Can surging Sabres beat Flyers?
For the ninth time in NHL history, the Philadelphia Flyers and Buffalo Sabres will match up in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The second seeded Flyers finished the season as Atlantic Division champions with 106 points, but the seventh seeded Sabres come into the playoffs on a much higher note. Buffalo’s 8-1-1 record in their last 10 games propelled them to a playoff berth. Despite their discrepancy in points, the teams were evenly-matched in the regular season, with each winning two of their four tilts.
On the offensive side of the puck, the Flyers hold a slight advantage in firepower. Philadelphia finished with the most potent offense in the Eastern Conference with 3.12 goals scored per game. But, there’s no disputing that Buffalo can hang with the Flyers’ offense as they finished fourth in the conference with 2.93 goals per game.
If the regular season contests are any indication of the two teams’ playoff meeting, expect Thomas Vanek and Daniel Briere to make their presence felt. They both led their teams in points in the season series, with Briere notching eight points to Vanek’s seven. The series has an extra layer of meaning for Briere, as he was once a Sabres hero, and the fans haven’t forgotten his exodus from the City of Good Neighbors after the 2006-07 campaign.
Neither the Sabres nor the Flyers were exceptional this year on the defensive end of the ice. Buffalo’s 2.78 goals against average was good for only 18th best in the NHL. Philadelphia’s defense was a bit better at 2.63 goals against per game, which was 11th in the league. The Flyers are hoping that veteran blue liner Chris Pronger will be back to full strength after having right hand surgery on March 14th. A healthy Pronger would certainly boost a defense that struggled down the stretch of the season.
In Philadelphia, the spotlight is always on the goaltender and this year is no different. 22 year-old Russian rookie Sergei Bobrovsky will be the team’s starter in net. Bobrovsky has showed flashes of brilliance, and significant lapses at other times. While Bobrovsky’s position now was completely unforeseen at the beginning of the season, Buffalo’s man in net was the opposite case. Last year’s Vezina trophy winner, Ryan Miller will stand between the pipes for the Sabres.
Although Miller has a clear advantage in experience and reputation, this season’s numbers show little discrepancy between he and Bobrovsky. Both goalies share a goals-against average of 2.59 and Miller boasted a save percentage of .916, which was only slightly better than Bobrovsky’s .915.
In the regular season meetings between the two teams, the young Russian had a .906 save percentage compared to Miller’s .890. Although his numbers are similar to and sometimes better than Miller’s, Bobrovsky is an unknown quantity in the playoffs at this point. He will have to show the utmost resolve on the game’s biggest stage to be successful.
Buffalo has shown that can be a thorn in the Flyers’ sides, including a 4-3 victory over the Orange and Black last Friday in HSBC Arena. Despite struggling down the stretch, Philadelphia has their sights set on getting back to the Stanley Cup Finals. And, although the Sabres grit and determination will make every game a tooth-and-nail battle, the Flyers all-around depth should be enough to carry them to the second round.
Prediction: Flyers in five