At the halfway point of this season, the Philadelphia Flyers — Stanley Cup finalists in 2010 — were perched atop the Eastern Conference standings, with many observers predicting they would make another run to the Cup Final.
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Instead, following a tough seven-game slog to eliminate the Buffalo Sabres in the opening round of the 2011 NHL playoffs, the Flyers were swept out of the second round by the Boston Bruins.
The Flyers’ fall can be traced back to their record following the All-Star break, as they lurched down the stretch with a 14-11-7 record, including winning only three of their final 10 regular season games, dropping to second overall in the conference.
They had the depth to overcome a determined but banged-up Sabres team in the first round but couldn’t muster much of an effort against the Bruins, who were determined to avenge their humiliating elimination from last year’s playoffs by the Flyers, who had rallied from a 3-0 series deficit to win the series.
The Bruins’ four-game victory was very much a team effort, but so too was the Flyers’ defeat.
Despite their offensive depth, the Flyers’ top forwards struggled to generate quality scoring chances against the Bruins, and when they did, Boston’s all-star goaltender Tim Thomas was there to bar the door.
Leading scorer Claude Giroux and budding star James van Reimsdyk were held to just three points in the four games against Boston. Daniel Briere had only two. All three were held scoreless in the final two games.
Team captain Mike Richards only had two points. Kris Versteeg and Ville Leino had only one each. Gritty Scott Hartnell was shut out.
Their defensive play wasn’t any better, as the Flyers were out-worked in the neutral zone and their own end by the speedy, physical Bruins. The result was turn-overs and odd-man rushes for the Bruins, who were quick to turn the Flyers miscues into quality scoring chances.
The physical, disciplined game the Philadelphia defense corps employed so effectively in their march to the 2010 Cup Final was nowhere to be seen against the Bruins.
Injuries were also a factor, as blueline stalwart Chris Pronger and sniper Jeff Carter only played one game each against the Bruins. Even if they’d been healthy, however, their presence probably wouldn’t have changed the outcome very much.
GM Paul Holmgren refused to fault goaltenders Brian Boucher and Sergei Bobrovsky, and while there’s no doubt they were let down by their defense, neither could elevate their respective games to the same level of Tim Thomas.
The Nashville Predators entered this past weekend down 3-1 in their series against the favored Vancouver Canucks, but staved off elimination by rallying in Game 5 from a 2-1 first period deficit to defeat the Canucks 4-2, forcing a sixth game in Nashville on Monday
Despite lacking the offensive depth to match up against the Canucks firepower, the Predators nevertheless found offense from the unlikeliest of sources.
Checker Joel Ward, who managed only 10 goals and 29 points in 80 games during the regular season, turned into a clutch scorer for the Predators this spring, with seven goals and 12 points in 11 playoff games, with over half those totals (4 goals, 7 points) coming against the Canucks. Ward potted the Predators’ final two goals in Game 5, including the winner which kept his club alive.
The Predators’ physical, tight-checking defensive system has been effective in shutting down the Canucks’ high-scoring Sedin twins, but the main reason Nashville has pushed the series this far was goaltender Pekka Rinne, who has been outstanding, giving his team a chance to win every game while showing hockey fans outside Nashville why he’s a nominee for the Vezina Trophy.
Still, the Canucks hold a 3-2 series lead and can close it out Monday night, but their chances of victory would be enhanced if the Sedins can find a way to shake off the Predators’ checking blanket. Henrik has only three points in this series (all coming in Game 4), while Daniel, the NHL’s regular season scoring leader, has only two.
Thankfully for Vancouver, two-way forward Ryan Kesler regained his scoring touch midway through this series and has been the Canucks’ best player. If the Sedins continue to struggle, expect Kesler to receive considerably more ice time in offensive situations.
Entering this past weekend, the San Jose Sharks had a seemingly insurmountable 3-0 series lead over the aging, banged-up Detroit Red Wings, and were poised for a series sweep.
But the Red Wings had other ideas, winning Games 4 and 5 by identical 4-3 scores, forcing a sixth game back in Detroit on Tuesday.
Both games had plenty of drama, as the Wings blew a 3-0 lead in Game 4 but squeaked out a narrow win thanks to a late third-period goal by Patrick Eaves. In Game 5 they battled back from 2-0 and 3-1 deficits, potting three unanswered goals in the third for the victory.
Game 5 also saw the Red Wings’ incomparable Pavel Datsyuk once again demonstrate why he’s one of the game’s elite players. He was questionable to play due to an injured hand, yet Datsyuk not only played, he powered Detroit’s offense, setting up three of their four goals, including the winner.
Although they’ve twice staved off elimination, the Red Wings are still on the brink, and their ranks continue to be hampered by injuries, the latest being forward Johan Franzen, who missed the second half of Game 5 with an ankle injury.
The Sharks meanwhile are younger, healthier and, after blowing what seemed a sure victory in Game 5, probably more determined to deliver the knockout punch in Game 6.
But the Wings have proven that, despite age and injuries, they’re not to be taken lightly. While the odds still favor the Sharks, the last thing they’ll want is for the Wings to win Game 6 and force a seventh and deciding game.