Between the Flyers ousting the Penguins, the Bruins fighting to stay alive, and the Canucks getting knocked out four rounds earlier than expected, Sunday was a busy day in the NHL Playoffs.
Goaltending Rules the West
The 8th seeded Kings knocked off the heavily favored Canucks, a team many believed would represent the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup Finals. The inexperienced St. Louis Blues sent the veteran San Jose Sharks home after another disappointing postseason. The Nashville Predators were dominant in disposing of the talented Detroit Red Wings. What do the Kings, Sharks, and Predators have in common? Goaltending. Great goaltending, in fact.
After losing Game 1 in double overtime, the Blues and their goalie tandem of Brian Elliot and Jaroslav Halak surrendered only five goals in the next four games. The Kings Jonathan Quick limited the Sedin twins and the top offense in the West to just eight goals in five games. In Games 4 and 5 of the Nashville-Detroit series, the Red Wings could muster only two goals against Predators goalie Pekka Rinne. Overall, the Kings, Blues, and Predators allowed less than two goals per game. Quick has the highest save percentage of playoff goaltenders with more than three starts (.953). Elliot has the lowest Goals Against Average of playoff goalies with more than three appearances (1.37).
While the scoreboard lights needed replacing in the Flyers-Penguins series, the Western Conference playoffs are keeping to the more traditional script of riding stellar goaltending to victory. With the Kings and Blues set to face off in round two, that trend should, and hopefully will, continue, because as exciting as back-and-forth scoring is, the NHL Playoffs are even better when goaltending is at its best.
Flyers (finally) finish off Penguins
I’ll admit I panicked. I started wondering where the Flyers 2012 playoff collapse would rank among the worst sporting moments of my life. (I settled on higher than the Eagles Super Bowl loss, but lower than Joe Carter’s bomb and the Eagles NFC Championship Game choke fests to the Bucs and Panthers.) Thankfully, though, the Flyers rallied and finished off the team many experts believed would go on to hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup.
The Flyers win in Game 6 should be attributed to outstanding defense. Unlike Games 2 through 5, the Flyers cleared every lose puck out of harm’s way. Whenever the Penguins charged into the Flyers zone, they were immediately met and challenged. The Flyers aggressively pursued the Pittsburgh puck handlers to prevent the dissection of the Philly defense, something the Penguins successfully did in Games 4 and 5. In fact, the only time the Flyers allowed a Penguin to fly into the Flyers zone unchallenged was on Evgeni Malkin’s goal in the 2nd period. Other than that blown assignment, the Flyers defense was on point.
In fact, I think Peter Laviolette may have shown his young squad D3: The Mighty Ducks before Sunday’s game. To refresh your memory, in D3 the Ducks were taught to “clear the trash” from the front of their goal. No lose pucks, no rebounds. Block shots, protect your goaltender. The Flyers did just that in Game 6. While Ilya Bryzgalov’s performance was certainly an improvement, he still surrendered plenty of juicy rebounds that would have led to Pittsburgh goals had the Flyers defense not been so aggressive in “clearing the trash.” The Flyers blocked more shots in Game 6 than they had all series long, they were always the first to those juicy rebounds, and they outworked the Penguins on the defensive end for arguably the first time this series. It was exactly the type of performance the Flyers will need to advance further into the playoffs.
As enjoyable as it was to see two teams go back and forth and score an outrageous amount of goals, playoff hockey is still won by solid defense and great goaltending. If the Flyers were to meet the Bruins or Rangers in the next round, they won’t have the space and time to score like they did against Pittsburgh. The goals will be tougher to come by and protecting their end of the ice must be more of a priority, especially if Bryzgalov continues to look out of sorts.
Regardless, beating the top offensive team in the NHL is a great accomplishment for such a young team. The resiliency and determination of the Flyers and leaders like Claude Giroux and Danny Briere gives me hope the Flyers can make another deep playoff push similar to their run in 2010. And right now, even a matchup with the New York Rangers can’t diminish that hope.
Could the Top Seeds in the East All Fall?
Speaking of the Rangers, they’re one loss away from going home for the summer. And so are the Bruins. Of the top four seeds in the Eastern Conference, only the surprising Florida Panthers have a lead in their quarterfinal series. It’s still very possible all four bottom seeds in the East advance to the Conference Semifinals, which would be great for the Flyers as they would then become the top seed and by default gain the home ice advantage. At the very least, though, we can only hope both the Capitals and Senators don’t blow a 3-2 series lead. If both do, and the Panthers hold on against the Devils, the Flyers will match up with the New York Rangers with a trip to the conference finals on the line. While this wouldn’t be ideal (considering the Flyers are 0-6 against the Rangers this season), I can’t say I wouldn’t relish the opportunity to watch the Flyers gain some retribution. After all, this is the playoffs. The records are wiped clean. The regular season is a distant memory. With a little more consistency from Bryzgalov, the Flyers have what it takes to win the Cup, regardless of which team stands in the way.