April 26, 2011
As hockey fans, we're used to clichés like "goaltending wins championships" and "hard work beats talent if talent doesn't work hard." For those very reasons, we knew the Philadelphia Flyers weren't going to win in a walk against the Buffalo Sabres in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
But when the dust settled on the series in Pennsylvania today, it was hard to comprehend how that battle ever went seven games. Simply put: the better team won tonight.
The Flyers won 5-2 after two late goals by Buffalo in the third period, and the game was never in doubt.
After 20 minutes of hockey, you got the impression that maybe the deeper team with the boatload of playoff experience from last year was prepared to take no prisoners. They were out-shooting Buffalo (16-2), out-scoring them (1-0), and controlling the play (trust us).
Buffalo didn't look like they could hang.
And despite some fantastic play by some quality players on the other side — including NHL all-star Ryan Miller(notes), who was inexplicably yanked after a Ville Leino(notes) bomb in the third period — they couldn't.
Heading into this series and during it, the Flyers faced heaps of justified questions about their goaltending. It just isn't that great, compared to other NHL teams, and there aren't many people who would call that an unfair statement. But poor goaltending doesn't matter if your goalie doesn't encounter many troublesome shots, and Buffalo never tested Brian Boucher(notes) when it mattered.
The Flyers finished with eight more shots than the Sabres (36-28) despite giving up half of those in the third, well after they'd switched to playing hockey's version of the prevent defense. Aside from Drew Stafford's(notes) seven shots, no player on the Sabres side threatened the orange-and-black cage with any consistency.
The most deflating thing for Sabres fans in Game 7 — aside from the first goal, where Mike Grier(notes) tried to glove down the World's Most Harmless Shot and redirected it past first period stud Ryan Miller — was the utter presence of hopelessness.
Sabres fans never had a chance to believe, from starting on their heels to finishing on their backs.
Halfway through the second period and down 3-0, Darren Pang conducted one of those still-invasive-but-not-as-bad-when-it's-not-Pierre-McGuire bench interviews with Lindy Ruff, who sounded like the series had been over for days. Citing problems due to personnel issues, he Droopy-Dog'd a couple responses that seemed resigned to failure.
Sadly, that pushback from Coach Ruff resembled the pushback from the Sabres on the ice — turns out he may have been right in his assessment of things at that point.
They badly missed Patrick Kaleta's(notes) grit and intensity. While Paul Gaustad(notes) did his best to seem agitated and angry, the scrums never came from mutual frustration as much as they seemed to come from Sabres players who seemed to be making attempts at pseudo-matching the Flyers intensity.
To the Sabres' credit (which they deserve a lot of), this was one heck of a well-contested series for a seven-seed, and today's game just didn't do their quality of work justice. The Flyers were a two-seed because they have unparalleled depth, and when they bring it, it's a tough group to reign in no matter who's in net. And that was the case tonight.
The future for the Sabres is a bright one, and their fans should keep their chins up tonight. Their effort in game seven didn't do their proud push justice, as much as the players obviously wanted it to.
For the rest of the hockey world, it brings a very interesting situation into play — if the Bruins win in Boston tomorrow night we're looking at a Flyers-Bruins rematch from last year. The first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs have been terrific, and it looks like there's only more to come.