PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – Winning back-to-back Stanley Cups in the salary cap era once seemed impossible.
The Penguins accomplished that feat last June and now have their sights set on keeping Lord Stanley in Pittsburgh for a third straight year.
The road to a three-peat begins with the cross-state rival Philadelphia Flyers. The last time these two teams met in the playoffs, the Flyers upset the heavily-favored Penguins in six games.
It was a high-scoring, frustrating series that doesn’t need to be rehashed.
Once again, the Penguins will come into this series as the favorites. Many didn’t pick the Flyers to even be in this position at the beginning of the year. Then, their fate seemed sealed in November when they lost 10 straight games.
But, they rebounded well and enter the playoffs with an 7-1-3 record in their last 11 games.
While the Penguins swept the regular season series, eliminating the Flyers won’t be an easy proposition. Nothing is easy this time of year, but here are five keys to the series for the Penguins:
1. Penguins Power Play Must Be Powerful
The Penguins enter the playoffs with the league’s best power play at 26.2 percent. At home, the numbers are slightly better at 26.7 percent.
Phil Kessel led the league with 42 points on the power play this season, while Crosby and Malkin were just behind with 38 each.
The Flyers were mid-pack in the NHL with the 15th ranked power play (20.7 percent). Philadelphia had better success on the road with the man-advantage at 23,3 percent.
Both teams have had their fair share of struggles on the penalty kill this season, but here’s where it gets interesting.
The Penguins finished 17th in the league killing penalties at an 80 percent rate. However, the Flyers ranked 29th in the league at just 75.8 percent.
It’s also worth mentioning that the Penguins were 5-for-13 (38.5 percent) on the power play against the Flyers this year.
That could be the edge that puts the Penguins over the top in the series because at 5-on-5 it’s anybody’s game – at least in terms of goal-scoring.
At 5-on-5 this season, the Penguins scored 161 goals while the Flyers registered 158.
2. Depth Scoring
Much will be made about Sean Couturier’s role in this series. He’s been deployed against Evgeni Malkin in the past and has performed quite well at times.
Will he be matched up against Malkin again or will he be used against Sidney Crosby’s line? Time will tell, but if he’s able to slow down one of those players/lines, the Penguins will need to get help from other parts of the lineup.
Enter, Derick Brassard.
Brassard returned to practice on Monday after missing the final five regular season games with a lower-body injury. In 14 games with the Penguins, Brassard has three goals and five assists.
The Penguins went out and got Brassard for what he’s capable of doing in the playoffs. In 78 career playoff games, Brassard has 22 goals and 33 assists.
If healthy, he figures to slot back in as the third line center. During Monday’s practice he was centering Conor Sheary and Phil Kessel.
if he’s good to go, Brassard could very well leave a big mark on this series.
3. Defend Home Ice/Winning On The Road
It’s no secret that the Penguins have struggled on the road this season. In fact, they hold the worst road record (17-20-4) of any Eastern Conference playoff team. However, they went 30-9-2 at home, which is the best record of any Eastern Conference playoff team.
In 41 home games this season, the Penguins scored 149 goals, while allowing 110. In 41 road games, the Penguins scored 121 goals, while allowing 138. Some of that margin can be explained by some lopsided losses early in the year against Chicago (10-1) and Tampa Bay (7-1).
The good news is that the Penguins scored five goals in both road games against the Flyers this season. In fact, they scored five goals against the Flyers in all four regular season games.
If the Penguins can carry that home success into the playoffs and improve on the road, it could very well tip the scales in the series.
Each of the last two years, Matt Murray has been a rock for the Penguins in the playoffs. However, Murray has had to go through a lot this season between injuries and the loss of his father.
Murray enters the playoffs with a 27-16-3 record to go along with a 2.92 GAA and a .907 save percentage.
In the playoffs, Murray has shown an uncanny ability to take his game to higher levels.
During last year’s Stanley Cup run, Murray was 7-3 with a 1.70 GAA and a .937 save percentage with three shutouts. You may recall, he pitched back-to-back shutouts in Games 5 and 6 of the Stanley Cup Final.
As for Philadelphia, Brian Elliott will get the nod in goal.
Elliott went 23-11-7 this year with a 2.66 GAA and a .909 save percentage. However, Elliott missed nearly two months due to abdominal surgery. He returned to the lineup for the final two games of the regular season, which the Flyers won 4-3 and 5-0 respectively.
In the playoffs, Elliott is 15-22 with a 2.60 GAA and a .908 save percentage.
He has only started twice against the Penguins in his career. In those two games he is 0-1-1 with a 5.31 GAA and an .864 save percentage.
5. Experience Factor
The Penguins will have an overwhelming edge when it comes to playoff experience, especially against the younger Philadelphia Flyers.
This is a Penguins team that knows how to win and what it takes to do so in the playoffs. While some on the Flyers have been on this stage before, there could still be a learning curve for the younger guys.
That’s where the Penguins were able to jump on some teams over the past two years.
While this Flyers team doesn’t exactly fit the mold of the “Broad Street Bullies,” emotions could run high in the series between two fierce rivals.
Over the past two playoff runs, the Penguins have been able to keep their emotions in check and just take what comes their way.
As head coach Mike Sullivan would say, they “just play” the game.
If the Penguins “just play,” it will go a long way toward advancing to the next round.
This was actually the matchup I would have preferred in the first round, but not because I think it’s the easiest.
Again, there are no “easy” matchups in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. As we saw last year with Nashville, any team in the playoffs has a legitimate shot at winning the Stanley Cup – even the 16th ranked team.
While it will still be a war, I just think it’s the best matchup for the Penguins at this moment.
Should the Penguins advance, they would get the Columbus-Washington winner – two teams the Penguins eliminated a year ago. That should also be a fun and physical series.
In the end, it’s hard to pick against the Penguins in this series. This is a team that knows how to handle adversity in the playoffs. Any series will have ups and downs, but the Penguins are better prepared to handle those swings.
Assuming they “just play” the Penguins should advance to the second round in six games.
You can follow Casey Shea on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sheavedice