The Series: #2 Philadelphia Flyers (47-23-12, 106 pts.) vs. #7 Buffalo Sabres (43-29-10, 96 pts.)

Regular Season: Series tied 2-2.  The Sabres clinched a playoff spot with a 4-3 overtime victory over the the Flyers in their second-last game of the season.

How they Match Up: The Philadelphia Flyers limped into the playoffs with all the momentum of a baby crawling in maple syrup.  They went 7-7-6 in their final 20 games of the regular season and fell out of top spot in the conference.  The Sabres, on the other hand, went 13-4-3 in their final 20, which included two victories over Philadelphia.

History:

The Flyers are the defending Eastern Conference champions and they came only two wins short of the Stanley Cup last season.

The Flyers and Sabres have met several times in past playoffs, but the teams wouldn’t exactly be considered heated rivals.  The most famous moment in Flyers/Sabres playoff history may have been the fog/bat game in the 1975 Stanley Cup Final:

Philadelphia went on to win the Stanley Cup that year.

One player that ties the two franchises together is Daniel Briere.  Briere spent four seasons with the Sabres, including a couple of years as team captain.  Briere left the Sabres and signed a lucrative long-term contract with Philadelphia in 2007.

Key Players:

The Flyers have a lot of talent up front.  Six Flyers scored more than 20 goals during the regular season and Ville Leino almost made it seven with his 19 goals.  Briere led the playoffs in scoring one year ago, collecting 12 goals and 18 assists during the Flyers run to the Cup.

Claude Giroux will be another key player for Philadelphia.  He led the team in scoring during the regular season and will be counted on to contribute big goals during the playoffs.

Ryan Miller appears to be healthy, which is good news for Buffalo.  He will definitely continue to be a crucial part of the Sabres team and vital to their postseason success.  Miller is a difference maker and his team will be counting on him to make big saves when they are needed.

Potential Weaknesses:

It wouldn’t be the playoffs if someone wasn’t questioning the Flyers’ goaltending.  While Sergei Bobrovsky has played quite well this season, he is a rookie and he has not yet played playoff hockey.  The Flyers struggled in the last part of the season and Bobrovsky was in net for many of those games, so there’s a chance that he may not be the only goaltender in the Flyers’ net this postseason.  Michael Leighton, who took the Flyers to the Stanley Cup Final last season, is back in Philadelphia after spending the season either injured or in the AHL, but he probably won’t see much action unless there is an injury or a terrible performance from Bobrovsky or Brian Boucher.

Buffalo’s biggest weakness may be their defense.  While Ryan Miller has saved the day many times, the Sabres still allowed 229 goals against during the regular season.  Tampa Bay is the only Eastern Conference playoff team to allow more.  Their differential between goals scored and goals allowed was only 16.  Only Montreal and Tampa Bay were worse out of the eight playoff teams in the East.

The Sabres also aren’t a very physical team, which could cause trouble for them against the Flyers.

Key Injuries:

By far the most significant injury in this series is Chris Pronger’s injured hand.  It’s still not known when Pronger will be able to return and the Flyers are a completely different team without him in the line-up.  Pronger has played more playoff games than anyone else since the lockout and success for the Flyers will be difficult if he is not able to return.

For Buffalo, it looks like Ryan Miller has recovered from his “upper body injury,” which is certainly good news for the Sabres.  Unfortunately, Derek Roy will not return during round one and Jochen Hecht will likely miss the remainder of the season.  Jordan Leopold may be able to return late in round one as his injured hand does not require surgery.

Difference Makers:

The series could certainly hinge on goaltending.  Ryan Miller has proven that he can be counted on in net, while the Flyers do not have that luxury.  However, they do have more playoff experience than Buffalo and will certainly use that to their advantage.

In addition, this will be an entirely different series if Pronger is able to play than it will be if Pronger cannot get back into the line-up.

Prediction:

If this series had taken place a few months ago, the Flyers would be the clear favourite.  However, their recent slide combined with the Sabres recent surge makes the outcome less predictable.  If Chris Pronger is unable to return and the Sabres can get some timely goals from unexpected sources, they could pull off the upset.  If that doesn’t happen, Philadelphia will be victorious, but it will still be a battle.  Flyers in seven.