NHL Playoffs 2012: 7 Reasons the Flyers Are Now the Stanley Cup Favorites
30 teams took aim at the Stanley Cup when the NHL season started. 16 earned the right to compete in the playoffs, and now we are down to eight.
Each team battled in the first round of the postseason. The Philadelphia Flyers made one of the strongest statements of any competitor by eliminating their intrastate rival Pittsburgh Penguins with a dramatic offensive showing.
Now, the Flyers have gone from a team that most critics picked against in the first round to one of the apparent favorites to capture the Cup. Why have the Flyers suddenly become serious contenders?
Here are seven reasons to believe this group has it all this spring.
They Beat the Favorites
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Many hockey analysts picked the Pittsburgh Penguins to win the Cup. The consensus was not dismissive of, nor disrespectful to, the Flyers; instead, it was an endorsement of Pittsburgh’s well-balanced and dangerous team.
The Flyers made them look like amateurs.
The series’ 4-2 result is not entirely indicative of the incredible methods the Flyers used to knock off Pittsburgh. The orange and black did not simply defeat the Penguins, they used resilience, domination, firepower and eventually, shut-down defense to leave the Pens scratching their heads.
And when you beat the team that is favored to win the Cup, you deserve a little recognition from the analysts who wrote you off.
Mr. Playoffs: Danny Briere
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Anytime a Philadelphian begins to complain about Danny Briere’s regular season performance, it inevitably invokes the reaction “that’s not why we got him.”
Briere only managed to total 49 points in 70 games this season, the lowest he has accumulated in a season where he played that many games. But you won’t hear many Flyers fans complaining about that now.
Briere is tied with teammate Claude Giroux for the postseason lead in goals with seven, two more than any active player in the playoffs. He is also second in points with ten. These numbers will only improve with the addition of James van Riemsdyk to his line.
No. 48 has better than a point-per-game pace in his postseason career. He certainly has a way of earning his keep when it counts.
The Flyers Are Getting Healthier
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The playoffs take a bigger and bigger toll on players as games go on. The Flyers managed to start the playoffs with a number of injury concerns, and suddenly the group is getting healthier.
James van Riemsdyk, who had been sitting out since early March with a broken foot, returned to the lineup late in the first round. He made a major impact in Philadelphia’s first game against New Jersey, scoring a go-ahead goal in the second period. He also helped manufacture Danny Briere’s overtime winner through his presence around the crease.
Injury concerns surrounding surprising defensive contributor Nicklas Grossmann have subsided, and blue-line scoring threat Andrej Meszaros may return to the lineup soon.
With the team is finding itself with more and more lineup options every night, it seems that the Flyers are experiencing the playoffs in reverse: this team is only getting stronger.
Major Competitors Have Been Eliminated
No team has ever won the Cup without a little bit of luck, and the Flyers may have gotten theirs in the first round.
Last season, the Boston Bruins eliminated the Flyers in four games in the second round of the playoffs. Philly would have faced a similar semifinals challenge this year had the surprising Washington Capitals not knocked off the Bruins in overtime of Game 7.
That’s not to say that the seven remaining opponents don’t present challenges, but the Flyers will feel more confident against teams like New Jersey, Phoenix and Nashville than more experienced playoff competitors.
Sean Couturier Can Play with the Best
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The Philadelphia Flyers drafted Sean Couturier as a steal at No. 8 during the 2011 NHL entry draft, and the move has already paid major dividends.
The 19 year-old held the league’s likely-MVP, Evgeni Malkin, without a goal in the first three games of the Flyers-Pens series while adding three of his own in Game 2. Now, Couturier is matched up with Devils’ phenom Ilya Kovalchuk, who was held without a shot in the first game of the Devils-Flyers series.
Couturier’s value is the high point of Philadelphia’s depth. The Flyers have the luxury of matching their fourth line against their opponent’s first, which opens up ice for Philadelphia’s three scoring lines. If coach Peter Laviolette could not trust Couturier to shut down opposing superstars, the Flyers would need to play a very different matchup game.
He may only be 19 years old, but if Sean Couturier gets his name on the Cup, he will certainly have earned it.
The Rangers Are Not Playing Their Best Hockey
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The New York Rangers have been the Flyers’ Achilles’ Heel this season. The Rangers won all six matchups against Philly during this season, prompting chants of “You can’t beat us” from the Madison Square Garden faithful.
Of course, the regular season means little now, and the Flyers appear to have the advantage should the teams meet head-to-head.
Philadelphia convincingly defeated the Stanley Cup favorite Pittsburgh Penguins in six games while the Rangers needed every minute of all seven games to avoid elimination at the hands of the lowly Ottawa Senators, the last-ranked playoff team in the league. Now, the Rangers find themselves tied 1-1 with the Washington Capitals, having lost home-ice advantage as the teams head to the nation’s capital.
Should Philadelphia and New York face each other in the Eastern Conference Finals, the series will be very different from the regular season. The Rangers will need to pull out all the stops to keep pace with a red-hot Flyers team.
Claude Giroux Cannot Be Stopped
Earlier this week, Claude Giroux and the rest of the league found out the this year’s Hart Memorial Trophy nominees would not include Philadelphia’s leading scorer.
Perhaps the Hart just got a little jealous that Claude is flirting with the Conn Smythe Trophy instead.
Giroux leads all scorers in the playoffs with 15 points, five more than anyone else in the league. He has been a force everywhere on the ice, whether killing penalties, playing the forecheck or setting up scoring chances.
And for a set-up guy, seven goals aren’t too shabby, either.
With the possible exception of LA’s Jonathan Quick, Giroux has proven himself to be the most dangerous playoff performer in the entire league. An opponent that can figure out how to cool off Giroux will give themselves a fighting chance; an opponent who cannot might as well start picking tee-times.