Phil Sheridan: A different challenge for Flyers

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The Flyers were 2-1-1 against the Bruins during the regular season. (Yong Kim / Staff file photo)

In an upside-down, topsy-turvy Stanley Cup tournament, there's no way for the Flyers to get a handhold on their second-round series until it begins Saturday.

Look around the Eastern Conference. The top three seeds - Washington, New Jersey, Buffalo - are gone. The three top goaltenders - Vezina Trophy finalists Martin Brodeur, Ryan Miller, and Ilya Bryzgalov - are gone. A No. 6 seed has home-ice advantage.

That would be Boston, the team the Flyers will face. It is a scenario as unlikely as beating the Devils in the first round only to face Satan (as in Miroslav) in the second.

You almost - almost - got the sense the Flyers felt let down by this stunning turn of events. Just a few days ago, the Capitals had a lead of three games to one over Montreal and the Flyers were practicing with Alex Ovechkin's picture on their mental dart boards. They had a good idea of how to approach the Caps and a strong belief they could win.

Then eighth-seeded Montreal won three games in a row and, just like that, the Flyers were booking hotel space in Boston instead of D.C.

"When it was 3-1, obviously you think Washington is going to close it out," Flyers goalie Brian Boucher said Thursday. "It just goes to show you the parity in this league. Anything can happen on any night."

The entire dynamic of this series is different. It isn't necessarily bad for the Flyers, but it is different from what they were expecting for most of their (too-much?) time off. They would have played a Washington team coming off an emotionally charged Game 7. That combination of mental fatigue and tired legs would have given the Flyers an opportunity to overwhelm the Caps in Game 1.

Instead, they get the rested Bruins, who got an emotional lift when the Canadiens eliminated the Caps. Instead of starting out on the road in Pittsburgh, against the defending Stanley Cup champs, the Bruins have home-ice advantage against a team missing Jeff Carter, Simon Gagne, and Ian Laperriere. It has to look and feel like a more winnable series to Boston.

The Caps had goaltending troubles, with Jose Theodore being benched early in the first round in favor of Semyon Varlamov, who was in net as his team blew a 3-1 series lead.

The Bruins eliminated Miller and Buffalo thanks in large part to the excellent play of rookie goalie Tuukka Rask.

As odd it sounds, then, the Flyers might have been better off facing the team with the best regular-season record in the NHL. They are built to match up with a superstar such as Ovechkin or Sidney Crosby. In the Bruins, they get a team that is deeper and more defense-minded. A team, in other words, more like their own.

"They have a very deep lineup," Flyers defenseman Kimmo Timonen said. "They have three really good centermen, and they play really tight defense. We tried to practice the way they play."

There are three keys to this series for the Flyers. The first and most obvious is Boucher. He was outstanding against the Devils, getting into a groove and staying there for the series. It will be a challenge for him to flick a switch after a nine-day layoff and pick up where he left off.

But then, Boucher has waited nine years for another chance to be a playoff goaltender. So what's nine days?

The second factor is energy. You see it throughout the playoffs, throughout all big-game hockey. The team that hits the ice with what the players call "jump" has a huge advantage. Think of Russian Olympic goalie Bryzgalov's remark after his team was blown out by Team Canada: "They came at us like gorillas coming out of a cage."

That's how the Flyers must take the ice in Game 1, especially. They have to send the message, right away, that they plan to take the game to the Bruins.

"We're going to have to be ready right off the hop," Boucher said. "For me, that's more of a mental thing than physical. We have to be ready to go and not ease into the series."

Finally, the Flyers have to be smart. They survived too many penalties in Round 1 because of a smothering penalty-killing unit. Without Gagne and especially Laperriere, they are down two of the players who made that unit effective. Thanks to Claude Giroux and Danny Briere, the Flyers were able to make up for the scoring lost with Gagne and Carter. This is tougher.

The playoffs are a war of attrition. Two years ago, injuries finally caught up to the Flyers in the conference final. They already are without three important forwards. It might have been tough to outscore the Capitals that way.

But then, in this upside-down tournament, they don't have to.

 


Contact columnist Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844 or psheridan@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/philsheridan.