Can Sabres pull upset over Flyers?
Two teams who have been heading in different directions of late will meet in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Sabres have been one of the, if not the, hottest teams in the entire NHL since 2011 began. The Flyers were right there with them for a while but have fallen off sharply. The two teams split this regular season with Philly winning the first two games (6-3 and 5-2) early in the season and Buffalo taking the second two (5-3 and 4-3OT) later in the year.
Beginning on Jan. 1, 2011, the Sabres played 45 games, collecting 27 wins, 60 of 90 possible points. The Flyers, while hot throughout January and early February, cooled off down the stretch and finished losing 14 of their last 21 games. Going into the playoffs, the Sabres’ record during their last 10 games was 8-1-1. Philadelphia comes in with a 3-4-3 record during that same stretch.
Philadelphia was the top-scoring team in the Eastern Conference (252 goals for) and had seven forwards scoring more than 20 goals. The Sabres ranked third in the conference (245 goals for) with only four forwards tallying more than 20 goals.
On the defensive side, Philadelphia finished seventh in the Eastern Conference in goals against (219) with Buffalo just behind them in eighth place (229). The stats would indicate this is going to be a very tight series. The games the two teams have played already this season do nothing to dispel that notion. However, playoff history would seem to indicate that the team with more momentum and better goaltending tends to win in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Right now, the Sabres have both.
The Sabres’ top forwards are going to need to stay hot in order to win this series. Thomas Vanek leads the team with 32 goals, 41 assists and 73 points. It’s the first time in his career he’s led the Sabres in all three categories. Buffalo’s top six scoring forwards, Vanek, Brad Boyes, Jason Pominville, Drew Stafford, Tyler Ennis and Tim Connolly, account for 53 percent of the team’s goal total and 47 percent of its point total. Nathan Gerbe has come on strong in 2011 and chipped in a number of very important and impressive goals.
One key to the forwards’ success will be whether Flyers defenseman Chris Pronger returns from injury. With Pronger in the lineup, the Flyers are much more secure on defense and much more dangerous on the power play.
Overall, the Sabres’ defensemen are very young but getting better game by game. Showing great improvement throughout the season, Andrej Sekara, Chris Butler, Tyler Myers and Mike Weber are all within the first four years of their NHL careers. Leading the defensive core with their experience are Steve Montador (team leader in +/-) and Jordan Leopold (power-play quarterback and second in defense scoring). As everyone in the league knows, Myers is the key to this defensive core. His season has directly mirrored the downs and ups of the team; a tough beginning followed up by a strong resurgence from January on. He finished the season as Buffalo’s top scoring defenseman (10G-27A). He’s going to need to continue that, anchoring things in his own zone while contributing on the offensive side as well for Buffalo to succeed. Additionally, how long Leopold is out with his hand injury could impact the effectiveness of the defensive unit and the power play.
The Sabres defense is going to have to devote an extra level of attention to Flyers forward (and former Sabre) Danny Briere. Briere has seemingly scored at will against his former teammates, lighting the lamp three times in four games and picking up five helpers along the way.
The power-play unit was almost singlehandedly responsible for Buffalo’s quick exit in last year’s playoffs. Against the Boston Bruins in the first round, Buffalo’s power play went 0-19. An improvement here is absolutely necessary if they hope to beat the Flyers.
For the season, the Sabres finished ninth overall on the power play with a success rate of 19.4 percent. Over their last 10 games, they connected on an even more impressive 24 percent. With Philly’s penalty kill right in the middle of the league at 82.8 (15th place) the Sabres should find an edge here. Vanek and Stafford lead the team with 11 goals each. Look for both players to make their mark from right in front of the net, grabbing rebounds and tipping shots from the point.
An on-and-off area of the team all year, the Sabres’ penalty kill has gotten more secure over the last few months. Overall the PK ranked 13th, killing off 83 percent of power plays. During the last 10 games, this improved to 89.9 percent. Look for center Tim Connolly to anchor this much-improved unit. Philadelphia’s power play unit was ranked 19th in the league this season connecting on only 16.6 percent of their chances with the man advantage. Again, this should prove to be an advantage to Buffalo.
Clearly an advantage for Buffalo. All-Star, silver medal-winner, Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender Ryan Miller is in net for Buffalo. At this point, even Miller’s backup, Jhonas Enroth seems to be an upgrade over anything Philadelphia has to offer. Rookie Sergei Bobrovsky will start for Philadelphia with backup Brian Boucher, or even recently waived and resigned Michael Leighton, waiting in case he falters.
Lindy Ruff, now in his 14th season behind bench for the Sabres, is the third-longest tenured coach in the four major professional sports leagues in America. He has continually found new ways to reinvent himself, to adjust, grow and evolve throughout these 14 years. This has allowed him to stay fresh and not lose his core group of players. It will be up to Ruff and his staff to make sure the power play stays on track in the playoffs and that the stress of this time of year doesn’t get to his numerous young players.
Coming into this series it seems the Sabres have a great deal of momentum leaning in their favor. Look for Buffalo to continue their full-team effort, great goaltending and timely scoring to upset Philadelphia in 6 games. I’m expecting a split in Philly, two wins in Buffalo, a loss in Philly and a wrap-up in Game 6 back in Buffalo.