The Philadelphia Flyers entered this postseason as a considerable underdog to win their first-round series, but Peter Laviolette's club surprised many by ousting the Pittsburgh Penguins from the Eastern Conference quarterfinals in six games.
Coming off a 103-point season, the fifth-seeded Flyers would have been favored against many teams in the East. However, Pittsburgh was installed as a Stanley Cup favorite by many hockey experts and Las Vegas gave the Penguins the best odds of winning it all this spring.
Instead, the Flyers simply proved to be too much for Pittsburgh, scoring 30 goals during a wild series that ended with Philadelphia's 5-1 home victory in Game 6.
Philadelphia's best player all season was Claude Giroux and he was undoubtedly the top skater in the conference quarterfinals against the Penguins. Giroux, who finished third in the NHL with 93 points during the regular season, led all scorers in the first round of the postseason, posting a team-record 14 points (6 goals, 8 assists) over the six games.
The Flyers' strength as a team is clearly its offense and the scoring does not begin and end with Giroux. Philadelphia had 11 players -- all forwards -- post 10 or more goals this season and four of them went over the 20-goal mark.
The balanced scoring attack continued in the first round of the playoffs, as Philadelphia had eight skaters recorded two goals or more. After Giroux's six tallies, Danny Briere was next with five goals and Max Talbot and rookie Sean Couturier each hit the net three times. The 19-year-old Couturier also showed his value at the defensive end against the Penguins, as he did an excellent job covering Pittsburgh superstar Evgeni Malkin for much of the series.
The 34-year-old Briere is proven producer in the playoffs, compiling 104 points (47G, 57A) in 103 career postseason contests.
Giroux centers the top line and is usually flanked on the wings by Scott Hartnell and Jaromir Jagr. Hartnell posted a team-high and career-best 37 goals in the regular season and had two goals and three helpers in Round 1.
Jagr, the 40-year-old future Hall of Famer, registered one goal and six assists against one of his former teams in the opening round. The Czech legend leads all active NHLers with 188 points (78G, 110A) in 172 career postseason games.
In addition to Couturier, the Flyers also saw rookie forwards Brayden Schenn and Matt Read contribute on the offensive end in Round 1. Schenn had two goals and four assists, while Read, who led all NHL rookies with 24 goals this season, notched two goals and two helpers.
However, while Philadelphia was very impressive at putting the puck into the net against the Penguins, the Flyers struggled mightily on the defensive end. Philadelphia surrendered 26 goals over the six games against Pittsburgh and goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov deserves a healthy share of the blame for that fact.
Bryzgalov was signed away from Phoenix last summer, inking a nine-year, $51 million contract with the Flyers. The 31-year-old netminder had an up-and-down first regular season in Philadelphia and Bryzgalov's uneven play continued in the playoffs.
The Russian backstop surrendered 21 goals on 163 shots in Round 1, posting an .871 save percentage and 3.89 goals-against average. The former Coyote and Anaheim Duck is 16-15 with a 2.77 GAA and .909 save percentage in 33 career playoff games.
The Flyers will have to live or die with Bryz in net at this point, however, as backup Sergei Bobrovsky has been even worse over his brief playoff career. In seven postseason games, Bryzgalov's countryman is 0-2 with a 4.04 GAA and .848 save percentage. Bobrovsky played 37 minutes in a 10-3 loss to Pittsburgh in Game 4 and stopped just 13-of-18 shots.
Yet, Philadelphia's defensive deficiencies are not only a product of poor goaltending. The Flyers have certainly missed captain and top defenseman Chris Pronger, who last played on Nov. 19 and has been shut down for the season with a concussion.
Without Pronger, the Flyers have relied on Kimmo Timonen, Braydon Coburn, Matt Carle and Nicklas Grossmann to provide the bulk of the minutes in Round 1. Coburn led that group in ice time (27:49) against Pittsburgh and also tied Carle for the team lead among defenseman with four points in the series.
Grossmann, meanwhile, was forced to sit out the last two games of the opening round with a concussion, but he could return for the start the conference semifinals. Rookie Erik Gustafsson played in place of Grossmann in Game 5 and 6 of the Pittsburgh series and acquitted himself nicely with a goal and a plus-three rating.
Veteran blueliners Andreas Lilja and Pavel Kubina are also available to provide minutes at the back end for Philly. Injured defenseman Andrej Meszaros is also back skating with the team, but it's unclear if he'll be able to play in Round 2. Meszaros had back surgery last month and hasn't played since March 1.
The Flyers were ranked sixth in the NHL in power play during the 2011-12 season and the club was nearly unstoppable with the man advantage in the first round. Philadelphia converted on 12-of-23 (52.2 percent) of its power-play opportunities against the Penguins.
Philadelphia did not fare well on the penalty kill against the Pens, surrendering nine PP goals on 29 opportunities in Round 1. The Flyers were rated 17th in the league on the PK in the regular season.
NEW JERSEY DEVILS (6th seed, East)
REGULAR SEASON RECORD: 48-28-6
2012 PLAYOFFS: Defeated Florida 4-3 in conference quarterfinals
(Sports Network) - After missing out on the postseason in 2011, the Devils are back in the playoffs for the 14th time in 15 seasons this spring.
