April 14, 2011

Flyers in 6.

In the 2006 Stanley Cup playoffs, the Flyers were pounded in six games by the Buffalo Sabres. Peter Forsberg dominated the two Philadelphia wins, but they turned out to be the last gasps of a once-great player. Brian Campbell took off R.J. Umberger's head, and the Sabres essentially ended Ken Hitchcock's run as Flyers coach.

And now, five years later, the two teams meet again. On paper, it's a no-brainer. The Flyers have burgeoning superstar Claude Giroux (quietly the 11th-leading scorer in the league), Calder Trophy candidate Sergei Bobrovsky, hard-nosed Mike Richards, goal-king Jeff Carter and a rock-solid corp of defensemen, even without Chris Pronger. The Sabres have...Michael Peca? Dominik Hasek? Miroslav Satan?

But it's not that simple; it never is. Buffalo accrued 60 out of 90 possible points since the first of January; the Flyers have been fairly poopy since the middle of February. The Sabres are 8-1-1 in their last 10; the Flyers were 3-4-3. Thomas Vanek ended up with only three fewer points than Giroux, and Ryan Miller -- even though he's a bit dinged-up -- remains twice as likely as Bob to steal a game or two.

Plus, the news broke today that Chris Pronger's lingering hand injury will keep him out of Game 1. All the talk about "flipping the switch" and playing like the Flyers of old centered around the return of Pronger: how he'd settle down the defense, how he'd fix up the power play. It all sounded a bit unlikely in the first place, and now with the big man still out indefinitely, there's officially no outside stimuli on the way. There won't be any kick in the butt; Pronger and Ian Laperriere aren't walking onto the ice in their pads and jerseys. The roster is the roster.

To win, however, they don't necessarily need Pronger. If the Flyers play up to their potential, if they even remotely resemble the team that dominated the National Hockey League over the first 50 games of this season, they'll win. They'll win in 6, maybe 7, and the Sabres will be an afterthought, a speed bump on the way to Boston, Washington or Pittsburgh. Even with their tremendous start to 2011, Buffalo barely snuck into the playoffs; even after a serious two-month slump, the Flyers still won the Atlantic Division.

This was a Flyers team that, for most of the season, looked destined to bring home a Cup. Is that kind of ability still there, buried under the surface? Is it really possible that they've been biding their time until the postseason? Peter Laviolette, not the most patient coach in the NHL, has been mostly handling them with kid gloves; that's not his style. I'm banking that he knows something we don't, that he really believes this group of guys remains Cup-ready.

Buffalo's defensemen are young; their forwards are solid but unspectacular. The Flyers have the deepest group of forwards in the league and a heralded batch of defensemen. If Bob falters, Brian Boucher (and maybe even Michael Leighton) will be ready to step in immediately. Miller won the Vezina in 2010, but this here is 2011. Flyers in 6.

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