While the Devils await the winner of the New York Rangers - Washington Capitals series -- the East's top-seeded Rangers currently hold a 3-2 advantage -- what appeared to be a very promising playoff year in South Philly quickly vanished into the darkness of the night.
Following an emotional, record-setting first round upset of the Pittsburgh Penguins -- that most times did not even resemble playoff hockey -- in which the Flyers scored 30 goals in six games, the suffocating New Jersey defensive-style of play -- which is much more typical of the kind of effort necessary to succeed during the postseason -- held a Philadelphia offense that previously appeared to be unstoppable to just 11 goals in the five-game set. Those totals included just seven over the last four contests.
As the saying goes, a good defense will always beat a good offense, and this is especially true each spring in the NHL (except, of course, for a brief time in the mid-80's, when the greatest offensive machine in League history outscored the more defensively responsible Flyers in two separate years in the Stanley Cup Finals).
That philosophy became painfully apparent once again this year.
It's the second straight postseason in which Philadelphia was manhandled by their opponents in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Last year after narrowly getting past the Buffalo Sabres in seven games in round one, it was the eventual Cup champion Boston Bruins, who swept their way past Philly.
"There’s a couple games that I’ll look back on I think with disappointment," said head coach Peter Laviolette in his post-game press conference. "We didn’t play a better brand of our hockey, and then in the other three games I thought that our guys were trying to play that style and trying to play that brand, but I think you have to give New Jersey credit for the way that they played defensively. They fore-checked it, kept it from being the game that we wanted. We could never seem to get down that road."
When comparing the two seasons, the Flyers were outplayed badly in both.
During 2011's brief run, Game 2 with the Bruins -- won by Boston, 3-2 in overtime -- was the only contest Philadelphia was even given a sniff at winning.
Even though it was like watching men playing against boys, the goaltending of Brian Boucher, Sergei Bobrovsky, and Michael Leighton was targeted as a major reason for the club's ultimate demise.
Ed Snider went as far as to apologize to fans for the performance of the trio, and demanded that GM Paul Holmgren rectify the issue by bringing in a true number one netminder during the offseason.
While that was a long-festering problem in Flyerland, the three-headed monster didn't receive much help in staving off a far-superior Bruins squad.
The Flyers were in each game with New Jersey this year, thanks in large part to the play of Ilya Bryzgalov, who was Holmgren's big summer crease addition. While no one can argue the wild inconsistencies in the offbeat goalie's play over the course of the regular season -- in which we saw times where Bryzgalov struggled to stop anything, to the other end of the spectrum where he set the franchise record for longest stretch of shutout hockey late in the campaign -- and while he gave up some questionnable goals at the most inopportune moments, the goaltender saved Philadelphia's collective hide time and again while keeping a Flyer club that was hanging on by a thread in games they had no business even being close.
That's two consecutive second round losses in which opponents thoroughly dominated play in unceremoniously dispatching the Flyers. Perhaps more prevelant than any issues between the pipes in each was the game plan cultivated by opposing coaches to counter-attack any Philly forecheck.
Both Claude Julien last season and Peter DeBoer this year stressed a furious forecheck of their own that pinned the Flyers in their own end for long stretches of time. It eventually led to the wearing down of Laviolette's defense corps, in both years resembling a tired-looking group that had trouble just getting the puck out of their own end -- let alone with any form of possession or attempting of a creation of an offensive counter-rush.
New Jersey was able to roll four lines against the Flyers, sending fresh legs out on the ice mid-cycle as Philadelphia's energy level was sapped due to the constant chasing of the puck.
"If you want me to be honest, I've got to say they were very strong," said 40-year-old right wing Jaromir Jagr, who finished the series with just one assist after posting a goal and six points against the Penguins in round one. "They were strong on the boards, I don’t think they lost any battles on the boards. That was the biggest difference."
It appears that DeBoer and the Devils' coaching staff may have been reviewing game film of the six contests in which John Tortorella's Rangers completely outplayed Philadelphia during the season.
"They played a lot like the Rangers," pointed out winger Scott Hartnell. "We got the puck in the corner on a soft chip, and it seemed like they had four guys on you in the corner. It is probably one of the biggest reasons why we couldn't beat the Rangers this year. They just smothered you, three or four guys on you in the zone."
What transpired was a lot of dump and chase, which became pointless because of the little success with the chase aspect of the sequences.
"That's the coaches decision, not mine," said Kimmo Timonen when asked if there were any changes the coaching staff could have made. "I'm not going to go there to say what we should have done. That's their job, and I'm sure they are going to think about it afterwards. Maybe there was something we should have done. They were a better team in every area of the game. I've got to give them a lot of credit. When you get beat four times, they are the better team."
