The Islanders swept the Flyers in the clubs’ three-game regular-season series, but Philly has been one of the hottest teams in the Toronto bubble. Who will come out on top in the series that begins Monday?
What we learned in the first round: The Flyers turned a lot of heads for the way they finished the regular season (tied with the Bruins for the best record from Jan. 8 on) then ran the table in round-robin play to earn a No. 1 seed. While Philadelphia’s defense — highlighted by rising stars Ivan Provorov, Philippe Myers and Travis Sanheim — continued to garner rave reviews, its offense stalled out against the Montreal Canadiens, scoring only 11 goals in six games. Philly didn’t wow anyone with how it eliminated Montreal. But style points don’t matter at this time of year. The important thing is the Flyers did it, advancing past the first round for the first time since 2012. It’s an pivotal moment for the franchise, which had been stockpiling excellent prospects and now gets to see the plan coming to fruition.
Barry Trotz is coaching the heck out of the Islanders. New York decimated Trotz’s old friends — a much flashier Washington Capitals team — with its signature stingy defensive structure and focus. The Isles, who have yet to allow more than 30 shots in a game this postseason, have outscored teams 11-4 in third periods. They’re also coming alive on offense, averaging 3.33 goals per game, fourth best among teams this summer — and a significant uptick from their 2.78 goals per game in the regular season. That’s mostly thanks to the top two lines, as depth production remains an issue.
First line: Coach Alain Vigneault has been shuffling the Flyers’ lines quite a bit this summer, but Sean Couturier and Jakub Voracek are first-line constants. Voracek is on a tear (four goals, seven points in six games versus Montreal) and we all know what Couturier provides defensively. It would be nice to see rookie Joel Farabee (two goals vs. Montreal) get more looks with the duo. New York’s trio of Jordan Eberle, Mathew Barzal and Anders Lee controls possession and has been on the ice for only one goal against at 5-on-5 this summer. Still waiting on more of an offensive breakout from the trio, though. Advantage: Tie
Forward depth: Don’t look now, but second-liner Anthony Beauvillier is tied for the summer lead with six goals. The 23-year-old has arrived. Beauvillier’s line, with him alongside the underrated Brock Nelson and Josh Bailey, has been a revelation for New York, which still isn’t getting (and probably doesn’t expect much) production from the bottom six. The Flyers have a more well-rounded bottom nine, which includes X factor James van Riemsdyk. The veteran has been in and out of the lineup as a healthy scratch, but could add a well-rested boost — especially on the power play. Advantage: Flyers
Defense: Since the Flyers’ top goal scorers were having a tough time breaking through against Montreal, they’ll rely heavily on their blue line. That’s fine, because Philly’s defensive group is solid, with a good group of youngsters and veterans, plus a blend of styles. Shayne Gostisbehere is trying to revive his career and might come in for an extra offensive boost. You know what you’re going to get from the Islanders’ defense, and it’s tough to penetrate. New York has allowed 1.67 goals per game through its nine games so far. The Isles also block 18.62 shots per 60 minutes, most of any team remaining in the tournament. Advantage: Tie
Goaltending: The spotlight was on 22-year-old Carter Hart in the first round, and he delivered for Philadelphia, going toe to toe with his childhood idol, Carey Price. Hart had two dud games against Montreal, but in each case rebounded nicely (including back-to-back shutouts in Games 3 and 4 after getting pulled in Game 2). Hart leads all goalies in the bubble (minimum six starts) with a .943 save percentage. But it’s hard to find many faults right now with the Islanders’ Semyon Varlamov, who has a .934 save percentage through nine games. Advantage: Tie
Coaching: It’s a matchup of two veteran coaches. Trotz and Vigneault rank fourth and 10th, respectively, in career games coached in NHL history. Both have taken teams on long playoff runs and aren’t afraid to tweak their lineups for matchup edges — which means making veterans such as Derick Brassard (Islanders) or van Riemsdyk (Flyers) healthy scratches, things some coaches would be afraid to do at this point. Advantage: Tie
Special teams: Woe is the Flyers’ power play, which looked rotten until Voracek scored a pair of power-play goals in Game 5 against the Canadiens (an eventual loss). Philly’s man advantage is operating at just 10.3% this summer (not great at all) and will be a focal point. The Isles are more competent, at 15.8%. Statistically, Philly (80.7%) has a better penalty kill than New York (75% right now). Advantage: Tie
Prediction: Flyers in six. While this could shape up to be a tight defensive battle, the Flyers have a more explosive forward group. If Philadelphia’s offense can get past whatever ailed it against Montreal, it should be able to advance.