Philadelphia was atop the Eastern Conference for most of the regular season until a late-season slide allowed Washington to take over the No. 1 seed in time for the playoffs and opened the door for Pittsburgh to make a failed surge toward first in the Atlantic Division.
As the Bruins know, when the dog days of February and March arrive and you’re near or at the top, playing your best every night and focusing on the task at hand can be difficult.
Just like the Bruins aren’t as lousy as they were down the stretch, the Flyers were not themselves during that extended slump. Maybe it took falling behind Buffalo three games to two in the first round to wake them up, but the Flyers began to look like their old selves when the chips were down. So here they are now in the second round against the Bruins.
As the higher seed and a team that won the East last season, the Flyers have to be favored to win this Eastern Conference semifinal series, which starts Saturday at the Wells Fargo Center.
Here are three keys to victory if the Flyers are going to win this series:
1. They’re an offensive juggernaut
The Flyers lost leading scorer Jeff Carter to a lower-body injury in Game 4 of the Buffalo series. So all they did was go out and 10 goals combined in their Game 6 and 7 victories. Danny Briere alone scored six of the Flyers’ 22 goals in the seven-game series.
In the regular season, the Flyers were third in the league in scoring and six players scored 20 or more goals (with Ville Leino seventh at 19). The Bruins featured just four players that exceeded 20 goals. Amazingly, the Flyers did it with a power play just slightly better than the Bruins’ at 16.6 percent. Nonetheless, the Bruins are going to need all three pairs clicking on the same night in order to contain the Flyers’ three-line attack.
The notion that last year doesn’t matter now doesn’t carry as much weight as the Bruins would like you to believe. Let’s face it, if the Bruins get a lead in a game in this series, or in the series itself, no one is going to feel comfortable. That could benefit the Bruins. But more likely, it’ll get them squeezing their sticks extra tight. They failed to close out Montreal in Game 6 when they had the chance, so the Bruins still haven’t proven that they’re closers.
Kris Versteeg and Sean O’Donnell have brought their Stanley Cup-champion pedigrees to a Flyers team that already featured the leadership of Chris Pronger and captain Mike Richards. Versteeg even won his Cup at the Flyers’ expense last season with Chicago, so if anyone knows how to tighten up any weaknesses in the Flyers’ postseason game it’s the former Bruins prospect.
Daniel Briere and Claude Giroux haven’t sipped from the Cup yet, they still have a magical knack for bringing their game to a higher level in the playoffs. In 93 postseason games, Briere has totaled 94 points (41 goals), while Giroux now has 35 points (13 goals) in 36 games.
Boston’s only two players with Cup experience are Mark Recchi, an aged complimentary part now, and fourth-liner Shawn Thornton. The Bruins don’t have any point-per-game playoff scorers.
3. Power play
While almost as bad as Boston’s power play in the regular season, the Flyers’ man-advantage clicked at a 3-for-9 pace in the two closeout wins over Buffalo. That the Bruins’ power play could match that at some point is only a fact on paper. There’s no telling when the Bruins’ power play will wake up, especially under the threat of an aggressive Flyers penalty kill that finished just 15th in the league but scored 13 shorthanded goals (the Bruins were 16th and scored 11 shorties).
The Bruins might be able to match Buffalo (22.6 percent) for success rate on the power play against Philly, but until they do it the man-advantage is a weakness for them and a strength for the defending conference champs.