All the while the Devils remained the more disciplined team and stuck with their game plan, which unlike the Penguins' series, left little in the way of emotion from which the Flyers could build.
"They didn't give us anything to be emotional about," Hartnell said. "They weren't in scrums and it seemed like they really didn't hit us. So you can get into it that way and try to look at it or whatever. It wasn't there and that was their mindset and game plan."
The formula for NJ's triumph was much the same as New York this season, just like it was during Boston's annihilation of Laviolette's team last spring. Feverish forechecking to pin a tired defense deep in their own end, force a turnover, then capitalize with a quick counter-strike.
So how could a Devils team that needed a second overtime of Game 7 just to beat the Florida Panthers in round one so thoroughly shut down and out-play the Flyers, a team that had just scored 30 goals in whipping the Pittsburgh Penguins in six? Especially when New Jersey, who owned the NHL's best regular season penalty-killing unit (89.6% penalty-kill rate) couldn't stop the Panthers power play (nine goals in 27 opportunities for a 33.3% success rate), yet yielded just three in 19 chances to a Flyers team that had torched Pittsburgh 12 times in 23 chances (52.1%)?
It's all about time and space, something Claude Giroux and the Flyers had plenty of against the Penguins, but found little in round two against the Devils. After blasting Pittsburgh away with six goals and 14 points in six first-round games, "G" managed just two goals and three points in the four games he participated in against New Jersey.
Just as Tortorella did in the regular season and Julien did last year, New Jersey sent two men to the puck carrier at all times, choking off any kind of offensive flow. You would think with being on a power play and sending two men to disrupt the puck carrier would leave a couple of players open and create more chances, but the players on the PK are so well-versed in their defensive roles, even someone possessing Giroux's offensive wizardry was pressured into turnovers.
"They were stingy," said winger Scott Hartnell. "They were tight. You had to fight for every inch of ice that you got. When you had some time and space in the offensive zone, it seemed like they closed pretty fast. You had to make plays fast and it seemed like they were a step forward the whole series."
One has to wonder if more and more teams will catch on and employ these tactics to neutralize Laviolette's forechecking system. Not every team can go this route because it does require a solid core of players willing to out-work the opposition at every turn, with a defensive mindset to carry out the game plan.
While the resiliency of a team that was a perfect 4-0 when their opposition scored the first goal of a game was encouraging, another troubling aspect of the postseason trend was the fact Philadelphia fashioned an awful 1-6 record in contests in which they scored the first goal.
This was a particularly disturbing occurrence when you consider the fact that the Flyers lost just four times during the regular season when scoring first.
When asked why his team couldn't make the early goals stand up and pull out the contests, Laviolette was brief in his reply.
"I don’t know how to answer that," he said, "I’m sorry."
Sprinkled in with the main ingredients for disaster may have been a little bit of overconfidence on Philly's part.
"I think we were thinking we were going to walk over to New Jersey and they'll fall a little bit," said Giroux of his club's initial under-estimation of their obviously worthy opponent.
"I guess we've got to learn from it.
Things got away rapidly and it was too late by the time the Flyers could recognize what was happening.
"Everything happened kind of fast," added Giroux, who sat out Game 5 due to a one-game suspension levied by Brendan Shanahan for a hit on Dainius Zubrus late in the second period of Game 4. "It's obviously frustrating, we know we could have done a lot more damage than that. And you saw guys tonight play desperate hockey. They played with heart, and that's how we should have played the whole series."
Through the disappointment of the loss, it was obviously tough for Laviolette to go into all of the positives from the now-completed season. But he did have this to say about his team.
"I can tell you that the group that’s in that room right now is a terrific group of men," Laviolette said of his players after the game. "They played hard this year, they gave a lot and we came up short. It’s a bright future and we’re looking forward to that, but tonight it’s disappointing."
In a postseason where the cards seemed to be falling in all the right places for the Flyers to make a deep run -- much the same way as in 2010 when they reached the Finals -- that disappointment has to be looked upon as an opportunity missed.
And it's one that is not lost on Timonen.
"Well personally, I'm running out of time, to be honest" said the 37-year-old Finn of his chances to win a Stanley Cup. "After the Pittsburgh series, I really thought this was our chance. Look at the teams who are out, look at the teams who are in. The teams that are still in are beatable. I don't have many chances left and this is a wasted opportunity for us."
These chances do not come around very often and it may become even more difficult next year if other teams employ this suffocating style against the Flyers.
With either the inability or unwillingness to make the necessary adjustments to impose their will on opponents in the face of such an onslaught, and the success being achieved by the clubs playing that style, it's likely Philadelphia will see more of the same in years to come.
The question remains, how will the Flyers adjust and overcome the tactics in a way in which they will be able to find the ultimate success? That seems to be job one when assessing any player movement in the upcoming offseason.