First-round breakdown: Flyers vs. Sabres
Less than a month ago, the Buffalo Sabres appeared to be ready to turn into an Eastern Conference pumpkin after a long run as the East Cinderella. But they have righted the ship and will enter the playoffs having won seven of eight down the stretch. The streak was significant on a number of fronts that bode well for the Sabres' first playoff appearance since 2001.
First, the Sabres started lighting the lamp once again, scoring four or more goals six times during that stretch and dominating the Senators, Leafs and Hurricanes. At the other end of the rink, goaltender Ryan Miller, who looked like he'd hit the rookie wall with a shaky March, seems to have returned to the form that helped make the Sabres a legitimate playoff threat for most of the regular season.
Home-ice advantage might not be as crucial as the fact the Sabres own the third-best road record in the league and the perplexing Flyers rank 20th in home record. Conversely, the Flyers rank fifth on the road. Go figure.
But the inexplicable has become a way of life for a Flyers team that looked, on paper, to be among the elite this season. Instead, injuries, wonky special teams and inconsistent goaltending have combined to make them a difficult team to assess. Said one scout, "They're always a threat." Yet Philadelphia hasn't won back-to-back games in almost a month. That's no way to win a playoff series, let alone try to win the franchise's first Stanley Cup since 1975.
Although playoff success is never about one player, the Flyers are a dramatically different team with Peter Forsberg in the lineup than they are without him. And, like Dominik Hasek, the daily question about whether Forsberg will be on the ice (he's had injury issues) is bound to be distracting as the playoffs move along.
Why the Sabres will win: One word: balance. All season, head coach Lindy Ruff has rolled out line after line, whether or not his lineup has featured a full compliment of veterans (a rare occurrence) or call-ups from Rochester (a more frequent scenario). Didn't matter. Whoever went over the boards worked their tails off. That's why the Sabres' power play ranks third overall and their penalty killing second, despite the fact that their top scorer, Maxim Afinogenov, finished the season tied for 42nd in league scoring.
The Sabres boast six 20-goal scorers and three more who finished the season with 18 or 19. In spite of their late-season funk, the Sabres embraced the new NHL in a way that few teams can match. "I like Buffalo even though they've slipped," said one top NHL scout. "They can hurt you in so many ways. You have to shut down three lines to stop them."
Defensively, the scout says the team is underrated, although the crucial piece to the blue-line puzzle will be the play of Dmitri Kalinin, who missed almost half the season with injury. Jay McKee, once on the Canadian Olympic radar, has rediscovered his game and led the NHL in shots blocked. Chris Drury has quietly developed into one of the best two-way forwards in the NHL.
Why the Flyers will lose: A month ago, goaltender Robert Esche suggested he had been supplanted as the Flyers starter by Antero Niittymaki, who was sensational in guiding the Finns to a surprise silver medal at the Torino Olympics. Esche wasn't bitter. Just stating a fact. That fact appears not to be so, well, factual, since upon further review it appears Esche will get the start against the Sabres in the series opener.
The move isn't all that surprising given that Esche was terrific during the Flyers' run to the Eastern Conference finals in 2004. But the vacillating also speaks to the Flyers' ongoing identity crisis this season. Both Niittymaki and Esche have shown solid play, but both have also slipped off the rails. The same can be said for the entire team. It seems self-evident, but the fact is the Flyers are simply not an imposing squad without Forsberg. Sweden can say the same thing and has a gold medal to prove it. But Forsberg has missed 23 games, mostly due to a nagging groin injury, and no one can say for certain how long he will be in the lineup.
As the playoffs drew closer, it was more evident how much the Flyers missed captain Keith Primeau, who has missed virtually the entire season with postconcussion issues. He has been practicing with the team in recent days, fueling speculation he may return for the playoffs (don't count on it). Blessed with a plethora of talent, even when Forsberg isn't in the lineup -- with the likes of Simon Gagne, Mike Knuble, Joni Pitkanen, Eric Desjardins and Jeff Carter -- the Flyers continue to struggle to find cohesion. Their power play is ranked just 16th, while their penalty killing is inexplicably ranked 27th. Put all the disjointed pieces together and the picture isn't very pretty.
Prediction: Buffalo in six.
Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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NHL Playoffs: First Round
The matchups are set and the puck drops Friday. We're ready for the NHL playoffs, and Scott Burnside takes a look at each first-round series.
• Lightning vs. Senators
• Canadiens vs. Hurricanes
• Rangers vs. Devils
• Flyers vs. Sabres