NHL Playoffs: Philadelphia Flyers vs. New Jersey Devils – Key Matchups
Photo Courtesy of Paul Bereswill/Getty Images
By Charlie O’Connor (@THG_Charlie)
On the heels of their convincing six-game victory over Stanley Cup favorite Pittsburgh, the Philadelphia Flyers are scheduled to face yet another division rival. The New Jersey Devils, coming off a dramatic double-overtime Game 7 victory over the Southeast Division champions, the Florida Panthers, will pose a new test for the Flyers.
Unlike the high scoring Penguins, the Devils prefer to win relatively low-scoring, tight games. Their 64.9% winning percentage in one-goal games during the regular season was second only to the Tampa Bay Lightning. In addition, their league-leading penalty kill (89.6%) helps to keep opponents off the scoresheet. But this isn’t a trapping team full of role players like the great Devils teams of the late 90s and early 00s – Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise can both rightfully be ranked amongst the top 15 forwards in the world.
The Flyers faced the Devils in six contests during the regular season, winning three games in regulation, losing two in regulation, and losing one game in a shootout. The Flyers outscored New Jersey 18-15 in the six regular season games. But just like the Flyers’ victory against the Penguins, the victor in this series will be decided by the matchups.
1) Sean Couturier line vs. Ilya Kovalchuk/Zach Parise
Aside from Claude Giroux, Philadelphia’s most important forward in the Penguins series was the 19-year old rookie, Sean Couturier. He nullified presumptive league MVP Evgeni Malkin at even strength, allowing Malkin to score only one even strength point while Couturier was on the ice. Along with Maxime Talbot, Couturier has been given the assignment of shutting down the opponent’s top line since March 13th.
Interestingly enough, Peter Laviolette began using Couturier’s line in the role after a 4-1 March 11th loss to none other than the New Jersey Devils. On March 13th, the Flyers defeated the Devils in the second half of a home-and-home series, as Couturier succeeded in containing the Devils’ top line of Adam Henrique, Zach Parise, and Ilya Kovalchuk (combined plus/minus: -5).
Unlike the Penguins, who choose to split their all-world forwards (Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby) across two lines, the Devils prefer to stack their top line with Kovalchuk and Parise. This could play into the Flyers’ hands – as long as Couturier and his linemates can contain Kovalchuk/Parise as well as they contained Malkin in Round One.
The Devils’ top line has a slightly different look than it did on March 13th, as a newly-healthy Travis Zajac has taken the center position from rookie Henrique. In the Devils’ first round victory over Florida, Zajac, Kovalchuk and Parise combined for eight goals – 44.4% of the Devils’ total goals in the series. If Couturier can neutralize the Devils’ top line, the Flyers could be looking at a sweep or a five game victory. If he cannot contain Parise and Kovalchuk, this series can easily go the full seven games, essentially turning the outcome into a coin flip.
2) Claude Giroux vs. Patrik Elias
Claude Giroux spent most of the Pittsburgh series taking his even strength shifts against the widely-accepted best player in the world (Crosby), or a former Selke Trophy finalist (Jordan Staal). The result was a playoff-leading 14 points, including nine at even strength. So now Giroux will get an easy matchup as a reward, right?
Not necessarily. With Sean Couturier likely taking the vast majority of the shifts against Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise, Giroux will see most of his even strength ice time against Patrik Elias. The 36-year old Elias quietly had his best season in years, finishing with 78 points (26 goals, 52 assists) while constantly facing tough competition (1st on NJD in CorsiRel QualComp).
This will be a battle of youth versus guile, energy versus experience. Elias will surely have his hands full trying to contain the best forward remaining in the playoffs, but Giroux will have to contend with one of the league’s most underrated two-way players. Elias is also a point-per-game player in his career against the Flyers (75 points in 76 games) and always seems to raise his game versus Philadelphia.
3) Flyers PP vs. Devils PK
The Flyers’ power play in their quarterfinal victory over the Penguins was nothing short of unstoppable. Philadelphia scored 12 goals on 23 power play opportunities, finishing with an eye-popping 52.2% success rate. On the other hand, the Devils’ 66.7% rate in their first round matchup against Florida was the worst percentage of any team that actually made it through to the second round.
Still, the playoff numbers do not tell the whole story.
First round struggles aside, the New Jersey Devils boasted the NHL’s top penalty kill during the regular season, posting a stellar 89.6% success rate. And while the Flyers’ sixth-ranked power play during the regular season was very good, their 19.7% efficiency rate is nowhere close to the stratospheric statistics that they posted during the Penguins’ series. Both the Flyers’ power play and the Devils penalty kill are due for an inevitable regression. In addition, the Flyers converted only 3 of 33 power play opportunities (9.1%) against the Devils in the regular season.
If Philadelphia’s power play continues to click at even half of their success rate against Pittsburgh, it will be very difficult for the Devils to pull off a series upset. By the same token, if the Devils cannot fix their penalty killing woes from the opening round, they will be in for a short stay in the semifinals. But if New Jersey can regain their PK prowess from the regular season and neutralize one of the key reasons for the Flyers’ opening round victory, they will be one step closer to the conference finals.