Inside the Flyers: Flyers' stars need to step up and take control of the series with the Devils

Scott Hartnell (19) is among the Flyers who are not producing as they did in the regular season.
Scott Hartnell (19) is among the Flyers who are not producing as they did in the regular season. (YONG KIM / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 06, 2012

The Flyers' stars aren't shining. The Devils' stars are.

That's one of the many reasons New Jersey has a two-games-to-one lead over the Flyers in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

The upstart Flyers seemed destined for a spot in the conference finals after pushing aside the Team That Was Supposed to Win the Stanley Cup, the Pittsburgh Penguins, while the aging Devils had to huff and puff in their quarterfinal series to slip past a Florida team that had more losses than wins in the regular season.

So what has happened? Why have the Devils - who have the highest average age (30.2) of any of this year's 16 playoff qualifiers - looked fresher and gained the upper hand in a Turnpike Series that will resume Sunday night in Newark?

The list is long.

Scott Hartnell (37 regular-season goals), Wayne Simmonds (28), Claude Giroux (28), and Jaromir Jagr (19) have combined for one goal and six points in the three games.

By comparison, the Devils' Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Parise, Patrik Elias, and David Clarkson have totaled five goals and 13 points. "I know I have to step it up," said Giroux, who had 14 points and was plus-6 against Pittsburgh, but has just one point and is minus-3 in the Devils series. "I have to find a way."

Unlike the Penguins in the first round, the tight-checking Devils have clogged the neutral zone and prevented the Flyers from showcasing their speed. Asked Thursday if he preferred a more wide-open game, Flyers coach Peter Laviolette said it was "irrelevant" what he wanted. If the Flyers can't get their speed game working, they will be irrelevant before too long.

The Flyers' power play, which clicked at an off-the-charts 12 for 23 (52.2 percent) against Pittsburgh, is 2 for 16 (12.5 percent) against the Devils, who are much more aggressive on their penalty kill than the Penguins. In Thursday's 4-3 overtime loss in New Jersey, the Flyers failed on two (rare) PP chances in overtime, managing a total of one shot in those four minutes.

"Their penalty-kill unit is outworking us by a mile," Danny Briere said after Thursday's loss, "and it's the reason we've lost the last two games."

Intangibles. The Flyers haven't played badly, but they haven't matched the Devils' relentlessness and physicality. An aggressive forecheck has been the Flyers' calling card all season, but it's New Jersey that has displayed that aspect of the game.

"I think especially the last two games, they've outhustled us," Hartnell said. "They've won the majority of the battles. It's frustrating to almost always be defending the whole game. It's definitely something that needs to be addressed."

Defensive miscues. The Devils scored Thursday's overtime victory because they took advantage of errors by Flyers defensemen. Kovalchuk scored after he was left alone in the slot because Braydon Coburn and Nick Grossmann got tangled. Parise scored on a stuffer because he got position on Matt Carle and outskated him to a puck. Alexei Ponikarovsky scored the game-winner because of rookie defenseman's Erik Gustafsson bad line change.

The good news for the Flyers is that despite the flaws, they can take away the home-ice advantage with a few adjustments Sunday.

But more than anything, they need their big-time scorers to awaken. Briere, the King of Spring, is trying to carry the team on his diminutive shoulders, but he needs some help.

Giroux played coy, but he seems hindered by a hand or wrist injury. Giroux was, by far, the team's best faceoff man (53.7 percent success rate) in the regular season, yet Hartnell (31.7 percent) took some of his draws Thursday. "Just trying to get him some draws," Giroux said with a straight face.

Hartnell also hasn't been himself since blocking a shot and injuring his foot and ankle early in Game 1. Perhaps the two days between games will speed his recovery.

And one wonders if Jagr is again bothered by a groin problem that sidelined him during the season. The hard-working winger has been ineffective - and looked slower - in this series, and he was taken off the top line Thursday.

Again, the break between games could help the healing process.

If it doesn't, if they lose Game 4 and suffer a rare (for them) third straight defeat, there's a good bet they will have most of May and all summer to heal.


Contact Sam Carchidi at scarchidi@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @BroadStBull.

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