There are two very surprising facts about the Bruins and Flyers meeting in the 2010 Eastern Conference Semifinals starting on Saturday. First off, with the way these two squads spent most of the season battling injuries and lackluster play it is a shock that not just one, but both, of these teams are playing for a spot in the Conference Final. Secondly, a glance back in history shows that this is just the fifth time these two perennial powers will meet in the postseason.
All four of the previous meetings came in the 1970s, including a heartbreaking Stanley Cup Final loss for the Bruins in 1974. From 1976-78, the teams met in the semifinals three times, with Boston winning twice. It was those four playoff meetings in five years that truly defined the rivalry between the “Big, Bad Bruins” and the “Broad Street Bullies”. Those two teams were the sandpaper of the NHL and did not like each other. It was mostly a case of familiarity building contempt, because the two organizations were so similar – superstars (Bobby Orr and Bobby Clarke), the ability to outscore you and outfight you, and fanbases that would fight right alongside the players if allowed to.
Since those epic battles in the 1970s, the B’s and Flyers have each been regulars in the playoffs and both teams have made countless conference finals and a few Stanley Cup Finals. Still, they have not met in the playoffs, somewhat taking away from this old rivalry as the Bruins refocused on Montreal and the Flyers kept up their turf wars with the Penguins, Devils and Rangers in the tri-state area.
That will all change on Saturday afternoon on Causeway Street as these two teams continue on their 2010 resurgence tours through the Eastern Conference. Both teams were counted among the top four along with Washington and Pittsburgh when the season started. However, injuries to key players (Marc Savard and Milan Lucic for the B’s and Jeff Carter and Ray Emery for the Flyers) left both teams fighting for their playoff lives in the final week of the regular season. In fact, the Flyers are only in the playoffs because Brian Boucher (Rhode Island’s own) came up with a big save in a shootout on the last day of the season against the Rangers. Now, they are four wins from an Eastern Conference Final’s appearance.
It is safe to say that neither team, once they made the playoffs, has backed their way into the second round. The Flyers steamrolled the Devils in five games, barely ever trailing to Martin Brodeur and the vaunted Devils defense. The B’s needed an extra game to down Buffalo, but showed extreme gumption in coming back from multiple two-goal deficits. Both sides have to feel confident heading into this series, but the tipping point should be in favor of the Bruins on the confidence meter, if at least only early in the series.
The B’s will be welcoming back Marc Savard on Saturday who has received full clearance after his concussion suffered at the hands of Matt Cooke in early March. While he may not have complete game legs and will need a while to get his timing back, he gives the Bruins an added weapon on the power play and in situations where offense is needed. The Flyers, on the other hand, are without two top weapons for the start of the series. Both Simon Gagne and Jeff Carter broke a foot in Game 4 while blocking shots. It appears as if Gagne is closer to returning, perhaps as early as Game 1. Carter is up in the air in terms of his return. Both play wing on the Flyers’ top lines and see extensive power play time. The massive juggling of lines due to these injuries could mess with the cohesion the Flyers have had on their lines all season as the forward group hasn’t been too impacted by injury. Trying to bring up AHL players to play big minutes in the playoffs is always a dangerous proposition, but that is what the Flyers face in the first few games of the series.
For those of you faithful readers, you know that I am looking to go 2-for-2 on my predictions in regards to the Bruins. In the first round, I said that the Bruins would get a split on the road to start, sweep the two home games and lock up the series at home in Game 6. Consider my back patted…
So, Tuukka Rask goes from facing the presumptive favorite for the Vezina Trophy to a career journeyman backup who is playing out of his mind at the moment. Still, it is hard to consider Rask the better goaltender based on the first round performances. After the first round, Brian Boucher led the playoffs in GAA (1.59) and save% (.940) as he stonewalled Ilya Kovalchuk and company. He was not as flashy as Rask was in his duel with Ryan Miller, but he was effective. Similar to how Rask has provided a calming presence to Boston’s defense this season, so has Boucher to Philly after the madness that is Ray Emery in goal. The question is can Boucher keep it up for a second round. On the flip side, the question could be raised whether or not Rask is capable of continuing his Cam Ward impersonation from Carolina’s Cup run. He was continuously one save better than Miller and was without question the MVP of the series. In Philly, he will face a team with more firepower even with Gagne and Carter out. He went 1-0-1 against the Flyers, during the regular season including a 5-1 win in the teams’ last meeting.
Edge: It is probably even, but I am leaning towards the Bruins. Both goalies are in the zone to start the series and have no reason to feel worry. However, the pall that hangs over Philadelphia goaltending could get difficult for Boucher to handle if things get tough. Plus, if the teams need to go to a backup, the Bruins have Tim Thomas while the Flyers have Sebastien Caron.
