The Philadelphia-Pittsburgh opening series was so wide open and featured such horrendous goaltending that 13 of the leagues top 20 scorers through the playoffs so far come from the two teams. The Flyers averaged a staggering five goals per game in just six contests and the Pens Marc-Andre Fleury ended up with the worst postseason save percentage of any starter in recent memory (.834).
The Devils seven-game series victory over the upstart Panthers was far more conventional, featuring mostly one-goal games and a few OT finals. The question now is if the Devils defense will be able to bring the Flyers offense back down to earth.
Philadelphia Flyers Offense vs. New Jersey Devils Defense
Philadelphia Flyers Offense: +41.8 GVT (Rank: 3rd in NHL)
New Jersey Devils Defense: +19.9 GVT (Rank: 4th in NHL)
New Jersey Devils Goaltending: -4.8 GVT (Rank: 21st in NHL)
Total: Philadelphia Flyers, +17.1 GVT
Even though they lost Jeff Carter and Mike Richards in the offseason, the Flyers offense never skipped a beat. Led by Claude Giroux, who managed 26 more points than the next most potent Flyer (Scott Hartnell), Philly also featured eight skaters with 40 or more points in the regular season.
Giroux was again the offensive fulcrum for the Flyers in round one, garnering an NHL-high 14 points in six games. He was also one of only three Flyers to finish in the black in terms of possession versus the Penguins (+11.4 Corsi/60) despite starting more often in the defensive zone (45.8% zone start). Clearly, one of the keys to defeating Philadelphia is finding a way to shut down the 24-year-old who has joined the league's elite ranks this season.
It should be noted just how unlikely the Flyers first round offensive outburst wasthey scored on more than 50% of their power play opportunities (52.2%) and boasted an overall shooting percentage of 18.2. Not even the Oilers dynasty at their peak was that potent, so we can expect some regression in those numbers over the long term.
On the other hand, the Devils defense this season was surprisingly stingy even with a blue line lacking any truly noteworthy names. The top-four rotation included Mark Fayne, Anton Volchenkov, Andy Greene, Bryce Salvador, and Henrik Tallinder depending on availability and health mostly managed to keep their heads above water (aside from Salvador, who struggled possession-wise). First year defender and former fourth overall pick Adam Larsson gradually gained confidence and ice-time as the season progressed, so while he finished with the third lowest quality of competition rating, he nevertheless averaged the third-most ice-time amongst defenders (20:37) during the regular season.
The rookie was injured during the Devils first round match-up with the Panthers, so it was Greene, Salvador, and trade deadline acquisition Marek Zidlicky leading the way at even strength for New Jersey. Interestingly, Anton Volchenkov finished last on the club in terms of ice time with just 11:35 at ES per game. He was also the most sheltered by his coach with a zone start ratio of 77.4% while Zidlicky, previously known as a one-dimensional offensive defender, had the second toughest ZS in the first round 47.4%. That's an inversion of what most what expect, but nevertheless, Zidlicky finished with a higher Corsi rate than Volchenkov (+5.0/60 vs +3.8/60).
Up front, there isn't one specific shutdown forward or line for New Jersey. Top-six forwards like Patrick Elias, Zach Parise, and Peter Sykora typically see the toughest opposition, while a number of depth guys typically start more often in the defensive end, including Alex Ponikarovsky, Steve Bernier, and Ryan Carter. The only guy who did both during the year was, oddly, rookie Adam Henrique, who had the second toughest zone start (47.7%) and fifth toughest quality of competition.
In net, Martin Brodeur draws closer and closer to retirement. His overall save percentage of .908 was even worse than Nikolai Khabibulin (.910) and marks the second straight season he has finished the year with a less than mediocre save rate. Brodeur is 39 years old and hasn't been elite since 2007-08, so one can reasonably infer the end is nigh.
That said, the future Hall of Famer managed to redeem himself in the first round, stopping 95.6% of the shots he faced at even strength. Brodeur is unlikely to continue to stop pucks at such a high rate indefinitely, but he'll have to be closer to elite than average if the Devils are to get by the Flyers.
Advantage: Philadelphia Flyers
New Jersey Offense vs. Philadelphia Defense
New Jersey Devils Offense: -2.2 GVT (Rank: 15th in NHL)
Philadelphia Flyers Defense: +2.6 GVT (Rank: 11th in NHL)
Philadelphia Flyers Goaltending: -11.2 (Rank: 23rd in NHL)
Total: New Jersey Devils, +6.4 GVT
Even with the return of Zach Parise and the resurgence of Ilya Kovalchuk and Patrick Elias, the Devils offense was middling overall this year. David Clarkson, Peter Sykora, and Adam Henrique were also pleasant surprises, each scoring 40+ points on the season.
The areas where the club lacked punch was in the bottom six up front and the entire blue line. Outside of Dainius Zubrus (44 points), the Devils didn't have a single depth forward manage more than 10 points. Jacob Josefson, Ryan Carter, Steve Bernier, Mattias Tedenby, Cam Janssen, and Eric Boulton all appeared in 30 or more games and the highest scorer amongst them was Josefson with nine points. Eric Boulton somehow managed to play in 51 games and not get a single point, which is kind of impressive in its own right.
The Devils also have one of the lowest scoring blue lines in the NHL. The only defender to crack 20 points was Marek Zidlicky (22) and he scored 14 of those points with Minnesota. Adam Larsson was the second highest point-getter on the back-end and he garnered just two goals and 18-points. So while New Jersey's mostly no-name D-corps was relatively effective in its own end this season, that collection of players is almost a total waste of time at the good end of the ice.
