Series Storylines: Penguins vs. Flyers
Penguins vs. Flyers Round One Schedule:
Wednesday, April 11 - Philadelphia at PITTSBURGH - 7:30 p.m. - ROOT SPORTS
Friday, April 13 - Philadelphia at PITTSBURGH - 7:30 p.m. - ROOT SPORTS
Sunday, April 15 - Pittsburgh at Philadelphia - 3:00 p.m. - NBC
Wednesday, April 18 - Pittsburgh at Philadelphia - 7:30 p.m. - ROOT SPORTS
*Friday, April 20 - Philadelphia at PITTSBURGH - 7:30 p.m. - ROOT SPORTS
*Sunday, April 22 - Pittsburgh at Philadelphia - TBD - TBD
*Tuesday, April 24 - Tampa Bay at PITTSBURGH - TBD - TBD
#4 Pittsburgh Penguins
|VS|| #5 Philadelphia Flyers
Cross-state rivals Pittsburgh and Philadelphia will collide in the opening round of this year's Stanley Cup Playoffs for the sixth edition of the Battle of Pennsylvania, which is sure to be a wild ride. Here are some of the main storylines to follow as the series unfolds.
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RETURN OF CROSBY, MALKIN
It’s easy to describe the rivalry between the Penguins and the Flyers.
“It’s two teams that hate each other,” defenseman Kris Letang said.
There’s a special dislike between these two clubs situated on opposite ends of Pennsylvania that dates back to when both teams entered the NHL. And the playoffs are the ultimate stage for that animosity between the Penguins and the Flyers to collide.
The postseason is intense enough, as the atmosphere goes to a whole new level when the desperation of both teams manifests itself. But a series between two such bitter adversaries is going to be over the top.
The Penguins have laid the foundation for these next few weeks over the past seven-plus months. They have put in the effort, energy, sweat and exhaustion and experienced emotional highs and lows through countless meetings, scouting, workouts, training, practices and games to earn the right to battle for the Stanley Cup.
They must win 16 games to earn hockey’s holy grail. And the first four must come against their most despised rival.
Pittsburgh cannot be rattled by whatever their opponent does to try and get them off their game. Though it’s not easy to do against the Flyers, a tough, in-your-face team that thrives by creating scrums and altercations, the Penguins must keep their focus if they want possession of that coveted silver chalice. Emotional control will be Pittsburgh’s key to success.
The NHL’s top-two offenses will collide in the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Pittsburgh closed the regular season at No. 1 with 269 total goals scored – an average of 3.32 per game. Philly finished right behind them at No. 2, scoring 258 total goals for an average of 3.18 per game.
What’s so significant about that? When the Penguins have a healthy lineup, their offensive capabilities are astounding. They have the NHL’s scoring leader in Evgeni Malkin, who finished the regular season with 50 goals (career high) and 109 points. They have Sidney Crosby, who collected 25 points in 15 games after returning to the lineup for the second time on March 15. Those are two of – if not the – best players in the world.
They also have James Neal, who hit the 40-goal mark for the first time in his career and finished sixth in the league in scoring. Then there’s 20-plus goal scorers Chris Kunitz, Jordan Staal and Pascal Dupuis – and timely contributions from the rest of their lineup.
But while the Flyers may not have as many big names in their lineup, they do have the same offensive capabilities. Their versatility up top is tough to match, and they tend to attack in waves.
They are led by Claude Giroux, who’s completed his evolution into an elite talent at the NHL level. He wrapped up the season with some of the best offensive numbers for a Flyers player in a dozen years with 93 points (28G-65A), which ranked third in the NHL. Linemate Scott Hartnell had a career year for Philly while still seeing plenty of time in the penalty box, setting new personal bests in goals (37) and points (67) while matching his career high in assists (30).
A few other players have stepped up and posted career years, like Wayne Simmonds (28 goals) and former Penguins Jaromir Jagr (19 goals, 54 points) and Max Talbot (19 goals). The Flyers have also gotten contributions from rookies Matt Read (24 goals), Sean Couturier (13 goals) and Brayden Schenn (12 goals).
SPECIAL TEAMS BATTLE
A major key to which team wins the series will be who wins the special teams battle.
The Flyers finished the regular season with 66 power-play goals, the most in the league. But they and the Penguins tied for the Eastern Conference’s best power play with identical 19.7-percent success rates.
