An NHL regular season is 82 games long and is filled with plenty of ups and downs. Thirty teams start every season with one goal in mind – to win the Stanley Cup.
Finish in the top eight of your conference and you get the coveted invitation to compete in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
For the Pittsburgh Penguins, a regular season filled with some of the highest highs and lowest lows has come to an end. Through it all, the Penguins finished the season with 108 points in the standings, just one back of the New York Rangers in both the Eastern Conference and the Atlantic Division.
Their efforts have earned them the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference and a first round matchup with cross-state rival Philadelphia.
It almost seems fitting that these two teams will meet in the playoffs. The seeds for it were planted this past summer when two former Penguins signed contracts to join the Flyers.
I can’t remember a time where more venom was unleashed between fanbases over the summer.
On July 1, 2011, both Max Talbot and Jaromir Jagr agreed to terms with the Flyers. For Penguins fans, the sting of seeing two former playoff heroes signing on to wear road cone orange was hard to accept. For many, it still is.
Most started circling the dates of Pens/Flyers games on the season schedule, with some secretly hoping to see the Flyers in the playoffs.
Well, here we are.
For the Penguins, the path to Lord Stanley’s Cup will have to go through Philadelphia. After the theatrics that transpired between the two clubs on April 1, more fuel has been added to the rivalry’s fire.
If that’s not enough for you, this will be the third playoff meeting between the two teams since 2008.
The Penguins knocked off the Flyers 4-1 in the Eastern Conference Finals in 2008. In 2009, the Penguins’ Stanley Cup run began with a 4-2 series win over the Flyers in the opening round.
Here’s a look at the 2011-12 season series between the two teams, which was won by the Flyers 4-2:
- Dec 8, 2011 – Penguins 2, Flyers 3
- Dec. 29, 2011 – Flyers 4, Penguins 2
- Feb. 18, 2012 – Penguins 6, Flyers 4
- March 18, 2012 – Penguins 2, Flyers 3 (OT)
- April 1, 20112 – Flyers 6, Penguins 4
- April 7, 2012 – Flyers 2, Penguins 4
Let’s dig a little deeper into this matchup by looking at the forwards, defense, goaltending and special teams.
Both teams boast four lines that are capable of putting the puck in the back of the net.
For the Flyers, their most dangerous player this season was Claude Giroux, who amassed 28 goals and 65 assists this season.
His 93 points were good enough for third in the National Hockey League this season. The man who probably benefited the most from Giroux’s breakout year is Scott Hartnell.
Hartnell shattered career highs in goals (37) and points (67) this season playing alongside Giroux.
As for those former Penguins, Jagr finished third on the team in points with 54 (19 goals, 35 assists), while Talbot had 34 points (19 goals, 15 assists).
The Flyers had four other forwards in addition to Giroux, Hartnell and Jagr reach the 40-point plateau: Danny Briere (49), Jakub Voracek (49), Wayne Simmonds (49) and Matt Read (47).
For Pittsburgh, Evgeni Malkin ran away with the scoring title by amassing 109 points (50 goals, 59 assists) in just 75 games.
Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos finished second with 97 points (60 goals, 37 assists).
James Neal emerged as the winger the Penguins thought he could be when they dealt Alex Goligoski to the Stars for Neal and Matt Niskanen last year.
Neal finished seventh overall in the league in points with 81 (40 goals, 41 assists). He also led the league in power play goals with 18, which was two better than Hartnell.
Four other forwards also reached the 40-point plateau: Chris Kunitz (61), Pascal Dupuis (59), Jordan Staal (50) and Steve Sullivan (48).
Dupuis finished the regular season on a 17-game point streak, which was the longest in the NHL.
The Penguins also have a guy named Sidney Crosby who returned to the lineup on two occasions this season. He racked up 37 points (8 goals, 29 assists) in just 22 games.