As a result, the scoring duties fall entirely to the Devils top-six forwards, which added Travis Zajac to the mix just in time for the postseason. The 26-year-old ended up leading the team in scoring through seven games with six points. Second to him was Ilya Kovalchuk with five points. The former Thrasher led the team in both points (83) and ice time (24:26) during the regular season, in part because he tends to play almost the full two minutes of just about every power play the team enjoys.
Kovalchuk remains a potent weapon in the offensive zone, but he's suspect as a two-way player. He saw the second-easiest zone start ratio during the year behind pugilist Cam Janssen (56.2%) and usually skated with one of the teams best all-around players (Zach Parise) but still managed a mediocre Corsi rate (+3.0/60, seventh amongst Devils forwards). For his part, Parise was a team leader in terms of possession in the first round, but an on-ice shooting percentage of 5.5 limited him to just four points. He's a good bet to start scoring more going forward.
As for Philadelphia, they have a pretty solid blue line, even in Chris Pronger's absence. Matt Carle, Andrej Meszaros, and Braydon Coburn were the even strength ice-time leaders in the regular season, with Kimmo Timonen and additions Nicklas Grossman and Pavel Kubina rounding out the rotation by the end of the year. Long forgotten (by me, anyways) ex-Red Wing Andrea Lilja and rookie MA Bourdon are also decent depth options.
In the postseason, the heaviest lifting has gone to big guys Coburn and Grossman, who have started the most often in the defensive zone. In fact, Coburn averaged more than 27 minutes of ice-time per game versus Pittsburgh, including more than four minutes per night short-handed.
Most surprising is the fact that former workhorse Kimmo Timonen finished well down the ice-time ranks for Philly in both the regular season and through the first round. His 11:16 at even strength per game against the Penguins was greater only the Pavel Kubina's 9:32. The only place where Timonen continues to see real ice-time is the power play.
As a team, the Flyers are mediocre at defense in part because most of their forward units are dedicated to scoring. Sean Couturier, Max Talbot, Jody Shelley, and Zac Rinaldo were often given defensive zone starts this year. Couturier did well for a rookie and Giroux is an excellent all-around forward, but there really are no Selke candidates or shutdown lines on this squad.
In the crease, Ilya Bryzgalov proved to be no panacea for the Flyers never-ending goaltending woes. Signed to a monster contract in the offseason, Bryzgalov finished with a yawn-worthy .909 overall save rate, his worst since 2008-09.
That was due in part to a worse-than-average PK save percentage (.845) but he was also completely mediocre at even strength (.921). Sophomore Sergei Bobrovski was marginally worse than Bryzgalov at both 5-on-5 (.916) and shorthanded (.841) and also managed to give up five goals against on just 24 shots while Philly was up a man.
Things didn't get much better for the Flyers goalie-wise in the postseason, where Bryzgalov has stopped just 87.1% of the shots he's faced so far. Luckily for him, MA Fleury was even worse in the first round.
Philadelphia Power Play vs. New Jersey Penalty Kill
Philadelphia Flyers Power Play: +8.0 GVT (Rank: 4th in NHL)
New Jersey Devils Penalty Kill: +27.0 GVT (Rank: 1st in NHL)
Total: Philadelphia Flyers, -19.0 GVT
Although the Devils struggled to kill penalties in the first round (66.7% success rate), they were nevertheless the best team in the league at it during the regular season. As a whole, the club allowed just 42.7 shots/60 at 5-on-4 (5th best in NHL) and their goalies stopped 92% of those shots, which was the best short-handed SV% in the league (and better than some teams at 5-on-5). Leaders on the PK for New Jersey are Volchenkov, Salvador, Greene, and Parise.
As mentioned, the Flyers PP in the first round was absurdly effective. They were the fourth-best team with the man advantage during the regular season as well, so it wasn't a complete fluke. Scott Hartnell's renaissance was sparked by his league-leading 16 power play goals while Daniel Briere and Jaromir Jagr remain dangerous while up a man. Of course, Claude Giroux ran away with the team lead in PP points with 38, so the key again will be shutting him down.
Advantage: New Jersey Devils (slight)
New Jersey Power Play vs. Philadelphia Penalty Kill
New Jersey Devils Power Play: -7.2 GVT (Rank: 26th in NHL)
Philadelphia Flyers Penalty Kill: -4.9 GVT (Rank: 19th in NHL)
Total: New Jersey Devils, -2.3 GVT
The Devils scored five PP goals in the first round, which must be considered a minor victory for the 26th-best PP during the regular season. Although New Jersey has some very strong forwards in Kovalchuk, Parise, Elias, and David Clarkson up front, the team nevertheless had problems generating shots while a man up. Their 45.2 shots per hour rate at 5-on-4 was the eighth lowest in the league during the regular season. The lack of a true PP quarterback on the blue line may have something to do with their struggles.
The Flyers were similarly underwhelming on the PK. As mentioned, neither of their goalies managed a good save rate short-handed which is why the Flyers were only 19th overall despite allowing just 40.2 shots/60 at 5-on-4 (3rd best). That means that if their goaltending can progress to at least average, Philly should start managing better than average results on the PK.
Advantage: Philadelphia Flyers (slight)
Injuries and Intangibles
Both clubs are missing major bodies on the back-end: Philadelphia with Pronger and Meszaros and New Jersey with Larsson and Tallinder. The Flyers also lost Grossman to a concussion in the first round, so their blue line depth is somewhat compromised.
Everyone else is more or less healthy, although the Flyers are likely nursing some other bumps and head wounds after the fight and cheap shot filled affair with the Penguins.
The two clubs are close in some respects, although the Flyers hold the edge in more categories. Of course, if Philly continues to score on just about every fifth shot they put on net, nobody is going to stop them.
Even though that's unlikely, Philly remain the favorites in this series. The Devils have some decent core forwards and a capable defense corps, but struggle with mediocre goaltending and almost a complete absence of secondary scoring.
Flyers in five games