New Jersey is coming off beating the Florida Panthers in seven games during the Eastern Conference quarterfinals, giving the Devils their first trip to the second round since the spring of 2007. Jersey ousted Tampa Bay in the first round five years ago, but then lost to Ottawa in the second round.
The Devils will now aim for their first trip to the Eastern Conference finals since they won the last of the franchise's three Stanley Cup titles in 2003.
Although New Jersey is seeded sixth in the East, head coach Pete DeBoer's club was favored against the third-seeded Panthers in the opening round. However, the Devils needed to win Games 6 and 7, in overtime and double-overtime, respectively, to make it into the conference semis.
All told, the Devils outscored Florida by an 18-17 margin in the series, but the series could've been lopsided if New Jersey was able to kill penalties the way it did in the regular season. DeBoer's club was first in the NHL in penalty killing this season, stopping the opposition from scoring on 89.6 percent of its power plays. However, the Devils surrendered a whopping nine goals on 27 shorthanded situations in the seven games against Florida.
Like the Flyers, New Jersey boasts considerable scoring depth and the Devils were the only team in the NHL to have three 30-goal scorers this season. Ilya Kovalchuk led the way with 37 tallies, while Zach Parise and David Clarkson had 31 and 30 goals, respectively. Patrik Elias and Petr Sykora also potted 20-plus goals with Elias scoring 26 times and Sykora notching 21 markers.
The Devils continued the balanced scoring in the first round, as seven players scored two or more goals against the Panthers. Travis Zajac and Kovalchuk each had three goals, while Parise, Elias, Steve Bernier, Stephen Gionta and Adam Henrique each had two tallies.
Henrique is coming off an impressive rookie season that landed him a spot among this year's Calder Trophy finalists. After compiling 16 goals and 35 assists in 74 games during the regular season, the 22-year-old had two goals and a helper in seven games against Florida. Henrique's two goals in the Panthers series both came in Game 7 and he potted the game-winning tally in double-overtime.
Despite failing to score a goal, Clarkson still had a strong series against Florida, recording five assists and a plus-three rating. Zajac led all Devils with six points in the conference quarterfinals.
The Devils still have Martin Brodeur as their No. 1 goaltender and the future Hall of Famer is coming off an up-and-down series that saw him finish with solid overall numbers. Brodeur had a 2.05 GAA and .922 save percentage in the series, but was pulled from Game 3.
Brodeur, who will turn 40 years of age on May 6, is 103-84 with a 2.01 GAA and 24 shutouts in 188 career playoff tilts.
The key matchup for the Devils in this upcoming series with Philadelphia will be how New Jersey's defense will hold up against a Flyers team that can roll four effective lines on the ice when things are going good. In the days of Scott Stevens, Ken Daneyko and Scott Niedermayer, New Jersey had several legitimate shut-down defensemen, but those days have long since passed.
Veteran Marek Zidlicky was the workhorse for New Jersey in the opening round against Florida, logging 25:43 of ice time per game. He also posted two assists to finish behind Bryce Salvador and Peter Harrold, who led New Jersey's defensemen in points with three assists. The Devils did not get a single goal from a blueliner in Round 1.
Andy Greene was second to Zidlicky in ice time on the blue line against Florida and also recorded an assist in the series. Mark Fayne and Anton Volchenkov round out New Jersey's defensive rotation, which utilized the same six players in all seven games against the Panthers.
The Flyers and Devils have met four times previously in the Stanley Cup playoffs and each team has claimed two series. New Jersey beat Philadelphia in the 1995 and 2000 conference finals, but the Flyers have won the last two series, having ousted the Devils in five games in the opening rounds of the 2004 and 2010 postseasons.
Philadelphia barely won the 2011-12 season series against the Devils, posting a 3-2-1 record. The Flyers outscored New Jersey by a combined 18-15 margin over the six battles between the Atlantic Division rivals.
Giroux was excellent against the Devils this season, posting four goals and three assists over the six meetings. Kovalchuk was also spectacular against the Flyers, torching Philadelphia for two goals and six assists in six games.
Brodeur was 1-3 in four games against the Flyers this season, but he had a solid 2.26 GAA and .905 save percentage in those outings. Bryzgalov, meanwhile, was simply stellar against Jersey in four games (three starts), going 3-0 with a 0.29 GAA and .987 save percentage. The Russian backstop recorded two of his six shutouts in 2011-12 against the Devils.
The Devils will likely have a tough time slowing down the Flyers' scoring attack in this series. Philadelphia could also have difficulty in shutting down New Jersey, but the Flyers would have no problem getting into a high- scoring series in Round 2. In all likelihood, Brodeur will have to steal more than a game or two early in this series to frustrate Philadelphia's scorers and get the Flyers back on their heels.
It's always interesting to see division rivals square off in the playoffs and the matchups usually get more intriguing the deeper they are into the postseason. There is no lack of animosity between these two franchises and that should make for an interesting series at the start, but the Flyers should take this series as a result of their superior offensive firepower.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Flyers in 5