Analysis: Philadelphia may be the only team in the Eastern Conference with as potent an offense as the Pittsburgh Penguins. However, at the end of the day, you have to give the edge to the Penguins’ forwards with the likes of Crosby, Malkin and Staal in the lineup.
The Flyers are a little banged up on the back line right now and have been without their leader for the majority of the season.
Chris Pronger only dressed for 13 games this season. He has been out of the lineup since the middle of November dealing with concussion symptoms. As much as I dislike the Flyers, you never want to see anyone go through this. As Penguins fans, we’ve seen the recovery process for guys like Crosby and Kris Letang. It’s a scary thing to go through and I sincerely hope he makes a full recovery.
Anyway, Andrej Meszaros has been out of the lineup after undergoing lower back surgery at the beginning of March.
Nicklas Grossmann has not played since the first period of the game against the Penguins on April 1, after an unintentional knee-to-knee collision with Joe Vitale.
He is listed as day-to-day, so the possibility remains that he could be ready to go when the series starts on Wednesday.
The Flyers do have some offensive upside with their defense that the Penguins will need to keep an eye on.
Kimmo Timonen led all Flyers defensemen with 43 points (4 goals, 39 assists) this season. Matt Carle was hot on his heels with 38 points (4 goals, 34 assists).
For Pittsburgh, Kris Letang led all Penguins defenseman with 42 points (10 goals, 32 assists) in only 51 games.
Believe it or not, Paul Martin was second among defensemen with 27 points (2 goals, 25 assists), with Matt Niskanen a close third with 21 points (4 goals, 17 assists).
The shutdown pairing of Brooks Orpik and Zbynek Michalek will likely be matched up against the Hartnell-Grioux-Jagr line. If they can contain that line, the Penguins will stand a good chance to advance out of this series.
Analysis: It’s hard to judge which team has the edge on defense here. Philadelphia’s corps has more grit, while the Penguins’ corps has more finesse. A lot of questions were brought into the light with how the Penguins played defensively over the last couple of weeks of the regular season. If the Penguins don’t button it up defensively, it could be a long series. On paper, the defensive pairings pretty much cancel each other out. So, you have to take into consideration how the teams play defensively and as a team, the Flyers have been better of late than the Penguins.
Advantage: Slight edge to Philadelphia.
A year ago, the Flyers opened up the playoffs with a series against the Buffalo Sabres. It took seven games to decide and the Flyers used three goaltenders over the course of the series.
Here’s a look at the revolving door of goaltenders for the Flyers against the Sabres:
- Sergei Bobrovsky – Game 1, 2
- Brian Boucher – Game 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7
- Michael Leighton – Game 5, 6*The overlapping game numbers represent the games in which more than one goalie was used in the game.
While they escaped the series with Buffalo, the Flyers were quickly dispatched in four games by the Boston Bruins in almost embarrassing fashion.
That performance prompted the Flyers’ front office to completely revamp the roster and they went out and got Ilya Bryzgalov to shore up their goaltending woes.
The season didn’t start out well for Bryzgalov, but he was much better down the stretch. He finished the season with a 33-16-7 record to go along with a 2.48 GAA, .909 save percentage and six shutouts.
Against the Penguins in his career, Bryzgalov is 4-1-1 with a 2.08 GAA and a .930 save percentage.
In Pittsburgh, there is no goaltending controversy to speak of.
Marc-Andre Fleury will shoulder the load in the series and has two playoff series wins over the Flyers under his belt from the 2008 and 2009 seasons.
Fleury had an incredible year for the Penguins and established a career high in wins with 42. He finished the season with a 42-17-4 record with a 2.36 GAA, .913 save percentage and three shutouts.
Analysis: It’s hard to give an edge one way or the other in this series. Both Fleury and Bryzgalov are great goaltenders on paper. For Philly, it’s just a matter of which Bryzgalov shows up – the one who started the season, or the one who finished it. I hate to take the cop out route for the prediction here, but I don’t see any way around it.
