It’s the little things in hockey games that can eventually lead for bigger steps down the road for a specific team. Last night, the Flyers laid the groundwork for a long playoff road ahead.
On Wednesday night, as the NHL’s Stanley Cup Playoffs got underway, the Philadelphia Flyers and New Jersey Devils kicked off their series in Newark, NJ. The building and atmosphere were, well, less than electric – to put it nicely. However, that part of the game was expected. This team and fanbase are, after all, a unit that holds the lone distinction of being unable to sell out a Stanley Cup Finals Game 7. Regardless of the issues with empty seats, the most unexpected part of the game quite possibly may have taken place on the ice. It’s hard to fathom last night as I write this post now, but the Flyers simply played a nearly-flawless road game at The Prudential Center. The Flyers, a team that’s struggled with inconsistency issues and has been incredible in-opportunistic this entire season, showed zero signs of either of those flaws last night. In fact, they looked like a team that belonged in the playoffs.
Game one started out as I expected, and up and down game with no real rhythm, but at the same time featuring two teams who were not afraid to throw the kitchen sink at the other. The Flyers and Devils exchanged chances and all shots were turned aside by goaltenders Brian Boucher and Martin Brodeur. While the teams headed to their respective dressing rooms scoreless at the end of the first, it was clear that the Devils had a slight advantage in the game. Despite the fact that it wasn’t all that loud, “Jersey’s Team” still had the crowd behind them and clearly were using it to their advantage. They outshot the Flyers in the first period 9-4 and the Flyers were unable to sustain any pressure in the Devils zone in the later stages of the opening frame. The Flyers had one crack at the powerplay in the first period, but were unable to generate any type of sustained pressure in New Jersey’s end. The Devils had two powerplays and the first and the Flyers were up to the task, matching the Devils’ strong penalty kill with a couple solid ones of their own.
As the second period began, a minute of power play time for New Jersey carried over with it. The Devils once again fell victim to the Flyers ability to kill off their power play, and the game remained scoreless early on. The teams exchanged scoring chances with neither beating their respective opposing goaltender until the Flyers received their second power play with just over ten minutes to go in the second period. This time, the Orange and Black made it count. The Flyers disregarded their usual puck movement and instead relied on their two best players: Mike Richards and Chris Pronger. Richards displayed an unbelievable effort behind the Devils’ net to come away with the puck and move towards the corner. From there, the Flyers captain swung out to just below the circle to Martin Brodeur’s left and threw the puck towards the front of the net. New Jersey’s inability to clear players from Brodeur’s crease area proved pivotal on this play, as the Flyers were the recipients of the series’ first goal – a garbage one at that – off the stick of Pronger as a result of the scramble in front. For the time being, the seventh seeded Flyers had control of the second seeded Devils.
The fortunes would only get greater for the Orange and Black as with about three and a half minutes left, Ian Laperriere did what he does best: he simply outworked the Devils in their own zone, and created a turnover. Upon gathering control of the puck, Lappy let a beautiful spin-o-rama pass go through the slot and onto the stick of Mike Richards, who had just entered the zone as a result of a Flyers’ line change. From that point, the whole play was in Richards’ hands, and he didn’t hesitate. The Flyers captain let go a blistering slapshot that Brodeur never had a chance on as the black disc skipped off Brodeur’s pad, careened off the post, and found its way to the back of the net. Suddenly, to the shock of the Devils and pleasure of the Flyers, the visitors had taken a 2-0 lead. The Flyers withstood a tough New Jersey attack the rest of the way through the second period, as Brian Boucher made some spectacular saves, leading Flyers fans to believe it was 2000 all over again. However, there was still 20 minutes to be played.
The final twenty minutes of a road playoff game are always the most difficult time that will occur throughout a given contest. If the home team leads, they will generally be steady in their defensive style, and the crowd will be loud and behind them. However, if the home team trails, as the Devils did Wednesday night, the situation gets a little hairier. The Flyers knew the Devils would come out strong in the third, and New Jersey did just that, as they outshot the Orange and Black by a total of 9-2 in the period, taking the play to the Flyers for large portions of the game. Needless to say, the play of Brian Boucher was the deciding factor in this one, and Boosh made sure he kept the Devils at bay through the frantic pace of the third. The turning point of the period came early on, when Oskars Bartulis had an incidental high stick called on him, which is usually of the two-minute variety. This verdict changed when the victim, David Clarkson, drew blood as a result of the incident. The Devils went on a four-minute power play, with a chance to potentially even up the game, and maybe even set the table to take the lead. To the Flyers’ credit, the team held strong and somehow managed to kill off the power play. Even though there was still over ten minutes remaining in the game, the Flyers did a great job to suck away a huge momentum opportunity for the Devils. New Jersey would eventually score a goal off a freak re-direction from Ian Laperriere’s stick on a Travis Zajac shot, but the Boucher and the Flyers held on for the game one victory by a score of 2-1.
Of course, this victory now sets the stage for an incredibly desperate Devils team in Game two. It’s not going to be easy, but the Flyers have to find a way to continue to frustrate the Devils top players and make them make bad decisions with the puck. New Jersey does NOT want to go back to Philadelphia down 2-0, but if Boucher keeps up his play and the Flyers can duplicate their effort from last night, there’s a possibility that could happen. With that being said, New Jersey is as talented a group as they come in the East, and it’s unreasonable to expect them to sit down and die. If there is one thing to improve on for the Flyers, it’s to limit the turnovers (Lukas Krajicek, I’m looking at you) in the defensive zone, and get more shots to the net and more tests on Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur.
As desperate as the Devils will be on Friday night, they perhaps will be even more fragile. If the Flyers can shatter their confidence levels early, and get some timely scoring, the Devils may find themselves in a huge hole. It’s all here now, ladies and gentlemen. Playoff hockey has arrived, so buckle up, and join the ride.
Game Two is Friday night in New Jersey.