A pair of Atlantic Division rivals will face off in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals this afternoon, as the Philadelphia Flyers host the New Jersey Devils at the Wells Fargo Center.
The Flyers and Devils are the fifth and sixth seeds, respectively, in the East and the clubs finished just one point apart in the conference and division standings. Philadelphia had 103 points in the regular season compared to 102 for the Devils.
Philadelphia entered this postseason as a considerable underdog to win its first-round series, but Peter Laviolette's club surprised many by ousting the Pittsburgh Penguins from the Eastern Conference quarterfinals in six games.
The Flyers simply proved to be too much for Pittsburgh, a trendy pick to win the Stanley Cup heading into the playoffs, scoring 30 goals during a wild series that ended with Philadelphia's 5-1 home victory in Game 6. With the win over Pittsburgh, the Flyers advanced to the second round for the third straight spring. Philadelphia last made it to the East finals in 2010.
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 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 record 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 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.
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 some 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. However, Bryzgalov was simply stellar against Jersey in four games (three starts) this season, 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.
On the injury front, Philadelphia hopes to have defenseman Nicklas Grossmann back for Game 1 of this series. Grossmann was forced to sit out the last two games of the opening round with a concussion, but has returned to practice and expects to play today. 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.
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 2007. New Jersey ousted Tampa Bay in the first round five years ago, but then lost to Ottawa in the second round.
The Devils will now take aim at 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 also 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.
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. He 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.
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.
Philadelphia was 22-13-6 as the host this season and was 2-1 against the Penguins at the Wells Fargo Center in Round 1. The Devils were 24-15-2 as the guest in 2011-12 and was 2-2 at Florida in the conference quarterfinals.
Game 2 of this series is scheduled for Tuesday in Philly.