Anytime Atlantic Division rivals meet in the playoffs, hockey fans better buckle down for a hell of a series. Philly-New Jersey shouldn’t be any different. The bruising Flyers battled their way into the playoffs with a shootout win on the last day of the season. The methodical Devils rode their goal-hating defense to their 4th Atlantic Division title since the lockout
Offense: The one thing that makes this New Jersey team different from ones in the past is Ilya Kovalchuk. Lou Lamoriello went out and won the bidding war for Kovalchuk for one reason and one reason only: winning a Stanley Cup. Even with Zach Parise lighting it up for the 2nd straight year and Travis Zajac ending the year on a tear, the Devils’ offense as a whole is far from intimidating. Kovalchuk is a true superstar, the likes of which has not been present in the not-so-aptly named Garden State for as long as I can remember. Philadelphia, on the other hand, has the potential to ice 3 scoring lines that are all capable of handling business in their own end as well. Mike Richards, Jeff Carter and Claude Giroux give the Flyers one of the top trios of centers in the league. Finding the right combination of wingers to skate with them is the bigger challenge. Simon Gagne and Danny Briere are prolific scorers in their own right, and the Flyers clearly have more depth on offense then the low-scoring Devils.
Defense: If you were to look at the team’s rosters, the Flyers actually have more starpower on the blueline than the Devils. Chris Pronger, Braydon Coburn, Kimmo Timonen and Matt Carle are talented defenders. What the Devils have is a time-tested defensive system that has frustrated opponents for years, and is capable of shutting down even the best offenses. New Jersey had the lowest goals against in the league this year, and I wouldn’t expect that to change in the playoffs.
Advantage: New Jersey
Goaltending: No question where the advantage lies here. Martin Brodeur should go down as the best goalie in NHL history. Brian Boucher? Not so much. Boucher performed admirably in the closing games of the season, but if this series were to come down to goaltending, any betting man in his right mind would put all his money on Brodeur. Toss in the fact that Brodeur was yanked in favor of Roberto Luongo during the Olympics and the best goalie in the league may be coming into this postseason with something to prove.
Advantage: New Jersey
Special Teams: While the addition of Kovalchuk certainly adds a frightening element to the Devils’ powerplay, the Flyers clearly have an edge here. They ranked 3rd in the league this year with the man advantage, and Pronger and Timonen are two of the best powerplay blueliners in the league. Another aspect of the Flyers’ special teams that makes them dangerous on either side of a minor penalty is the fact that their star players also play a key role on their kill.
Of all the first round matchups, this may be one of the most intriguing. It’s a well-established cliche that defense wins championships, and it’s tough to argue with the consistent success that the Devils have had in the past two decades. Still, Philadelphia took 5 of the 6 regular season meetings between the two clubs. I’m a big fan of the smashmouth style of hockey Philly has become famous for, and in a seven game series, that kind of punishment can cause breakdowns in even the best systems. If Boucher can keep the Flyers in it, I think Philadelphia could end up on top.
My pick: Philadelphia in 7