Philly’s power play can be incredibly potent. They run an umbrella formation quarterbacked by veteran defenseman Kimmo Timonen. Wayne Simmonds plants himself in front of the goalie while Scott Hartnell can usually be found in the slot between the hash marks. Hartnell led the Flyers (and ranked second in the NHL behind James Neal) with 16 power-play goals, while 11 of Simmonds’ 28 tallies came on the man-advantage.
Jakub Voracek is usually on the halfwall while elite playmaker Claude Giroux tends to roam. Giroux’s 38 power-play points led the NHL. Their second unit is usually made up of Matt Carle on the point, Jaromir Jagr and Matt Read around the halfwalls and Danny Briere and Brayden Schenn around the front of the net.
But not only did Pittsburgh’s power play tie Philly for fifth in the league, but the Penguins finished the season with the league’s fourth ranked penalty kill – establishing a franchise record for the highest single-season success rate on the penalty kill (87.8). The players that are utilized while shorthanded – shotblocking specialist Zbynek Michalek, rugged, responsible blueliner Brooks Orpik and forwards Craig Adams, Matt Cooke, Jordan Staal and Pascal Dupuis – have been together for a long time, and their familiarity and comfort level with each other shows.
While Steve Sullivan and Kris Letang have alternated on the first power-play unit, the other four players have remained the same: Chris Kunitz and James Neal down low, with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin around the walls. Neal’s 18 power-play goals led the NHL, while Malkin ranked second in the league behind Giroux with 34 power-play points.
RETURN OF CROSBY, MALKIN
There is one glaring – and enviable – difference between these playoffs and last year’s for Pittsburgh: Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin will be in the lineup.
Last season the Penguins had to adapt with their two superstars sidelined by long-term injuries, changing from a club defined by their unparalleled offensive ability into a low-scoring, win-with-defense team.
And the Penguins did an admirable job of doing just that. But with the return of the NHL’s two best players for this year’s postseason, Pittsburgh is back to being arguably the NHL’s deepest team down the middle as they’ll be able to return to their successful three-center model.
Pittsburgh will have the dynamic, gifted offensive presences of Malkin and Crosby on two lines. And on the third line, the Penguins will have young but battle-tested veteran Jordan Staal, who was a key member of the franchise’s 2009 Stanley Cup championship run in a two-way, defensive shutdown role. During that title run, the defensively responsible center was paired against opposing teams’ top forwards and thrived in that role.
All three players elevate their already elite games to another level come playoff time. The Penguins will certainly be relying on them to do just that starting next week
Two elite goaltenders will be going head-to-head in this first-round series. It’s Marc-Andre Fleury vs. Ilya Bryzgalov, and both netminders could be the key component to whether or not their team advances to the next round.
Fleury quietly posted a career year between the pipes, building off the breakout regular season he had in 2010-11. And he played especially outstanding over the second half of the 2011-12 campaign, going 23-5-2 over his last 30 starts. His momentum over the last couple months of the regular season is certainly important, but it’s his playoff experience that the Penguins will draw upon to help them win this series.
Fleury has arguably dealt with every playoff situation imaginable for a netminder at just 27 years old, as this will mark the goaltender’s sixth straight postseason appearance. He backstopped the Penguins to the Stanley Cup championship in 2009, coming up with clutch saves throughout the entire playoffs and proving that he’s a big-time goaltender who is a vital part of the team’s confidence.
Fleury is a confident, cheerful, happy-go-lucky individual who has mastered the art of dealing with the emotional rollercoaster that is the playoffs. He's not overly intense, but is always perfectly focused – and the Penguins will need him to be at his best if they want to advance to the next round.
Bryzgalov is somewhat harder to read than his counterpart. Bryzgalov struggled throughout much of his first season in Philadelphia after spending the previous four campaigns with Phoenix, but over the last few weeks of the regular season he returned to the form that earned him the nine-year, $51-million contract he signed last summer to make him the highest-paid goaltender in the league.
"Bryz’s talent is something we haven’t seen a lot of, but it’s very high end," head coach Dan Bylsma said. "He’s an extremely talented goalie, a big-body goalie with quick legs from side-to-side. That’s what we’re going to see with Bryzgalov. I expect him to be in there for every game."
Bryzgalov is spectacular when he’s on. And even though the Coyotes suffered first-round defeats at the hands of Detroit in each of his last two seasons with Phoenix, Bryzgalov has proven he can shine in big games. The veteran netminder, who won a Stanley Cup in 2007 with Anaheim as a backup, is healthy again after missing three games with a broken foot and seems locked in – which will be something to watch throughout the first round.
Author: Michelle Crechiolo