Tight-checking teams like the New Jersey Devils gave the Flyers fits all season.
Kimmo Timonen clearly articulated that summation in the aftermath of the Flyers’ Eastern Conference Semifinals loss to the Devils Tuesday at the Wells Fargo Center. Yet, the reason for their struggles remained something of a mystery to the veteran defenseman.
“I don’t know,” Timonen said flatly.
The Devils stymied the Flyers with yet another strong defensive effort in Game 5, winning, 3-1, and clinching the series, four games to one. Unlike some earlier games in the series, the Flyers battled throughout the entire contest, but still skated off with a fourth straight defeat.
“They played their system to the maximum,” Timonen said. “There wasn’t any breakdowns. There wasn’t any easy goals going in. We had to work on every puck and every battle. They really did a great job.
“They play like the (New York) Rangers. There’s something to it. We didn’t beat the Rangers this year at all. We got to find a way to beat those guys (and) the way they play.”
The Flyers had difficulty establishing a forecheck all series and wallowed through lengthy stretches without any quality scoring chances. The power play unit that was so potent against the Pittsburgh Penguins virtually disappeared, scoring just three times on 19 opportunities. Goalie Ilya Bryzgalov mostly was solid, but a mishap in Game 5 turned into the deciding goal.
Jaromir Jagr said the series ultimately boiled down to play along the boards.
“I don’t think they lost any battles on the boards,” Jagr said. “That was the biggest difference. I hate to say it and I hate that feeling, but they were very strong on the boards. It surprised me. They played pretty close to each other. If somebody made a mistake there was always a second guy but they were strong on the boards.”
The Flyers had a week-long layoff after dispatching the Penguins in an emotional first round series. Several Flyers said the delay did not factor into their loss to New Jersey, insisting the Devils’ stingy style of play did them in.
Coach Peter Laviolette said he was disappointed the Flyers didn’t play a “better brand of our hockey” in Games 2 and 4. In the other three games, including two that went to overtime, Laviolette said his team was trying to play to its capabilities, but New Jersey simply prevented that with its forechecking and defense.
“You’ve got to give the Devils credit for the way they played,” Laviolette said. “They played a very good brand of hockey at both ends of the ice. We just weren’t able to get on track with what we wanted to do.”
The series was never as thrilling as the Flyers’ opening round matchup with the Penguins.
That series featured frequent odd-man rushes, tons of scoring, undisciplined play and shaky goaltending. The comeback wins were inspiring and the post-whistle scrums theatrical, but that’s not a sustainable playoff recipe.
Still, the Flyers used it to eliminate the team many favored to win the Stanley Cup. They did so with a gaggle of upstart rookies and a dazzling performance by Claude Giroux, who tallied an astounding 14 points on six goals and eight assists in the series.
“It doesn’t matter who we knocked off,” said Giroux, who fell back to earth against the Devils. “You’ve got to be ready for the next series. I think we were thinking we were going to walk over New Jersey. I guess we have to learn from it.
“They played a good series. At the same time, we know we’re a better team than that. That’s what’s frustrating.”
Giroux, whom the Flyers rely upon in every on-ice situation, was not there to help the Flyers in Game 5. Their star helplessly watched the game while serving a suspension for delivering a hit to Dainius Zubrus’ head during Game 4.
“He’s our best player and he was all year long,” Jagr said. “In the playoffs he was totally dominating the game. It’s a big loss. Obviously, we don’t know what would have happened if he’d played, but we’d have a better chance with him.”
There might not be a better proof of that than the opening minute of Game 6 of the Flyers’ first round series. Giroux levied a big hit on Penguins star Sidney Crosby just seconds after the puck dropped and then put the Flyers up, 1-0, with a goal on the same shift. The goal sent the message that the Flyers had no interest in playing a possible Game 7 in Pittsburgh.
Of course, it was the only tone-setting goal of the Flyers’ entire postseason. In a statistical anomaly, the Flyers won the four postseason games in which they surrendered the first goal, but only captured one of the five games in which they scored first.
The Devils overcame deficits to win each of the final four games of the series, including a 2-0 hole in Game 4. Maxime Talbot put the Flyers up, 1-0, in Game 5, but the Devils answered less than two minutes later.
“They were just coming,” Jagr said of the Devils’ attack. “They were coming and coming and coming.”
Now, the Flyers are heading to their respective homes. That was especially tough for the 40-year-old Jagr, who played in his first Stanley Cup playoffs since 2008.
“I loved everybody on this team,” Jagr said. “It was probably my most enjoyable year I ever had. I won some Cups and I won some trophies, but I loved this year. From the organization to the last player on the team and the fans - they were so nice to me.
“I hate to finish it right now. That’s the worse feeling – you finish the whole story, the whole year. It’s a sad day today for me. I want to cry right now.”
Even Laviolette, who according to his players is quite the motivational speaker, didn’t know what to say to his players afterward.
“Seeing the players after the loss when the season ends, it’s one of those speeches that you never seem to master,” he said. “I can tell you that the group in that room right now is a terrific group of men. They played hard and they gave a lot, but we came up short.
It’s a bright future and we’re looking forward to that, but tonight was disappointing.”