When the Philadelphia Flyers went into their game one matchup with the Buffalo Sabres on Thursday, it was their defense and goaltender that faced the most scrutiny. In the final stretch of their season, the Flyers struggled to maintain focus on the defensive end of the ice and rookie goalie Sergei Bobrovsky did the same. However, in game one it was the Flyers’ offense that failed to live up to the billing as Ryan Miller and the Sabres took the series opener, 1-0.
How surprising was it that the Flyers couldn’t muster any offense? Considering that Buffalo limited second chances and traffic in front of last year’s Vezina Trophy winner, it wasn’t surprising at all. Philadelphia’s best chances came with the man advantage, and for all of the success that the NHL’s third highest offense has had this season, their power play has been mediocre. The Bullies on Broad Street’s 16.6 success rate in the regular season was good for only 19th in the league.
Without defenseman Chris Pronger in the lineup, the power play continued the struggles of the regular season, and it cost them dearly. It looked like the fortunes of the power play would change when Sabres defenseman Shaone Morrison slashed Mike Richards and gave Philadelphia 38 seconds of a five-on-three advantage in the second period. However, the Flyers could only muster one official shot on net with two extra men on the ice.
Philadelphia defenseman Matt Carle was especially disappointed at the wasted opportunity, “Any time you get the opportunity to have a five-on-three I think you need to score…” he stated simply. “It’s one of those things where it’s a momentum killer. The other team picks up momentum as well if they kill it off, so that was a big turning point I think.”
Despite the lack of potency on the man advantage, the game’s momentum and result was still in doubt entering the third period with zeroes on the scoreboard. Then, the first Flyers lapse on defense made all the difference. Young defenseman Danny Syvret was caught a step behind Buffalo’s Patrick Kaleta on a hard rebound after Bobrovsky kicked out his left pad to stop a Marc-Andre Gragnani blast. Kaleta hit the wide-open net with just over 14 minutes remaining in the game to give the Sabres all the scoring they would need.
Although the goal was the most important play of the game, Kaleta downplayed his role in scoring, “I just went to the net…” He explained, “It started off with a good play by [Nathan Gerbe] down low being hard on the puck and then [Paul Gaustad] with a great pass to [Gragnani] and Grags with a good shot and I just went to the net and finished my rebound.”
The play was another instance that showed how much the Flyers miss their number one defenseman, Pronger. Syvret’s activation and insertion into the starting lineup was a direct result of Pronger’s inability to recover from hand surgery in time for game one. But, one play or misplay by Syvret was not the reason that the Eastern Conference’s second seed skated off their home ice defeated.
For Philadelphia to be successful in the series, they will have to find a way to disrupt Buffalo’s ability to play a defensive-minded game. Despite having 35 shots on goal, few were unseen by Miller. The lack of traffic and side to side movement made one of the best goalies in the league’s job much easier. And, adding zero goals on 11 shots from the power play unit didn’t help either.
“Obviously we have to get more bodies in front of Ryan [Miller], more screens and tips, and maybe a little more hungry on these pucks,” the Flyers’ captain Richards lamented afterwards. “…give [Buffalo] credit; they did a good job clearing house and getting second and third opportunities away.”
Thursday night, Buffalo drew up the carbon copy for any team to win on the road in the Stanley Cup playoffs; play well defensively, score late, and clamp down on the opposition. It was no surprise that the Sabres performed so well, as they’ve been one of the hottest teams in the NHL as the season came to a close.
Instead, it was Philadelphia’s lack of offense that was the game’s biggest surprise. If they continue to struggle, it will only be a microcosm of a much bigger surprise in the first round.