The New Jersey Devils will square off against their division-rivals the Philadelphia Flyers in the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs beginning on Wednesday night at Prudential Center. The two teams have met three prior times in the postseason: New Jersey beat Philadelphia in the 1995 (six games) and 2000 Eastern Conference Finals (seven games) and the Flyers bested the Devils in five games in 2004’s opening round.
This past season, Philly dominated the Devils during the six-game season series with a 5-1 edge (outscoring them 20-13), but struggled to make the postseason — qualifying on the season’s final day. “For us it means nothing, for them it means everything; that’s the way you look at those things,” said New Jersey captain Jamie Langenbrunner of the one-sided season series. “They obviously had our number during the regular season, they did things that took us off our game — we’re going to have to address that, we’re going to have to understand the way they play and play accordingly.
Offense: Both teams are filled with goal-scorers who can get hot and carry their teams to a series win. New Jersey’s top two lines will contain any combination of Zach Parise, Travis Zajac, Langenbrunner, Patrik Elias, Ilya Kovalchuk and Dainius Zubrus, while Philadelphia will roll out the likes of Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Danny Briere, Scott Hartnell, Simon Gagne and Claude Giroux. Both teams also have valuable grinders who could turn out to be the unsung heroes in this series – look for David Clarkson (Devils) and Ian Laperierre (Flyers) to both have an impact at some point during the series.
Edge: Even. As I stated, both teams have some serious firepower when clicking on all cylinders so it will be interesting to see which team (if any) struggles to find their goal scoring touch.
Defense: The Devils have played with a so-called ‘no-name’ defense corps since Brian Rafalski departed for Detroit, but this season they allowed the fewest goals in the entire NHL (191) and they did while their best defenseman (Paul Martin) missed 59 games. The Flyers have a collection of nasty blueliners (Chris Pronger, Braydon Coburn) and talented (Kimmo Timonen, Matt Carle) that are all tough to play against. “It’s going to be tough, it doesn’t matter who you play; it’s going to be a tough series,” said Clarkson after learning his Devils would tangle with the Flyers. “A team like that, you know you’re going into war and that’s what we’re going to do in here. We’re going to play team hockey, play great defensively and give everything we have every night.”
The biggest questions facing each squad will be what kind of impact will Andy Greene and Martin Skoula have for New Jersey and will Pronger be able to stay out of the penalty box for the Flyers.
Edge: Philly. Even if the Devils survive this round, chances are that Parise, Kovalchuk and Elias may be worn down from having to deal with Pronger for possibly seven games.
Goaltending: Martin Brodeur and Brian Boucher last met in the playoffs in 2000 when the Devils rallied from a 3-1 series deficit to beat Boucher and the Flyers at Philadelphia in Game 7. Since then Brodeur has appeared in 92 playoff contests and Boucher has only been in four. Brodeur comes into the series maybe as hot as he’s ever been to close a regular season — surrendering only seven goals over seven games, including back-to-back shutouts. Boucher (4-6-1 in last eleven starts) is basically the only goalie left standing in Philly’s crease after injuries to Ray Emery and Michael Leighton, so if he goes down the Flyers will be in deep trouble.
Edge: New Jersey. Brodeur is hot and Boucher, despite winning two of the final three games, is not.
Intangibles: The Flyers come into the series with the NHL’s third best power play (21.5%) and their penalty killers ranked 11th (83.0%). The Devils finished 11th on the PP (18.7%) and the least-penalized team in the league finished 13th on the PK (82.8%). Both coaches — Jacques Lemaire (1995 with NJ) and Peter Laviolette (2006 with Carolina) — have won a Stanley Cup, so they both know what it is going to take to guide their teams to the where they want to be. New Jersey has more experience as far as rings go, but Philadelphia has had more recent success during the postseason.
Edge: Even. The specialty teams will be a wash, but if the Flyers take reckless penalties (as they are known to do) the Devils will have to capitalize to take control of the series.
Prediction: New Jersey in 6. This will be a hard-hitting, nasty series that will leave many players on both sides battered and bruised. “It’s going to be very intense games. I know it’s a big rivalry and the rivalry is going to continue,” said Kovalchuk. I believe Brodeur will steal a game (for the first time since ‘03) in Philly and avoid sending the series back to the Rock for a Game 7.
Dan Rice covers the New Jersey Devils & NHL for NYCSportsnetwork.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.