This matchup is a very interesting one. The Flyers have two of the most sound veterans in the playoffs in Chris Pronger and Kimmo Timonen. They give the Flyers a chance to matchup against two Boston lines pretty well. Behind them, Matt Carle and Braydon Coburn have had their games lifted by playing with the two vets. They play physical and make teams pay to get space in the zone. Similar to the Bruins, the third pairing is a crapshoot and doesn’t see much ice after the first half of the game if it is a tight one. The three guys who played spots 5-6 in the first series averaged about 10 minutes a game. Clearly, Peter Laviolette doesn’t want to play them if he doesn’t have to. For the B’s, Zdeno Chara anchors things as always. He has the cage off and is free to get as nasty as he wants. He will see a lot of Mike Richards’ line in this series as they are the de facto top line with Carter out. Johnny Boychuk as slid in amazingly as Chara’s partner, throwing his weight around and patrolling the neutral zone with a fury. The Dennis Wideman/Matt Hunwick pairing is a roller coaster, alternating between inspired offensive play and bumbling defensive clearing attempts. The Flyers, even with the injuries, have solid depth on the second line and this pairing will need to be more secure in its own end if the Bruins are to succeed. There was some good news on Thursday as Mark Stuart started skating and could be back if this series goes 6 or 7 games. Until then, the B’s have to hope a gimpy Andrew Ferrence and a uneasy Adam McQuaid don’t hurt them any more than Philly’s third pairing does.
Edge: Much like goaltending, this is somewhat even. However, Pronger has the experience in carrying a team past the second round and Timonen is one of the best two-way defensemen in the NHL. There is no absolute trust in anyone on the Bruins blue line past Chara and Boychuk. Slight edge to the FLYERS.
It is interesting that for two teams who won their first round series, the Flyers and Bruins both enter Round 2 with juggled lines. Usually you don’t mess with success, but injuries have forced both sides to do so. The Flyers have moved up slick winger Claude Giroux to the first line with Richards and certified pest Dan Carcillo. The French-Canadian Hobbit Danny Briere has slid over to center on the second line with the ugliest man in the playoffs Scottie Hartnell and season-long scratch Ville Leino. The third line as a guy who spent all season in the AHL (Jared Ross) centering struggling rookie James van Riemsdyk and glue guy Aaron Asham. The fourth line has penalty killing wizard Blair Betts between Daryl Powe and Andreas Nodl (i.e. a pure defensive/crash line). With the injuries to Carter and Gagne as well as the devastating head injury that Ian Laperierre suffered while blocking a shot in the final game against New Jersey, not one of the four lines is the same as in the Devils series. Will these new groups find chemistry? At the same time, the Bruins have Marc Savard back and are moving some bodies around to fit him in. Based on yesterday’s practice, the Milan Lucic-David Krejci-Miroslav Satan line that clicked in Game 6 will stay the same. Marco Sturm will move back to left wing with Patrice Bergeron and Mark Recchi to see if he can find his offensive game. Savard will center a line Michael Ryder and Daniel Paille. Vladimir Sobotka sticks at center with Blake Wheeler and Steve Begin. Hard to argue with those lines. Sturm has always played his best with Bergeron, so maybe the switch can help him get back in a groove. Krejci and Satan have good chemistry and Lucic helps clear space for those two. Putting Savard with Paille helps on defense and with as hot as Ryder has been playing, all Savard has to do is get him the puck. Plus, I would expect to see more of Sobotka at center with them as games progress to keep Savard fresh and on the power play as needed. It is tough to see Shawn Thornton sit, but Begin and Wheeler are ace penalty killers and that will most likely be needed as the series goes on. However, if things get spirited and the B’s don’t respond well, expect a hungry Thornton back in the lineup.
Edge: As the teams currently sit, one has to lean toward the Bruins. The Flyers have a dangerous first line, but unless Hartnell and van Riemsdyk turn it on, there isn’t much behind them at the moment. Now, if Carter and Gagne are back by Game 3, then they get a whole lot more dangerous on paper – but I still don’t trust two guys with a broken foot. The B’s found an offensive game against the best goalie in the league last series and showed a knack for the clutch.
A few other notes:
I have a hard time seeing the Bruins losing this series. They are looking to this as vindication for last year’s playoffs and the 2009-10 regular season. The B’s need a sweep at home to start, as giving the Flyers life as they head back home is often deadly. The Wachovia Center crowd is legit in terms of its effect on a game. Plus, I want to have a big swagger about me when I step into the barn for Game 3 on Wednesday. I am taking my life into my own hands, but will feel better about it if the Bruins are up 2-0.
Other predictions: Marco Sturm shows up big in one of the first two games at home. At least one period ends in a full line scrum/brawl after a late hit by Daniel Carcillo on either Krejci or Savard. Danny Briere potentially hits puberty when he walks by B.U. on a sunny May Sunday day. NBC shows 1000 highlights from the 1970s during Saturday’s game. I get 3 beers thrown on me Wednesday night and am told how much I suck 72 times. I make roughly 25 jokes (not counting the one above) on how little and French Briere is to my girlfriend, resulting in 25 dirty looks and a serious lack of kissyface. When the series is over, my ladyfriend accepts her loss like the gracious woman she is, sports her Cam Neely shirt she bought for last year’s playoffs and heads off with me to Pittsburgh to yell nasty things at Cindy Crosby.
In preparation, here are a couple Bruins-Flyers videos to get you all fired up for Saturday.