The New Jersey Devils stumbled a bit in the first round, when they fell down 3-2 in the series against the league's weakest division leader, the Florida Panthers. They won back-to-back games in overtime and double overtime to win the series, but not too many people expected them to stand a chance in the second round should they face an elite team.
Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Flyers beat the Pittsburgh Penguins in one of the most offensively-loaded series ever. Among the series' highlights were back-to-back eight-goal games by the Flyers, followed by a 10-goal showing by the Penguins.
The series was especially surprising since the Penguins were considered to be among the favorites to win the Cup.
All of that added up to a lot of speculation that the Flyers were now the team to beat. In fact, looking at a list of playoff picks by "experts" on ESPN from before the second round, none of the 12 analysts picked the Devils to advance.*
So the fact that the Devils were able to come out of their series against the Flyers alive was somewhat shocking. Even more shocking, they did it in five games. After losing Game 1 in overtime, Philadelphia and the Devils scraped together four straight wins.
The sudden emergence of dominating play from the Devils, game after game, caught many off guard. A team that managed 30 goals in its first six games managed 11 in five against the Devils.
The turnaround in play was so surprising that it begs the question: did the Devils win this series, or did the Flyers lose it?
Let me clarify that question: the Devils played a great series, and the Flyers played a very good series. The Devils' overwhelming forecheck seemed to leave the Flyers without a plan of action, and eventually New Jersey just overpowered them.
However, the Devils' defensive play was unusually dominant, and the Flyers' explosive offense seemed muted.
Perhaps it's impossible to say for sure—and to some extent both are true—but in most series, it's either a case of Team A beating Team B, or Team B playing badly enough that they never give themselves a chance against Team A.
And that's what we're left wondering.
The Flyers didn't play poorly, after all. Though it was just a five-game series, it was close nonetheless, featuring two overtime games, Game 5's two-goal difference, and then another two-goal game and a three-goal game that each featured empty-netters.
But even if the Flyers weren't playing at zero percent, that doesn't mean they were at 100 either. The most notable difference between the first two rounds for the Flyers is the play of Claude Giroux.
Through the first round, he led the league with 14 points in six games. In the first four games against the Devils, he managed but three points, and eventually his aggravation led to borderline play which led to suspension for the final game.
Giroux's drop-off was far from the only troubling statistic for the Flyers:
- The Flyers scored first in all for of their losses. They finished with a win percentage of .143 when scoring first, .500 when leading after one period and just .667 when leading after two.
- Despite leading the league with 17 first-period goals, the Flyers actually had a negative goal differential due to the 20 goals Ilya Bryzgalov allowed in the first period.
- In May, Bryzgalov posted a .905 save percentage and 3.08 GAA. These were both severe improvements over his April numbers of .873 and 3.71. In April, Bryz went 0-4.
- Speaking of troubling Bryz stats, when his team is killing penalties, the Flyers' goalie has stopped 55 of 66 shots (.833 save percentage). This helped the Flyers to the third worst PK in the playoffs at 72.3 percent.
- The Flyers have the second most giveaways in the playoffs, with 100 (the Devils are fourth with 79). In their final two games against the Devils, they registered 32 of those giveaways.
With all of that, it's not hard to see how the Devils won. But is it fair to say that the Flyers played themselves out of the playoffs?
The Devils played an extremely aggressive game, constantly forechecking whenever possible. Many of those giveaways were forced, and the Devils also are currently fifth in takeaways. They undoubtedly put on a lot of pressure.
So here's the question
Did the Devils look great on defense because the Flyers blew it, or did the Devils simply outwork and outplay the Flyers through perseverance?
On the one hand, the Flyers certainly had some self-destructive tendencies, and certain plays—the series-deciding goal for one—were all about a failure by the Flyers. And while the Devils were able to contain the Flyers' offense, the forwards did not seem nearly as deadly as they did in the first round (with the exception of Danny Briere).
On the other hand, the Devils played a stronger game than many thought them capable of. They received production from every player on their roster and solidified all the weak spots that emerged in their first series.
In my opinion, while it's definitely a combination of factors, the Devils won this series. Their rigid defense immediately put the Flyers off their game. Once that happened, it was just a matter of slowly forcing a collapse.
However, I do not think the Flyers were playing at the top level they were capable of. There's no question they were outplayed, but they weren't playing with the same intensity that they had against the Penguins, nor did they show the same explosive skill.
That's what I think; what about you? Leave your thoughts or comments on why this series turned out the way it did below.
*Admittedly, the analysts seemed particularly inept at picking winners. 12 of 12 picked the Flyers, 11 of 12 picked the Predators and eight of 12 picked the Blues. In the remaining series, nine of them picked the Rangers, so at least they have a shot of getting one right.