In the last decade, Philadelphia Flyers fans had gotten painfully used to living in the shadow of their division rivals, the New Jersey Devils. Not only did the Devils experience great success in the 2000s, beginning with a 3-1 series comeback against the Flyers in the 2000 Eastern Conference Finals, but the team has consistently dominated Philadelphia year in and year out until 2009-10.
Last season, Flyers fans witnessed rare success against the Devils, as the team went 5-1-0 in six regular season games, and eliminating the second-ranked Devils from the playoffs in just five games.
In any given season, the Devils are top contenders for the Atlantic division crown, meaning that the Flyers’ performance against New Jersey could have a dramatic effect on the outcome of the season for Philadelphia.
Strength vs. Strength
The most interesting matchup of the season series will be the performance of the Devils’ offense against the Flyers’ defense.
Both teams spent the majority of their offseasons focusing on these respective areas. New Jersey made it a priority to re-sign Russian superstar Ilya Kovalchuk, paying a nine-figure price to prevent the winger from returning to his home country to play in the Kontinental Hockey League.
Kovalchuk scored 41 goals and 85 points last season to lead the team, though only 27 of those points came as a member of the Devils. On a team that has historically focused on defense and goaltending to win championships, Kovi is a dangerous scoring threat whose defensive shortcomings won’t be too costly on such a strong defensive team.
The Devils also made it a point to bring back Jason Arnott, best remembered for scoring the overtime Cup-winning goal in Game Six of the 2000 Stanley Cup Finals for New Jersey. Arnott brings plenty of grit to the Devils’ scoring lines, but at age 35 the hard-nosed centerman is no longer the factor he once was.
Arnott and Kovalchuk will have difficulty finding shooting lanes and creating screens with in front of the Flyers’ big defensive corps. A starting six that already boasted two giants in Chris Pronger and Braydon Coburn and two excellent puck movers in Kimmo Timonen and Matt Carle now features greater depth with the additions of Andrej Meszaros, Sean O’Donnell and Matt Walker.
With seven capable defensemen prepared to fill six positions, the Flyers will have an easier time dealing with the Devils’ depth on offense. In the 2009-10 playoffs, the four players that make up the core of the defense kept Kovalchuk relatively quiet for most of the series.
Now, with added help on the blue line, the Flyers defense should find themselves fully capable of dealing with the Devils.
Cracking the Devils’ D
The Flyers will primarily rely on their offensive depth to score goals in 2010-11, and the season series against New Jersey will be no exception.
The Devils lost Paul Martin to the Pittsburgh Penguins over the summer, but added former Buffalo Sabre Henrik Tallinder and Ottawa’s wrecking ball Anton Volchenkov to their back line. Those two, combined with Colin White and Bryce Salvador make up a very capable set of top four defensemen.
The Flyers’ answer to these large-and-in-charge defenders will have to be their strong puck movers and shiftier players. Nikolai Zherdev and Claude Giroux have both shown great puck handling skills in preseason games, and these forwards will be key in catching Volchenkov and White flat-footed and getting around the Devils’ defense.
The Flyers will also find themselves capable of exploiting defensive matchups in home games, cycling any of their top three lines against New Jersey’s weaker fifth and sixth defenders to get shots on Martin Brodeur.
The Great Rift: Goaltending
The greatest difference between these two teams is their goaltending situation.
The first matchup between the Flyers and Devils does not occur until November 27, giving Flyers’ starting goalie Michael Leighton almost two months to find himself healthy for this division matchup.
Even if Leighton is indeed ready for this game, there is no competing head-to-head against Martin Brodeur. The Devils netminder is still at the top of his game and breaking records left and right.
Leighton, on the other hand, is still a major question mark for the Flyers in net.
For the Flyers, the only way to cope with this rift in goaltending talent will be to play at a higher level on both offense and defense. If Martin Brodeur is facing a higher number of quality shots than Michael Leighton, then the Flyers have the advantage.
Pronger, Timonen, Coburn, Carle, Meszaros, and Walker will be tasked with blocking shots and taking away passing lanes, something that the Flyers defensemen and forwards did plenty of in the playoffs last year. Expect to see the same tenacity from this year’s team, forcing the Devils to shoot from the point and from the end boards.
The Flyers’ defensive skill will allow their netminder to face only shots he is expected to save, and this will allow the team to beat Martin Brodeur and the Devils.
The Devils will be a strong opponent for the Flyers, but the Orange and Black appear to have Jersey’s number. The defense is capable of competing with all three of the Devils’ scoring lines, and the Flyers’ forwards will throw more at the bigger, slower Devils’ defense than the team can handle.
Fans can expect close, low scoring games and plenty of gritty third periods and overtimes. The Flyers come away with the season series this year, 4-1-1.