Are The Philadelphia Flyers Favorites Again?
The Flyers started this season with higher expectations than most, having won the offseason in many analysts' minds with the additions of bruising defenseman Chris Pronger and goaltender Ray Emery.
Then the season started and Philadelphia began underperforming almost immediately out of the gate.
For long stretches of the season there were questions aplenty as to whether or not the Flyers would miss the playoffs entirely. There was speculation of fighting in the locker room and there was obviously tension between the Flyers' players and the Philly sports media.
The pressure came to a head when team captain Mike Richards refused to talk to reporters after several games following some unflattering press in the wake of the offseason trade of Joffrey Lupul that brought Pronger to town.
To make matters worse, Emery went down for the season, needing surgery to repair his right hip. Backup goaltender Michael Leighton came on strong for Philly in Emery's absence, until he too went down with a severe ankle injury.
Still carrying the weight of offseason expectations, the Flyers limped their way into the end of the regular season. In a four-horse race for the final three seeds in the Eastern Conference playoffs they fought for the spot against the injury-depleted Boston Bruins, the underwhelming New York Rangers, and the Montreal Canadiens.
Philadelphia clinched the seventh seed by managing to out-care the Rangers in a shootout duel at the Wachovia Center. With the seventh seed the Flyers drew regional rival New Jersey, who, with the addition of winger Ilya Kovalchuk from Atlanta, had been a lock for the second seed for much of the season and boasted several players who had strong showings during the Olympics.
Given the intense rivalry between the teams, many experts and bloggers gave Philly a strong shot to push the Devils to seven, but not a very realistic shot to survive the first round.
Instead, it seems that something happened in that regular season finale to awaken the Flyers.
The rest of the league should watch out.
There has never been any doubt that the Flyers have the talent to compete for the cup, though admittedly they took something of a hit with the loss of top-line center Jeff Carter and winger Simon Gagne.
There have been questions about the Flyers' goaltending since Emery and Leighton went down, but those have been answered, temporarily at least, by the stellar play of back-up Brian Boucher.
It appears that the shootout against the Rangers woke up not only the team, but also Boucher, who has been lights-out thus far in the playoffs.
While it's true that the Devils are not known for their offensive prowess, nor have they really earned the right to complain about that, "Boosh" has been equal to almost every challenge that has come his way in this year's playoffs.
While his 134 shots against make him less-tested than any goalie who has started five plus games in the playoffs besides New Jersey's Martin Brodeur and Vancouver's Roberto Luongo, he leads the league this postseason in both goals against average (1.59) and save percentage (.940).
Additionally, Leighton is back skating with the team and could be ready to go as Boucher's backup as early as the next round.
Boucher's GAA, though, may speak more highly of Philadelphia's talented defensive corps, who have played the strong, physical style of hockey that many expected of the Flyers throughout the entire season.
Only two Flyers defensemen, Oskars Bartulis and Ryan Parent, carry a negative +/- rating into the second round. However, those two, along with Lukas Krajicek, are also the only Flyers defensemen to skate less than 20 minutes per game in the first round.
The other blue-liners, lead by Stanley Cup-winner Chris Pronger have combined for a plus-six rating and 10 points in the first round and look to be playing as well as they have all season heading into the second round.
The biggest questions for the Flyers going forward will likely be how they make up for the scoring lost to the injuries of Carter and Gagne.
The loss of Carter is certainly a big one, as the center had come on strong when the team got settled into the playoffs after coming off a prior injury at the end of the season.
He and Gagne are both leading men in ice time amongst the Philly forwards, but only Carter has really made a substantial contribution. Gagne has gone the route of San Jose's Joe Thornton so far this postseason, contributing only two assists while skating just over 18 minutes per contest—compared with Thornton's three points with 20 minutes for the Sharks.
The two have been virtually non-existent for their teams, though at least Gagne had a plus-one rating in the first round, compared with Thornton's minus-four.
One of the stories for the Flyers up front has been the reemergence of a lot of the same guys who led Philly's surprising charge through the playoffs last season: Danny Briere, Claude Giroux, and Richards. Those three have produced, as usual, potting eight goals and 11 assists between them.
But perhaps the bigger story has been the Flyers' role players and grinders stepping up. Danny Carcillo has emerged as more than just a postseason pest and enforcer and has been a full-blown force for Philly, netting two goals (including a game-winner) and an assist while skating to Philly's best +/- rating among forwards at a plus-four.
The Flyers have also gotten the contributions of grit that are somewhat expected when you don the orange and black. Perhaps none has been as noteworthy as Ian Laperriere's use of his face to stop a Paul Martin slap shot on a third period penalty kill.
Laperriere ended up leaving the game to get 60-70 stitches in his face, but the team announced that despite the stitches and fractured orbital bone in Laperriere's face, he'll suit up (likely with a full cage/visor combo) and play every shift for the Flyers going forward.
Philly's got momentum, they're focused, they're scoring, and they're playing solid hockey in their own zone. While the other top seeds in the NHL's Eastern Conference have struggled thus far in putting away teams that are widely considered inferior, the Flyers disposed of a supposedly superior team in quick and eye-opening fashion.
Watch out NHL: There's still time for the Flyers to make good on preseason predictions of postseason glory.
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