Call it a 2010 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic rematch without the "Green Monster," which is currently occupied by other things.
Conventional wisdom said neither the seventh-seeded Flyers and sixth-seeded Bruins would see the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
So much for conventional wisdom.
The Flyers easily eliminated the New Jersey Devils, while the Bruins dispatched the Buffalo Sabres in six games.
What stands out in this Eastern Conference Semifinal is who will be in and out of the lineup. The Flyers are missing three important forwards -- Jeff Carter, Simon Gagne and Ian Laperriere
-- while the Bruins are welcoming their top offensive player, Marc Savard, back into the lineup after a severe concussion. Those are significant changes for both teams and will go a long way in determining who will advance to the Eastern Conference finals.
The big news for the Bruins is the return of Savard from a Grade 2 concussion suffered in early March. He has been given medical clearance to play, but no one knows how much rust he will have to clean off his game. However, having Savard, who had 10 goals and 23 assists in 41 games, sure beats not having him.
The ageless Mark Recchi, 42, and David Krejci led the Bruins against the Sabres in the first round, with each totaling 3 goals and 2 assists in six games. Patrice Bergeron and Miroslav Satan each had 2 goals and 3 assists against Buffalo as the Bruins did a nice job getting scoring from multiple places. Aside from Michael Ryder's 2 goals and 1 assist, no other Bruins forward had a goal against the Sabres. But that's not unusual as the Bruins scored just 206 goals during the regular season, the fewest of the eight Eastern Conference playoff teams.
It wasn't so much the Flyers dominated the Devils offensively in the opening round of the playoffs, outscoring them 15-9 in five games, as it was just playing smart with the puck when they had possession. When the front men chipped the puck into the offensive zone, rarely did they relinquish their space in their pursuit. And, most importantly, players didn't turn the puck over. Boston thrives on quick transition off turnovers, so expect the system-oriented Flyers to pay strict attention to puck possession in all three zones. The team yielded a League-low 23 turnovers in their first round against New Jersey.
The Flyers will continue to need a balanced attack in the continued absence of Gagne and Carter. There has been talk of Gagne returning to the lineup as early as Game 3, but after having two screws surgically implanted in his right big toe just last Friday, that scenario is unlikely. Carter, who had a plate inserted into his right foot, is doubtful the remainder of the playoffs.
All discussion of the Bruins' back line begins with Zdeno Chara, who played nearly 29 minutes per game against the Sabres and had 2 goals and an assist. Dennis Wideman had a goal and 3 assists to turn regular-season jeers into postseason cheers, and Matt Hunwick improved on a minus-16 regular-season mark to play 23:37 per game and contribute 4 assists.
|Dan Carcillo of the Philadelphia Flyers, just before knocking down Boston's Shawn Thornton in the first period of the 2010 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic at Fenway Park on January 1, 2010 in Boston Massachusetts. (Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images) |
Rookie Johnny Boychuk trailed only Chara in playoff ice time among Bruins defensemen at 25:51 per game, and had a goal and 2 assists. Andrew Ference and Adam McQuaid were the third pairing on Boston's defense.
In Chris Pronger
, Kimmo Timonen
, Braydon Coburn
and Matt Carle
, the Flyers might have the strongest top-four still playing. They have combined for 2 goals, 10 points and a plus-6 rating, with the veteran Pronger leading the way with 5 points. He's also averaging a League-leading 29:03 of ice time per game.
The Flyers have allowed 27.0 shots a game -- the second-lowest total among teams still playing. The club rarely yielded second or third opportunities against the Devils and that proved vital in finishing with a League-low 1.80 goals-against through the first round. They also blocked 85 shots.
What else can be said of Tuukka Rask? He was sensational against the Sabres, allowing only 14 goals in six games and finishing his first playoff series with a 2.18 goals-against average and .927 save percentage. But all of this is just more of the same from Rask, who took over as the Bruins' top goalie during the regular season, going 22-12-5 with a 1.97 GAA, .931 save percentage and five shutouts.
Brian Boucher owns the lowest goals-against average (1.59) and highest save percentage (.940) of any goalie in the playoffs so far. He's allowed just eight goals on 134 shots and hasn't allowed an even-strength goal in 187:39, or nine-plus periods. He's done a splendid job in denying second and third attempts, covering up and forcing a face-off whenever possible.
Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli was effusive in his praise of coach Claude Julien after the Bruins defeated the favored Sabres.
"When it came to crunch time I thought he changed his approach, which I think is a huge testament to the coach and his staff, to be able to feel the changes that have to be done and to actually make those changes," Chiarelli said of Julien. "There are always little technical changes you can do and I really felt that he changed his approach, which I think was very helpful. ... I have to hand it to them -- they did a good job."
Peter Laviolette's up-tempo, aggressive style is making believers out of the Flyers. Philadelphia plays one way -- attack. It makes no difference whether it's the opening five minutes of a game or overtime, the Flyers prefer to have their opponent adjust to them, not vice-versa.
"Pete wants us to be on the go all the time," Danny Briere
said. "I think, mentally, it was an adjustment to just get on the same page he was of on, of having us go on the forecheck all the time."
The Bruins finished 23rd with the man-advantage during the regular season, connecting at just 16.8 percent. Against the Sabres -- who were second in the regular-season killing penalties -- the Bruins connected six times on 23 chances, good for fourth in the playoffs at 27.3 percent. Five of their final eight goals in the series came on the power play, including the winning goal in Game 4.
The Bruins also were perfect killing penalties against the Sabres, killing all 19 Buffalo power plays.
Philadelphia was among the top five in power-play and penalty-killing this postseason -- hitting at 27.6-percent efficiency (8-for-29) with the man-advantage, while working at 87.5-percent efficiency (28-of-32) while shorthanded. The team would no doubt like to see fewer penalties taken in their second-round meeting, as it could come back to haunt them. The loss of ace penalty killer Ian Laperriere
hurts, but look for Laviolette to rely on Blair Betts
, Darroll Powe, Claude Giroux
and Scott Hartnell
to pick up the slack.Tuukka Rask, Bruins --
Scoring goals has been a problem for the Bruins all season, and even with the return of Marc Savard, Boston can't be assured of becoming an offensive machine at this point. So the onus for Bruins success will rest on Rask's shoulders. He's played like a veteran this season and handled his first Stanley Cup experience with aplomb.
Danny Briere, Flyers --
He seemed to raise his game in the final two contests against the Devils, and Philadelphia steamrolled its opponent both times. Briere notched a pair of game-winners and 3 assists in five-games. He was centering a line with Hartnell and Ville Leino in Game 5 against New Jersey, and there's a strong possibility that line will remain intact.The Bruins will win if --
They can score some goals and give Rask and the defense some breathing room. Boston's game has little room for error because of the lack of scoring, so every goal, especially every goal that provides a lead, will be vital in taking the heat off Rask and the defensemen.
The Flyers will win if --
The Pronger-Carle and Timonen-Coburn defense pairs continue to fluster opposing forwards, while goalie Brian Boucher maintains his consistency in big spots -- something the Flyers have lacked in playoffs past. The forwards just need to continue their smart play with and without the puck, while remaining gritty and energetic.