The Sabres and Flyers don't have the kind of rivalry that is whispered about in hushed, reverential tones, but there is some shared history between the two clubs, with a lot of it being highly memorable.
The Sabres' first trip to the Stanley Cup finals, in 1974-75, was played against the Flyers. The "Fog Game" in Buffalo not only saw players, officials and fans contending with heavy fog, but saw Sabres forward Jim Lorentz kill a bat with his stick while playing. The 1996-97 series between the teams saw Hart Trophy winner Dominik Hasek controversially pulling himself out of games on the basis of a knee injury. In 1999-00, Flyers star John LeClair scored a goal through the mesh at the side of the net that was allowed to stand, and it proved to be the difference in a 2-1 victory. The common denominator in all these series was a Flyers victory.
The two teams have met just once since the Lockout, in 2005-06a series the Sabres won in six games.
Philadelphia Offense vs. Buffalo Defense
Philadelphia Flyers Offense: +32.0 GVT (3rd in the NHL)
Buffalo Sabres Defense: -2.4 GVT (16th in the NHL)
Buffalo Sabres Goaltending: +0.6 GVT (16th in the NHL)
Total: Philadelphia Flyers, +33.8 GVT
Four of the league's top 35 offensive players (by Goals Versus Threshold) play for the Philadelphia Flyers. With 175 goals at 5-on-5 play, only one team has been more effective at scoring even-strength goals than the Flyers. In terms of overall scoring, the Flyers rank third in the league, the same as they do in GVT.
Nine players on the team have 15 or more goals. Between Claude Giroux, Danny Briere, Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, Ville Leino, Scott Hartnell, Kris Versteeg, James van Riemsdyk and Nikolai Zherdev, the Flyers offense has both high-end talent and depth to spare.
Against this offensive juggernaut stands a decidedly league-average Buffalo Sabres defense. By playoff standards, the Sabres' defense is even less than average. It's not that it's a bad group of players on the blue line, or that the forwards lack a defensive conscience, but there are some problems. The defense has a bunch of good players, but the top ones are either too young or lack high-end ability, and they might struggle against the Flyers offense.
The difference might be Ryan Miller, one of the league's top goaltenders. He hasn't been able to match his performance of last season, but he's still a very strong netminder and has the potential to steal a series.
Advantage: Philadelphia, by a lot
Buffalo Offense vs. Philadelphia Defense
Buffalo Sabres Offense: +16.0 GVT (9th in the NHL)
Philadelphia Flyers Defense: +1.8 (13th in the NHL)
Philadelphia Flyers Goaltending: +4.8 (13th in the NHL)
Total: Buffalo Sabres, +9.4 GVT
The Sabres aren't exactly offensive slouches in their own right. They may not be of precisely the same caliber as the Flyers, but it isn't a far thing either. There are high-end players in Thomas Vanek, Drew Stafford and Jason Pominville. They have depth. Even oft-maligned players like Jochen Hecht and Tim Connolly can be legitimate contributors. On the blue line, players like Tyler Myers, Jordan Leopold and Steve Montador are all capable scorers.
On defense, the Flyers look to be less than the sum of their parts. Despite a blue line featuring Chris Pronger (for most of the year, anyway) and Kimmo Timonen, and a pretty decent save percentage from the goaltenders, the goals against just kept coming.
The key player here is Chris Pronger. If he can come back from injury and be a force in the series, it changes things a lot. There's always a danger in overemphasizing the individual in a team gameand Lord knows it happens often enoughbut Pronger's a rare exception. In last year's playoffs, he averaged 29:03 per game, scoring 18 points in 23 games while playing in the top pairing at even-strength, on the penalty kill and on the power play.
Advantage: Buffalo Sabres
Philadelphia Power Play vs. Buffalo Penalty Kill
Philadelphia Flyers Power Play: -2.2 GVT (14th in the NHL)
Buffalo Sabres Penalty Kill: -2.0 GVT (21st in the NHL)
Total: Philadelphia Flyers, -0.2 GVT
The Flyers have the slight advantage of being just above the median line here, while the Sabres have the slight disadvantage of being just below it. There isn't much to choose from here, so I'm not going to bother to parse it. It could go either way.
Buffalo Powerplay vs. Philadelphia Penalty Kill
Buffalo Sabres Power Play: -2.7 GVT (17th in the NHL)
Philadelphia Flyers Penalty Kill: +8.0 GVT (6th in the NHL)
Total: Buffalo Sabres, -10.7 GVT
The last matchup we looked at was too close to call, but this one is nothing of the kind. The Flyers penalty kill is very good. Not only do they prevent goals, they score them; the Flyers have 13 shorthanded goals, which is tied for the second-best number in the league.
Advantage: Philadelphia Flyers
Season Series Results
Over four regular season meetings, the Flyers and the Sabres each came away with two wins, with both Flyers victories coming in regulation and the Sabres winning once in regulation and once in overtime. The first two meetings earlier in the season were Flyers blowouts, while Buffalo's margin of victory was much closer, which leaves the Flyers with a goal differential advantage of 18-11.
Advantage: Philadelphia Flyers
Injuries and Intangibles
Both clubs have key players presently sidelined with injury.
On the Sabres side, Derek Roy was the team's leading scorer with 35 points in 35 games when he went down just before Christmas. His recovery from surgery on a torn tendon is reportedly going well, and Roy is said to be targeting a second-round return, which is on the early side of the 4-6 months originally targeted for his return.
For Philadelphia, top defenseman Chris Pronger headlines the injured list. The blueliner underwent surgery on his right hand on March 15, with an expected return date of 3-4 weeksjust in time for the playoffs. Pronger's been tight-lipped on the subject of his return, smirking as he told reporters, "I could play in Game 1, I could not. I don't know. We'll see." Personally, I'd be very surprised if he wasn't in the lineup.
Beyond the stars, all the injury woes appear to be on the Flyers side of the ledger, as depth players Ian Laperriere, Oskars Bartulis and Jody Shelley are all hurt. None are expected to play against Buffalo.
Advantage: Philadelphia Flyers
This series has been one of the more fashionable upset picks this time around, probably because the Sabres are a legitimately good team and they employ a guy in net who could arguably be the best in the league. Unfortunately, the Flyers are also a good team, and they're probably the better team.
Philadelphia Flyers in six games
Jonathan Willis is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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