This year's first round has been unlike any other. Well, at least in recent memory. When's the last time so many higher seeds faced such tough opposition just to reach the second round? Of course, if you're our resident Devil blogger, you've seen this act before. If only it were that simple. Just ask San Jose's Dan Boyle and Vancouver's Roberto Luongo.
Tonight, the Devils face a must win in hostile territory against the dreaded Flyers. Unless you really believe lightning can strike twice a decade apart, it's highly unlikely that they can rally from 3-1 down. Even if it's Brian Boucher. Thus far, it's the Flyers winning the little battles and burying their opportunities. Though it took sudden death and an odd hero in pugilist Daniel Carcillo, anyone can attest to it getting that far thanks to splendid goaltending from future Hall Of Famer Martin Brodeur, who did everything possible to steal Game Three. If only his teammates had been as willing. Following a much improved Game Two that drew them even, New Jersey relapsed. Instead of attacking at every turn, they overpassed- wasting precious opportunities on the power play.
Sure. The Devs cashed in twice thanks to the Ilya Kovalchuk-Brian Rolston combo with their best player Dainius Zubrus in front. No shots from Kovalchuk and two from Zach Parise just won't cut it. Neither will poor efforts from Patrik Elias, Travis Zajac and invisible captain Jamie Langenbrunner. Those are the best players who should be making a difference in this series. Instead, it's Zubrus and Rolston carrying the load. Against a skilled team that features Mike Richards, Simon Gagne, Claude Giroux, Chris Pronger, Kimmo Timonen along with Daniel Briere and Jeff Carter, that just won't cut it. It's time for the big guns along with Paul Martin to step up and give Brodeur some help. It would also be nice if Jacques Lemaire remembered what worked. Changing D pairs and not going back to say ZZ Popp or Zubrus-Zajac-Parise is having an adverse affect. He needs to wake up as does his team.
While the Devs certainly have their work cut out for them, the Sabres need to find the back of the net. It hasn't come easy against bright freshman Tuukka Rask, who stymied them making 32 saves en route to a 2-1 Game Three win that steered the Bruins in front. After a hard fought one-goal win in Game One and a 2-0 lead early in Game Two, Lindy Ruff's crew looked to be in good shape. But then Thomas Vanek went down and everything changed. Over the last five periods, Buffalo's been outscored 7-2 and now face a critical Game Four tomorrow in Beantown. Are they up to the challenge?
For most of what's been a nice bounce back season that's seen the guys represent Western New York by making its first postseason since a Conference Final appearance three years ago, they've been a feisty, resilient bunch. We've seen them comeback to win games they looked dead in. Facing a bitter rival is always tough. Especially given how air tight Claude Julien's club plays minus offensive leader Marc Savard, who's getting close to returning. Without Vanek, the Sabres have struggled to finish. They're also minus Jochen Hecht, who certainly can help. Derek Roy has had a disappointing series and Tim Connolly has done zilch since returning. If they don't get more from their top two pivots, it'll be a very bitter end to such a promising year.
No Sabre has more than a goal including Jason Pominville, who finished strong. If Vanek isn't available tomorrow, he must light the lamp. Deadline pickup Raffi Torres has yet to score since coming over from Columbus. But he does lead the team with two assists- the same amount Henrik Tallinder has. Vanek also had two points- a goal and helper before going down. All year, Ruff's crew were a T-E-A-M who didn't rely on one player to score. How else did they score 231 goals when their offensive leader Vanek had 28? They'll need more from rookie Tyler Myers along with rugged forwards Patrick Kaleta, Paul Gaustad and Matt Ellis, who can't be getting outmuscled by 42 year-old Mark Recchi like on last night's Patrice Bergeron winner. That simply won't cut it.
Drew Stafford and rook Tyler Ennis are also being looked upon for offense. They'll need to be more involved and aid Ryan Miller, who's been the heart and soul all season long. It goes without saying that Miller will do his part. Can his teammates come to the rescue against Zdeno Chara, Rask and Julien? It's time to dig deep.