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Flyers have series edge on bitter rival Devils

by Staff

Are looks deceiving? In this series they surely are. At one end of the spectrum sit the New Jersey Devils, Atlantic Division champs and the Eastern Conference's second seed.

At the other end are the Philadelphia Flyers, who needed a shootout win on the last day of the regular season to cement a playoff berth as the East's seventh seed.

Guess who won the season series between the two -- and handily?

Yep, the Flyers were 5-1-0 against the Devils. So who do you think wins this series of traditional rivals?

There was never a dull moment when Devils coach Jacques Lemaire began putting together his line combinations prior to each game this season. The fact the Devils lost over 250 man-games to injury played a big part in that, too. Not only would the combos change game-to-game, but period-to-period in several instances.

That said, Zach Parise, Travis Zajac and Jamie Langenbrunner have combined for 82 goals and 210 points this season. Parise, the first player in franchise history to notch four straight 30-goal seasons, produced 38 goals and 82 points. The addition of Ilya Kovalchuk, who notched 10 goals and 27 points in 27 games since joining the team on Feb. 4, has added another offensive weapon. Devils' all-time points leader Patrik Elias has scored 19 goals and 48 points in 58 games.

Lest we forget about the play of fourth-liners Dean McAmmond, Rod Pelley and Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond, who have provided energy and enthusiasm up front. In fact, Lemaire has this line playing a similar role to the one he made famous during New Jersey's 1995 Stanley Cup run with Mike Peluso, Bobby Holik and Randy McKay -- aka "The Crash Line" -- in starring roles.

While the Flyers' leading scorer, Mike Richards, ranked only 49th in the League with 62 points, the Flyers have broad-based scoring, ranking eighth in the NHL and third in the Eastern Conference with 232 goals. Carter led the Flyers with 33 goals. Richards had 31 and Danny Briere had 26.

Simon Gagne missed the first 24 games after hernia surgery and had 17 goals in 56 games. Claude Giroux had 16 goals and rookie James van Riemsdyk had 15. Scott Hartnell, who had 30 goals last season, fell to 14. Danny Carcillo had 12 goals. Chris Pronger and Arron Asham had 10 each.

Of the 14 forwards who played regularly and will be on the playoff roster, only three had positive plus-minus ratings. Five of the top six scorers were minus players. Blair Betts led forwards at plus-7. Carcillo was plus-5. Carter was plus-2. Newcomer Ville Leino was plus-2 in 13 games. Darroll Powe was even, as was Laperriere. On the downside, Giroux was minus-9 and Hartnell was minus-5. Richards, Asham, Briere and Gagne were minus-2. Ian Laperriere was minus-1.

The names might not be as noteworthy as the Chris Prongers and Dion Phaneufs of the world, but Colin White, Paul Martin, Andy Greene, Mike Mottau, Bryce Salvador, and recently acquired Martin Skoula can take pride in the fact they have all played a tremendous role along the blue line for the NHL's stingiest defensive unit. The Devils limited the opposition to a League-low 2.27 goals per game this season while allowing the second-fewest shots per game (27.0).

In the absence of Martin for 59 games this season, Greene picked up much of the offensive burden in the back end. The fourth-year defenseman, who earned the team's Players' Player Award, produced career highs in games played (78), goals (6), assists (31), points (37), plus/minus rating (plus-9) and blocked shots (155).

Chris Pronger was third among NHL defensemen with 45 assists. He ranked fifth with 55 points and seventh with a team-leading plus-22. Partner Matt Carle was plus-19 and had 29 assists and 35 points. The second unit is Kimmo Timonen (33 assists, 39 points and minus-2) with 6-foot-5 Braydon Coburn (5-14-19, minus-6). The third unit is any two of Ryan Parent, Oskars Bartulis and Lukas Krajicek.

The Flyers like Bartulis for his puck-moving skills and steady play. Parent is nursing a back problem that might require off-season surgery. Krajicek is minus-9 in 25 games since his trade from Tampa Bay.

The power-play chemistry between Pronger and Timonen played a big part in the Flyers finishing third with 21.5 percent efficiency. They play on the first unit and Pronger finished sixth among NHL defensemen with 26 power-play points. Timonen ranked 24th with 19 power-play points.

Carle, Coburn and Krajicek regularly see time on the power play and one often plays left point opposite Richards during power plays.

