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Flyers, Caps peaking at the right time

Daniel Briere keeps a cool head, so it was hardly a surprise he had the right perspective last week after his Flyers knocked off the Penguins in the first round of the playoffs. The win over Pittsburgh was a major step for Philadelphia but really it was little more than one move toward the Stanley Cup.

The Flyers looked like a team capable of winning the whole thing after beating the dangerous Penguins, a popular pre-playoff pick for the title. Philly gained confidence with two wins on the road to start the series and won in six games. New Jersey won the final two over Florida, the clincher in double-overtime on the road, to take the series in seven.

And that's why the Devils were feeling good, too.

"When you win your first round, usually you're on a roll," Briere told reporters after advancing. "No matter who we play, it's going to be a tough battle."

The first game can be tricky against an opponent that was forced to play seven games. An argument could be made that Philly had a chance to rest tired legs and mend bumps and bruises that came with the series against Pittsburgh. Of course, all that rest often leads to a team needing time to get its legs back in top form.

The New York Rangers had little time to celebrate their seventh-game win Thursday night over Ottawa. The Rangers open the Eastern Conference semifinals this afternoon against a Washington team that dumped defending-champ Boston in seven games. For now, though, Philly looks like the best team among the final four in the conference.

As usual, goaltending remains an issue.

Questions continue to surround Ilya Bryzgalov, signed by Philadelphia as a franchise goalie last summer. He was inconsistent this season before breaking a bone in his foot late in the year. He might have aggravated the injury against Pittsburgh. He lacked mobility and finished the first round with a 3.89 goals-against average and .871 save percentage.

The Flyers' response to their goaltender's struggles was stopping the puck for him. Bryzgalov stopped 30 shots in Game Six, but his teammates blocked 40. The Flyers didn't block more than 30 in any game all season. Defensemen Erik Gustafsson, Braydon Coburn, Andreas Lilja and Matt Carle combined to block 25 in the clincher.

"Guys were sacrificing their bodies to block shots, paying a price, taking hits to make plays," winger Scott Hartnell, who implored his teammates to get in front of more pucks, said after Game Six. "It was awesome to see and just a great feeling."

Here's a look at the Eastern Conference semifinals:

>Philadelphia (5) vs. New Jersey (6)

*Flyers update: The biggest reason Philly advanced was its power play, which converted 52.2 percent (12 of 23) of its opportunities. That's astonishing against any team, particularly one with the Pens' defensemen and goaltending. Claude Giroux was the NHL's best player in the first round with six goals and 14 points. Briere, with five goals and eight points against the Pens, has 104 points in 103 career playoff games. Jaromir Jagr can still dominate at any moment. Eleven players had at least two goals or four points against Pittsburgh. The extra rest should only help Bryzgalov. Andrej Meszaros (back) is skating but is not expected to play for at least another week.

*Devils update: New Jersey was pushed to the brink before Calder Trophy candidate Adam Henrique scored in the second OT to eliminate Florida. Henrique had been mostly silent in the first six games. David Clarkson's rugged style could be a problem for Philly. He had 30 goals in the regular season, none in the first round. Travis Zajac is nearing top form after playing only 15 games (Achilles) this season. He won nearly 59 percent of his faceoffs but was their only center above 50 percent. Ilya Kovalchuk should expect a good dose of Giroux, especially when Philly has the last change. Rochester's Stephen Gionta was a pleasant surprise. Martin Brodeur looked average in the first round.

*Outlook: Mediocre goaltending should be enough for the Flyers considering their talent and depth. I'm taking Philadelphia in five games.


>N.Y. Rangers (1) vs. Washington (7)

*Rangers update: New York had all it could handle against Ottawa but avoided embarrassment by winning the final two games. Scoring is a problem. The Rangers had only 14 goals, nine at even strength, in the seven games against the Sens. Marian Gaborik, who had 41 goals this season, vanished in the first round with one goal on 13 shots. The Rangers' strength is their defense, namely Vezina Trophy candidate Henrik Lundqvist. King Henrik had a 1.70 GAA and .945 SP. The Blueshirts would have been eliminated without him. Captain Ryan Callahan and defenseman Dan Girardi will be largely responsible for slowing Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom.

*Capitals update: Washington needed an overtime goal from Joel Ward in Game Seven to beat the Cup-champion Bruins. Passion that had been missing for much of the season (see: Semin, Ovechkin) returned against Boston. The Caps already had plenty of offensive punch and added sound defense. Ovechkin must have an impact. Troy Brouwer and Jay Beagle are two underrated forwards who could make a difference. Third goalie Braden Holtby, the surprise of the NHL, had a 2.00 GAA and .940 SP in the first round. He's better when busy. He faced 39.5 shots per game in his four wins, just 30 shots per game in his three losses. We'll see if he was a hot goalie or good one.

*Outlook: The Caps proved they could beat anybody when they knocked off Boston. Everything could be coming together at the right time. Caps in six.