Advantage: If Brygalov is on his game – push. If he’s not, advantage Pittsburgh.
Let’s start with the power plays for both teams.
Both teams finished the season with a success rate of 19.7 percent on the power play. At quick glance, that number is a little misleading.
The Flyers led the lead in power play goals this season with 66, but they also allowed nine shorthanded goals.
For the season, the Flyers had 335 power play chances, which was also the most in the league this year. The Columbus Blue Jackets were second on that list with 317 power play opportunities.
For Pittsburgh, they finished in a three-way tie for the second-most power play goals with 57. Pittsburgh also allowed 10 shorthanded goals.
Their 57 goals came in just 289 opportunities.
Despite the Penguins clearly looking like they have the superior power play unit both on paper and by having the same percentage as the Flyers despite having 28 fewer opportunities, they have not looked good down the stretch.
There was a brief period of time, while Letang was out with a lower-body injury, where the Penguins went to a five forward formation on the power play. There are only three words that come to mind when I think of that: Please. Never. Again.
Simply put, it didn’t work. At all.
The only problem I see having Crosby and Malkin out there at the same time is that the other three guys on the ice defer to them far too often.
It’s only natural that you would defer to two of the best players in the world, but if they’re feeding you, there’s a reason and you need to take the shot.
In this regard, I think the Flyers’ power play is a little more organized and efficient and gets as slight an edge as you can have in this matchup. I know that sounds crazy considering the amount of talent on the ice for the Pens, but all the talent in the world does not guarantee success.
As far as the penalty kill is concerned, the Penguins have the clear edge.
Pittsburgh finished the regular season with a kill rate of 87.8 percent, which was good enough for third in the league.
The Penguins allowed just 33 goals on 270 chances this season, which is just slightly impressive. Only Montreal (88.6 percent) and New Jersey (89.6 percent) were better this season.
The Flyers were 17th in the league this year with an 81.8 percent kill rate. Philadelphia allowed 57 goals on 319 opportunities.
No other team in the league was shorthanded more than the Flyers. Montreal finished a close second with 315 shorthanded opportunities this season.
Both teams can be dangerous offensively while shorthanded as well. Pittsburgh racked up 11 shorthanded goals, while the Flyers had six of their own.
Analysis: Winning the special teams battle will go a long way toward winning this series. The Flyers have a more organized and straight-forward attacking power play, but the Penguins have the big edge when it comes to killing penalties.
After weighing all of the above for days, I have come to a couple of conclusions.
First of all, the league should be penalized for having this matchup in the first round. It’s almost criminal that what may likely be the best matchup in the entire 2012 playoffs, is going to happen in Round 1.
You can thank the “division leaders get an automatic top-three seed” rule for this matchup between the teams with the second and third-best records in the conference.
The league should really look at that, but it is what it is.
There is nothing I see in this series that points to it being over in any less than six games. It’s going to be an all-out war and there will be an overtime game or two.
Should a game go past the first overtime in Pittsburgh, prepare to see unlimited highlights of Keith Primeau burning Darius Kasparaitis and ripping a wrist shot over Ron Tugnutt’s shoulder in the fifth overtime of Game 4 in 2000.
If Primeau is allowed within 500 miles of the CONSOL Energy Center, someone failed miserably along the way. I could not be more adamant about this point.
Regardless, this will be a hard-hitting, take no prisoners type of series. You will yell in both celebration and frustration. You may even need to cut a deal with your kids to make sure they don’t use certain words at school so you don’t get a call to the principal’s office.
I know that day is fast-approaching for me and I don’t even have kids. My wife knows it too, but has just accepted it as an inevitable life event.
Weighing all the pros and cons of the series, I think the Penguins have a slight advantage in the series. That is mainly due to having their “Big Three” centers available this year.
So, with that said, grab a bottle of Maalox, Tums or whatever suits your fancy and strap in for what will certainly be an unforgettable series.
Prediction: Penguins Win In 7.
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