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Series at a Glance

Division rivals will settle the Eastern Conference

Click here for more on this story

Posted: Wednesday May 10, 2000 10:54 PM

  Martin Brodeur Martin Brodeur hasn't been to the conference finals since his second season in 1994-95. Jamie Squire/Allsport

By Jamie MacDonald, CNNSI.com

For the first time in several years, the Eastern Conference will be decided by the conference's top two regular-season teams. With a spirited late-season run, the Flyers finished the season with 105 points, thereby wresting the No. 1 seed from the Devils and relegating their Atlantic Division rivals to the No. 4 seed.

In the battle down the stretch, only home ice -- ultimately for this very series -- was at stake. Now there is a greater prize at end of this fight: a trip to the Stanley Cup finals.

Flyers-Devils isn't the sexiest playoff matchup, but it is typically Eastern Conference hockey. Both teams are defensively responsible. Both are big. Both are deep. Both are more comfortable playing north and south. Both can cycle the puck. And neither has been without its share of turmoil in this 1999-2000 season.

Considering the circumstances, both teams should also just be happy to be playing in May. The Flyers won two playoff rounds without a man they once called their captain and without a man they once called their head coach. The Devils fired their head coach with a few weeks remaining in the season and replaced him with a man who took the assistant's job precisely because he did not want to be the head coach.

But most importantly, the Flyers and Devils are playing their best hockey at the right time. And while the latter may go into this series as a slight favorite, the former is no stranger to catching up.

Storylines We're Following

Killing time

In the midst of playing absolutely suffocating defense, the Devils also held Toronto to 0-for-20 on the power play in the series. Talk about finishing skills. In the first two rounds of the playoffs, the Devils allowed one goal on 34 power-play chances against. The Flyers vaunted power play will face a quick and challenging penalty-killing unit that won't give it much time or space in which to set up.

Pain in the crease

John LeClair is an immovable object in front of the net. He can score from there, he can screen the goaltender from there, he can move the puck from there (even while falling down) if he has to, and most importantly, he can occupy a ton of attention and more than a few bodies while he's there. If LeClair can set up camp in the low slot, whether he battling Scott Stevens or Brian Rafalski, his presence makes any of his Flyers teammates a more dangerous shooter.

Primeau drama

The status of Keith Primeau will mean much to this series. Without him, the Flyers are looking at Kent Manderville and Simon Gagne taking most of their draws. Manderville has more experience at the NHL level (though mostly as a checking-line center), but Gagne, who is a natural center, is nursing a bad left hand lacks the size you'd like to see in the circle against New Jersey's bigger centermen.

Underdogs

While this series has earned the title "Eastern Conference finals," let's be honest, it's still somehow about playing for the right to face the Stanley Cup favorite. New Jersey-Philadelphia this season should remind NFL fans of any AFC Championship game during the late 1980s through the mid-90s. No matter how convincingly either the Devils or Flyers take care of the other, many will assume the advancing team is being thrown to the wolves.

Man of the Hour

At one point this season, John LeClair was having trouble with his balance on the ice. Well, things sure have evened out. LeClair was the best player on the ice in the second half of Philadelphia's second-round series. And while you may not know it, LeClair has 10 points in the playoffs (only six players have more, and of those, only Brett Hull and Adam Deadmarsh were playing in a conference final). And LeClair's six goals are eclipsed only by Jaromir Jagr and Owen Nolan. LeClair also controls one of the toughest areas of the ice -- the offensive zone from the low slot to the crease.

Man on the Spot

Each round has presented a tougher challenge for rookie keeper Brian Boucher -- Buffalo didn't really threaten him and Pittsburgh tried to get by on shooting percentage. The Devils, however, will come with more quality scoring chances than the Penguins could create. New Jersey has slick forwards with moves, strong forwards with heavy shots and defensemen who come in both models. It will present Boucher with a whole new task altogether, one that was too tall for the likes of Mike Vernon and Curtis Joseph.

Bandwagon
Mark Recchi Assisted on seven of Philly's final eight goals in Round 2
Andy Delmore He didn't even score in Game 6 of Round 2
Craig Ramsay and Larry Robinson Hard not to overestimate their steadying influences
Scott Stevens vs. John LeClair Promises to be the battle royale of this series
Patrik Elias Perhaps the series most talented offensive player is New Jersey's leading scorer in the playoffs
More skill than you're thinking Both teams have nice mixes of finesse to compliment brawn
Guys who don't get enough credit Daymond Langkow, Kent Manderville, Bobby Holik, Randy McKay, et al
The "down" arrow Won't find many here for two teams playing so well

Refundable Prediction

It won't come as any great surprise, but these games will be close. What may come as a surprise, though, is that four games will go into overtime. The teams will split those four and the series will be won in seven games by whichever team wins two of the three 60-minute contests.



 
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