Expectation is defined as the act of anticipating; in the world of sports the definition of expectation would likely have a picture of fans holding their heads as their blank eyes stare onto the field of play in disbelief of what just happened. Anticipating what should happen is often the biggest mistake you can make as a fan of a team, but it’s so easy to do, it’s impossible to resist.
In the NHL playoffs the seeding numbers do not mean a thing; it’s all about the matchup. There isn’t an upper hierarchy of teams that separate themselves from the lower class such as in the NBA. Yet there are still times when it looks clear that one team should dominate their opponent, but it never quite works out the way that it should.
By now I should have known that the New Jersey Devils weren’t going to be pushed over by the Philadelphia Flyers. That scenario has only come to fruition twice in the four times that the turnpike rivals have faced each other in the postseason (‘03-‘04, ‘09-‘10). Both of those overwhelming series wins by Philly came in the first round, when there wasn’t time for anticipation to make its dangerous way into the heads of the players, fans, and the city.
This year the Flyers faced the perennial favorite to come out of the Eastern Conference in the first round. Not only did the Penguins kick the bucket in six games; Sidney Crosby was exposed for being the catalyst in every after whistle skirmish in game three (he needed to be destroyed by the media in order to grow as a player), the Art Ross trophy winner was bottled up by a true rookie, and the Flyers power play finished with an eye popping 52% success rate. The Penguins might have won the most lopsided playoff game in this century, but they were overwhelmed by a team that got a mediocre effort from their $9 million dollar a year goaltender.
While the Flyers were busy rounding up the Penguins for the summer at the Philadelphia zoo, the Devils were in a dead heat with arguably the weakest division winner in recent memory, the Florida Panthers. Hell Jersey had to survive an elimination overtime in game six and an on the road double overtime in game seven. I ask you how is it not possible to point to the Flyers and say this team is going to freeze the Devils championship dreams in the next round?
That’s exactly the problem; it’s impossible to not say it. There was only one reporter out of twenty five nationally who picked the Devils to win the series (Sam Donnellon of the Philadelphia Daily News looks like the only smart one, he has the Devils in 7). My roommate and I seemed to forget that the Devils existed because all we could talk about was how the Capitals needed to beat the Rangers because that’s the only team that could give the Flyers trouble. It looks like we weren’t the only ones that were looking too far ahead.
Through three games of this semifinal the Devils have been the better team, by far. They’ve taken advantage of lethargic skating from the Flyers. They’ve dominated the pace of play so much so that Wayne Simmons, James van Reimsdyk, and Danny Briere couldn’t get off of the ice on a short change in game three. The Philly power play that once resembled the power of a right hand from Rocky Balboa now looks like Apollo Creed during his bout with Ivan Drago in Rocky IV. Through three games the power play has only converted twice in sixteen chances for a gory 12.5%.
It’s frustrating as a fan to look at that stat and think about what happened in game three. The Devils yet again outplayed the Flyers, but it wasn’t by a crazy game two amount. Every time the Flyers are down after the first period my token line is we they’re the best second period team in the league; I can’t resist the urge to say it because there have been so many times this season where I’ve seen a totally different team come out of the locker room after the first intermission. In game two the Devils took control of the game in the second period, in game three it was the Flyers finally finding a way to match their opponent’s intensity, but it would all be for naught as the Devils took advantage of an awful line change by the Flyers in overtime and took a two games to one lead (the “hey you suck” chants we’re extra loud in the Prudential Center after the OT goal, god I hate that chant).
My friend and fellow Flyers fan Marc asked me if I was nervous about the series, I responded with a resounding yes. I told him we’re watching a Philadelphia team play right into the hands of New Jersey. They’re outsmarting the Flyers; I’ll give you an example: there has been one small aspect that has caused a humongous difference in this series, the Devils have been able to get Claude Giroux out of the Flyers offensive zone faceoff circle during power play situations. Scott Hartnell will take his place, which is like having your super hot prom date bail out at the last second and you end up having to take her ugly friend and you do it just so you keep a chance with the hot chick. When has that scenario ever worked out? Never, when has Scott Hartnell won a faceoff this postseason, never.
The Devils will then clear the zone and then it’s up to the Flyers to figure out a way to go through a stone wall. It doesn’t work; the Devils are just too fundamentally sound on the penalty kill. The only way to build any kind of sustained pressure is by winning the faceoff. In game one Giroux won 14 out of 18 faceoffs, consequently the Flyers ended up winning in overtime.
Thinking about game one makes me consider that this series could very well be 3-0 in favor of the Devils and the Flyers would then have to pull off another once in a lifetime miracle. It’s hard to be optimistic when you’re watching your team get outplayed by a wide margin. It’s even harder to watch when your expectation level has reached a point that it’s actually feasible to think to yourself “hey this team has all of the pieces to win a championship and is getting a good matchup on paper in the second round”; when in reality the team that you have watched all season is being fooled by a team that they might have overlooked.
In ’95 the Devils appeared in the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time, they beat the Flyers in six games and swept the Red Wings to win their first Stanley Cup. In the 2000 playoffs Philadelphia had their hearts broken by New Jersey after they blew a three games to one lead in the conference finals. That series will forever be remembered for the Eric Lindros saga that was brought to a quicker end than a CW sitcom by Scott Stevens. The Devils went on to defeat the Dallas Stars in the Stanley Cup finals.
Two years ago the Philadelphia Flyers played the: I’m just happy to be in the postseason card to the Stanley Cup finals. The Devils have raised Lord Stanley twice when they played the role of the playoff underdog, which is exactly what they’ve been pegged as now. That means that the Flyers have to play the role of the favorite. How many times has that worked in 37 years?
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