Martin Brodeur holds just about every career goaltending record, but he'd like nothing more than to add a fourth Stanley Cup ring to his treasure chest. Brodeur's playoff run was a short one last season, but he should be primed to avenge that seven-game setback to the Carolina Hurricanes after finishing the season 45-25-6 with 9 shutouts, a 2.24 goals-against average and .916 save percentage. Brodeur, whose team captured its fifth William Jennings Trophy for allowing the fewest goals this season, needs just two playoff wins to become only the second goalie in Stanley Cup Playoffs history to reach 100 victories. Hall of Famer Patrick Roy is the all-time leader with 151 triumphs.

Brian Boucher's 9-18-33 record with a 2.76 goals-against average and .899 save percentage show he struggled this season. Boucher, a 10-year veteran who holds the NHL record for consecutive scoreless minutes, caught fire 10 days ago. Boucher is backed up by groin-plagued rookie Johan Backlund and ECHLer Jeremy Duchesne. The Flyers signed veteran Sebastien Caron as regular-season insurance last week, but he is ineligible for the playoffs.

Jacques Lemaire rejoined the Devils this season after serving nine seasons in Minnesota. As head coach of the Devils during his first stint from 1993-94 through 1997-98, he led New Jersey to a 199-122-57 record, five postseason appearances and a Stanley Cup in 1995. Despite the fact his team lost over 250 man-game to injury, Lemaire kept the big ship afloat and moving full speed ahead. His defensive acumen is one reason the Devils could go very deep into the playoffs this season.

Peter Laviolette, who coached the Carolina Hurricanes to the 2006 Stanley Cup, replaced John Stevens on Dec. 4 and is 28-24-5. The Flyers weren't fit enough for his switch to a two-man forecheck, which extended the December losing streak. But they are a better team now and hard to play against.

New Jersey's power play ranked 17th at home and No. 10 on the road, finishing 11th overall with an 18.7 percent success rate. Ilya Kovalchuk, who plays the point and occupies the slot with the man advantage, scored 12 power-play goals (2 with the Devils) and Zach Parise connected for 9. The Devils ranked No. 27 in power-play opportunities, earning just 273. New Jersey finished 13th overall in penalty-killing with an 82.8 percent success rate, including 13th at Prudential Center (83.6 percent). New Jersey actually sported the best penalty-killing percentage in the League since the Olympic break -- killing 46 of 51 to close out the season. The team even produced seven shorthanded goals, tied for ninth.

The Flyers rank third on the power play and 12th in penalty killing. Pronger, Timonen and Richards play on both special-team units. Pronger averages 7:24 minutes per game on special teams, 3.43 shorthanded and 3:41 on the power play. Betts and Laperriere excel on the first penalty-kill unit. Richards plays 2:09 of shorthanded time per game, followed by Carter, Gagne, Powe, Giroux and Hartnell.

Zach Parise, New Jersey -- As one of the League's most electrifying performers, Zach Parise's best playoff season was 2006-07 when he had 7 goals, 10 points and a plus-4 rating in 11 games before the Devils were eliminated by the Ottawa Senators in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Since then, Parise has produced 4 goals, 11 points and a minus-3 rating in 12 postseason games spanning two playoff seasons. We expect him to post career-high numbers across the board this spring.

Jeff Carter, Philadelphia -- Jeff Carter, Philadelphia -- The team's top goal scorer is playing with a painful left foot with a screw in it, the result of a late season fracture. He came back earlier than expected to play in the important home-and-home playoff-clinching series with the Rangers, recording one assist and nine shots in 60 total shifts. Plain and simple, the Flyers need Carter to be a game-breaking goal scorer.

Devils will win if... They continue to play the team game that frustrated the opposition throughout the season. Don't forget, the Devils swept their six-game series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, outscoring the defending Stanley Cup champion, 22-5, in the process. Ilya Kovalchuk has only played in four postseason games in seven-plus seasons in the League -- notching 1 goal, 2 points and a minus-1 rating in 2007 when his Atlanta Thrashers were swept by the Rangers in four games. The main reason he was acquired was to show up big in these spots and we anticipate he will.

Flyers will win if ... They keep on keeping on with their play against New Jersey from the regular season. The Flyers seemed to frustrate the Devils at every opportunity and forced New Jersey into uncharacteristic mistakes. Brian Boucher must be on top of his game. Staff Writers Mike Morreale and John McGourty contributed to this report.

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