numbers.” It is the single biggest advantage in the series, considering the problems the Flyers have had in goal this season.
Why the Flyers will win. Look at the record; five wins in six games. And it was Marty that the Flyers torched for 19 goals in six games, and they drove him out after 40 minutes in their last meeting. Of all the teams he faced more than once this year, Brodeur has his second worst GAA (3.34) and his second worst save percentage (.878) against the Flyers. And it is not as if the Flyers have needed a potent power play to score those goals – they are 3-for-18 (16.7%) in the six games against the Devils’ penalty killers. Philly also comes into this game having already played what amount to two playoff games, the home-and-home with the Rangers in which they eked out a split to get the ticket to the dance. And for all the grief heaped upon the Flyers for their goaltending situation, Brian Boucher did not have a bad finish to the year as much as the guys in front of him sometimes let him down. After Michael Leighton went down to injury in mid-March, Boucher took over the reins and went 5-6-2, 2.62, .904. These are not elite numbers by any definition, but things could have been much, much worse.
Players to watch... For the Flyers, Jeff Carter. Over a ten-game span that straddled the Olympic break, Carter was hot enough to melt lead. Ten goals in ten games. But since then he has one goal and three points in his last eight contests. If Carter isn't getting pucks to the back of the net, the Flyers are going to have a bigger burden put on Mike Richards and Danny Briere, who could be suffocated by the Jersey defensive scheme. For the Devils, it is Ilya Kovalchuk. This is why he was brought to Jersey, to provide an offensive dimension -- especially in the playoffs -- that they have otherwise lacked. Kovalchuk had 10 goals in 27 games for he Devils. He seems to have been more of a decoy of late, picking up but a single goal in his last five games, but recording five assists. Still, he's there to light the lamp.
In the end... the Devils are the safe pick. They have Marty, they are playing Devils (read: “boringly efficient”) hockey. But they also have been bounced out in the first round in each of the past two years. In both instances, the Devils simply couldn’t score (15 goals in seven games last year against Carolina, 12 in five games against the Rangers the year before). Ominously, the Devils’ offense has beaten up on the bottom feeders late in the season (six goals against Columbus, seven against the Islanders), but they’ve struggled to score against stiffer opposition, including a 5-1 pasting at the hands of the Flyers just a couple of weeks ago. Ilya Kovalchuk is supposed to be the remedy to this springtime malady of offensive malnutrition. We'll see. This might not be the most entertaining series of the first round, but it might be the most competitive.
Who will win?... New Jersey in seven.