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Contrast in fortunes in Flyers-Sabres showdown

by Staff

This Eastern Conference Quarterfinal is a tale of teams heading in different directions.

The Buffalo Sabres, who squeaked into the Stanley Cup Playoffs on the penultimate day of the regular season and occupy the No. 7 seed are red hot, going 16-4-4 in their final 24 games -- including two wins against the Flyers in the past five weeks.

But, Buffalo is not the only team that has handled the Philadelphia flyers in the past five weeks. Despite being the Atlantic Division champions and the No. 2 seed, Philadelphia has gone just 7-7-6 in its past 20 games.

Another difference between the two teams revolves around goaltending.

Philadelphia is rolling the dice by going with rookie Sergei Bobrovsky to start the postseason. The Russian rookie has never played a minute of Stanley Cup Playoff hockey. Miller, meanwhile, is one of the best big-game goalies in hockey today.

The teams split their four-game season series, 2-2.

No team in the League can roll out the kind of depth up front Philadelphia can. The Flyers have eight forwards with at least 19 goals and eight with at least 40 points.

It's tough to pick a top line, but we'll go with the trio of Claude Giroux centering Jeff Carter and Nikolay Zherdev. Giroux, in just his second full NHL season, earned his first All-Star appearance and led the team with 76 points, while Carter's team-best 36 goals are among the League’s Top 10.

The trio of Danny Briere, Scott Hartnell and Ville Leino was a driving force in the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and has kept going this season.

A third line of Mike Richards between Kris Versteeg and James van Riemsdyk also is capable of controlling play.

The fourth line -- likely Blair Betts centering Darroll Powe and either Andreas Nodl or Daniel Carcillo, supplies a good helping of energy, toughness, speed and checking.

Thomas Vanek hasn't been a 40-goal scorer since 2008-09, but his 32 goals and 73 points are his best numbers in both categories since then.

Drew Stafford has been a revelation, with 31 goals in just 62 games despite battling injuries and seeing less than 17 minutes of ice time per game.

The smallest Sabres -- rookies Tyler Ennis and Nathan Gerbe -- have powered the team's second-half surge and helped make up for the absence of No. 1 center Derek Roy, who had 35 points in 35 games before going down for the season with a leg injury.

Adding Brad Boyes from St. Louis at the trade deadline gave coach Lindy Ruff another top-six forward to mix and match.

A fully healthy Chris Pronger gives the Flyers the deepest and most talented defense corps in the Eastern Conference. Pronger missed most of the final month of the season with a broken hand; but he never lost his skating legs and should be 100 percent for the postseason.

Matt Carle quietly has had an outstanding season, leading the League in even-strength points by blueliners. Andrej Meszaros was a plus-30 and led the team's defensemen with 8 goals despite starting the season on the third pairing with veteran Sean O'Donnell.

Veteran Kimmo Timonen is a steady workhorse on the back end, and Braydon Coburn continues to play well at both ends of the ice.

O'Donnell and Nick Boynton provide valuable Cup-winning experience, and Danny Syvret and Erik Gustafsson are young players who could contribute.

After a slow start, second-year defenseman Tyler Myers began to look like the player who won the Calder Trophy as the NHL's top rookie last season.

Losing Jordan Leopold with a broken hand on March 25 was a big hit -- Leopold was tops among all Buffalo defensemen with 13 goals. The Sabres said this week he won't need surgery, meaning he could be back at some point during the opening round.

Steve Montador and Andrej Sekera aren't the kind of offensive threats that Myers or Leopold are, but their plus-minus numbers are much better (plus-16 for Montador; plus-11 for Sekera), and both are solid in their own zone.

Youngsters Mike Weber and Chris Butler, along with veteran Shaone Morrisonn, combine to form a third pairing.

Like the swallows returning to Capistrano, goaltending questions are a yearly occurrence in Philadelphia. This year it's can rookie Sergei Bobrovsky continue to perform at a high level in the postseason crucible? If not, can backup Brian Boucher be a Stanley Cup-caliber goaltender?

In 54 appearances, Bobrovosky went an impressive 28-13-8 with a 2.59 goals-against and .915 save percentage. But, the Russian wavered a bit down the stretch and went into the postseason on a bad note, getting pulled from the team’s final regular-season game against the New York islanders.

Ryan Miller hasn't shown the night-in, night-out brilliance that helped him win the Vezina Trophy last season. It's not that he's been bad (34-22-8, 2.59 goals-against average, 5 shutouts, .916 save percentage), but he hasn't been nearly as good as last season. Still, he can carry a team through a long playoff run.

However, when Miller was on the sidelines for the stretch drive due to an upper-body injury sustained March 29; rookie Jhonas Enroth stepped in for him and went 3-0-1, including a key 1-0 shutout against the Rangers.

The Sabres expect Miller to be ready for the playoffs and Miller did play in Buffalo’s final two games. If Miller's not healthy, they'll have to hope Enroth shows the same kind of composure he exhibited down the stretch.

Peter Laviolette cemented his status as a top-flight coach by guiding the Flyers from No. 14 in the East last season to the brink of the Stanley Cup, and kept the team atop the conference for most of this season. He's proven he knows what buttons to push with this team.

Lindy Ruff, the longest-tenured coach in the NHL, is a fixture behind the bench in Buffalo -- he's been there since 1997, and no coach has more wins with his current team.

This season, Ruff kept the Sabres from falling apart when a bad start dropped them well below the top eight in the East. His contract runs out after the season, and though new owner Terry Pegula has indicated Ruff will be back, there's sure to be some pressure after last spring's disappointing first-round loss.

Despite their talent, the Flyers' power play has been inconsistent. In 32 games since the All-Star break, they have just 15 extra-man goals in 104 attempts (14.4 percent) and ranked 19th in the League during the regular season.

They were middle of the pack killing penalties, but their 13 shorthanded goals were second in the League.

Both the power play and the penalty kill have been solid, if not spectacular. The Sabres are in the bottom third in terms of number of power plays, but in the top third in percentage; the penalty-killers are in the middle of the pack. One area in which Buffalo has struggled is shorthanded goals -- the Sabres have scored just 2 while allowing 12, meaning that their special teams, as a group, have allowed 10 more goals than they've scored.

Danny Briere, Philadelphia -- Briere was a major reason the Sabres played in back-to-back Eastern Conference Finals coming out of the labor stoppage, but he's been a Buffalo slayer since leaving. He had 3 goals and 5 assists in four games against the Sabres this season, and after last season's playoff performance, the Flyers will lean on him heavily this series.

Thomas Vanek, Buffalo -- The Austrian sniper is the one home-run hitter on Buffalo's roster -- the type of player who can carry a team offensively. He's been hot down the stretch, and he's been a big factor in the Sabres' impressive run to the playoffs.

Flyers will win if... Pronger returns to full health and proves that the rigors of a long playoff run are not beyond the reach of a body that has waged many battles during the past two decades and Bobrovsky, the young goalie, proves that his regular season success was not the latest goaltending mirage experienced by the organization.

Sabres will win if... Miller flashes his Vezina Trophy-winning form from last season, Vanek and Stafford produce like 30-goal scorers and the special teams tighten up.

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