As the Philadelphia Flyers and Buffalo Sabres get ready to meet for the third time in the postseason since the 2005-06 season, both teams enter heading in opposite directions.
The Atlantic Division champion and defending Eastern Conference champion Flyers struggled down the stretch, winning just seven of their final 20 games. Buffalo, on the other hand, plowed its way through its final stretch of the season taking 36 out of a possible 48 points, including two wins over the Flyers in the final month.
Ryan Miller will be healthy after suffering an upper-body injury at the end of March. Chris Pronger is questionable early in the series after breaking a hand. And once again goaltending is a question with the Flyers.
No. 2 Philadelphia Flyers vs. No. 7 Buffalo Sabres
Thursday, April 14, Buffalo at Philadelphia, 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, April 16, Buffalo at Philadelphia, 5 p.m
Monday, April 18 Philadelphia at Buffalo 7 p.m.
Wednesday, April 20 Philadelphia at Buffalo 7 p.m.
*Friday, April 22 Buffalo at Philadelphia 7:30 p.m.
*Sunday, April 24 Philadelphia at Buffalo 3 p.m.
*Tuesday, April 26 Buffalo at Philadelphia TBD
All times Eastern
The Flyers' depth begins up front, where they feature seven 20-goal scorers and the ability to roll four effective lines.
Danny Briere put up Conn Smythe-worthy numbers during Philadelphia's run last season; and as he prepares to face his old mates, the Flyers are hoping his production (career-high 34 goals) continues into the playoffs.
Claude Giroux is one Flyer that the Sabres will need to keep a close eye on. In 29 playoff games over the past two seasons, Giroux has scored 12 goals and 26 points. Same with Ville Leino, who will look to build off a strong 2009 postseason (21 points, 19 games). James van Riemsdyk (21 goals) improved greatly in his sophomore season, while Kris Versteeg scored seven times in 27 games since joining the Flyers in February for his third straight 20-goal campaign.
Captain Mike Richards (66 points), Scott Hartnell (24 goals) and Jeff Carter (36 goals) are three more offensive weapons Peter Laviolette will have at his disposal.
As usual, Thomas Vanek leads the Sabres up front as their main offensive threat, leading them in goals (32), assists (41) and points (73), and tied for the team lead in game-winning goals (five), OT goals (two) and power play goals (11). Backing him up will be Jason Pominville (22 goals), Drew Stafford (31 goals) and newcomer Brad Boyes, who put up 14 points in 21 games since being acquired from St. Louis.
Nathan Gerbe and Tyler Ennis each contributed big goals in their first full seasons in the NHL. Cody McCormick, Patrick Kaleta and Mike Grier will bring the grit, Paul Gaustad (59.8 percent) will take care of the draws, and Rob Niedermayer and Matt Ellis round out the role players will need to be a factor in the series if the Sabres are to advance.
The Sabres are top-heavy in the scoring forwards department, so they will need production from their lower line guys should the likes of Vanek, Stafford and Boyes be held in check by Philly's defense.
Chris Pronger's status for the series is obviously a concern for Philadelphia as his leadership and ability to eat minutes on the blue line is valuable. There's no question about his effectiveness on the Flyers defense and whenever he does return to the lineup, it'll be one more thing for Buffalo to be concerned with.
Even without Pronger, the Flyers possess one of the deepest blue lines in the league. Five defenseman averaged over 20 minutes a night, as well as over 100 shots on the season, with each one of their top six finishing as plus players.
Andrej Meszaros (eight goals, 32 points) had his most productive season in three years. Matt Carle (157 blocked shots) is blossoming into a stalwart blue liner. Then there's longtime partners Braydon Coburn (177 hits) and Kimmo Timonen (22:28 TOI), who aren't afraid to sacrifice the body and complement each other perfectly.
A rough start eventually smoothed for last season's Calder Trophy winner Tyler Myers, so much so that after starting the season a minus-12, he managed to finish a zero. Myers also scored timely goals as his five game-winners tied only Thomas Vanek for the team lead.
Jordan Leopold may return from a broken hand at some point during the series. If he's able to get back in the lineup, Leopold's offensive abilities (13 goals) will help take some pressure off Myers to produce from the back.
Andrej Sekera, who turned his game around since late February, and gritty Steve Montador (123 blocked shots) can contribute offensively while remaining responsible in their own zone. Unheralded Mike Weber brings a physical game (team-high 158 hits) and along with Shaone Morrisonn and Chris Butler will look to be a stabilizing presence in the Sabres' third pairing.
New year, new questions in goal for the Flyers. This time, it's rookie Sergei Bobrovsky's turn to determine the fortunes of Philadelphia's playoff success. Bobrovsky started off with Calder Trophy aspirations and fell behind the pack as the season went on. He'll get his opportunity to prove he's the man for Peter Laviolette, but with Brian Boucher ready to step in at any moment, how long is Bobrovsky's leash be if things get hairy?
Ryan Miller started 31 straight games down the stretch for Buffalo and after sitting for five at the end of the season with an upper-body injury, will that time off benefit him? Miller's not used to such long rest and being the workhorse he is (66 and 69 games the past two seasons), this will be as fresh as he's been heading into the playoffs.
Come on everybody! Grab your shaker of salt and let's waste away in Pegulaville...
Peter Laviolette's hiring turned the Flyers' season around last year. He knows when and how much to push his players and they've responded with great results. Laviolette has already been to two Stanley Cup Finals since the lockout and it's no surprise that he's yielded positive results everywhere he's been.
Since Lindy Ruff was hired by the Sabres, there have been 162 coaching changes in the NHL (including the firings this week). New owner Terry Pegula put to bed any rest of Ruff not coming back for another season when he told reporters, "Ruff ain't going nowhere" during his introductory press conference in February. Three straight 40-win seasons will help that cause.
Buffalo's power play (19.4 percent) finished top 10 in the NHL with Vanek and Stafford leading the way with 11 PPGs, but it's susceptible to the shorthanded goal, allowing 13 when with the extra skater.
Even with the offensive weapons the Flyers possess, their power-play unit struggled. Coming in at a 16.6 percent success rate, they'll have to be better against a Sabres team that killed 83 percent of power plays.
Channel your inner Broad Street Bully with this shirt featuring a modified Flyers logo via Philly.com:
Buffalo is a pretty popular upset pick with many pundits and if that's to happen, Ryan Miller will have to deliver a performance much like he did in the 2010 Winter Olympics for Team USA.
The Flyers struggled down the stretch and come into the postseason prime for an upset. But with the postseason comes a clean slate and the chance to break bad habits. If Pronger can return early, his presence could help right the Flyers' ship. If he continues to be a scratch, Philadelphia's struggles could continue.
Either way, the Flyers are deeper than the Sabres, with or without Pronger, and their physicality should be able to slow Buffalo down enough to edge them in the series.
Prediction - Flyers in six