First-round preview: Pens-Flyers
Days before the actual drop of the puck heralding the start of this cross-state playoff series between the Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins, the rhetoric machine was already in the red. You had Philadelphia Flyers coach Peter Laviolette $10,000 lighter in the wallet after he melted down at the end of a recent regular-season game between the two teams (Pens assistant coach Tony Granato was fined $2,500 as well). Then Flyers assistant coach Craig Berube (whose 3,149 career penalty minutes suggest he was never in the running for the Lady Byng Trophy) complained to local radio that Pens stars Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby were the two dirtiest players on the team.
In other words, hang onto your collective hats for this, the third playoff meeting between these two teams since 2008. The Penguins defeated the Flyers in the Eastern Conference finals in 2008 and in the first round the next year as they went on to win their first Stanley Cup since 1992.
This spring marks the return of Crosby to the Penguins' fold after missing last year's first-round loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning, recovering from concussion issues. Malkin also missed last year's postseason and returned to win his second scoring title this season.
The Flyers were Stanley Cup finalists in 2010, losing to Chicago in six games, but underwent a major personnel overhaul this past offseason by acquiring franchise netminder Ilya Bryzgalov and five-time NHL scoring champ Jaromir Jagr, while jettisoning captain Mike Richards and sniper Jeff Carter. The upheaval didn't upset the Flyers, who finished north of 100 points for the second straight year.
The Flyers won the regular-season series against the Penguins, but that means the square root of zero come playoff time. These two teams are physical, are the two top-scoring teams in the NHL and have a genuine dislike for each other that is as current as it is historic -- all the makings of a classic series.
"Both teams are well-run and they're strong teams, and this is going to be a painful loss for whoever goes down in the first round," one NHL executive told ESPN.com this past week.
1. Humungous Big Pressure: Let's start with the man around whom much attention, not to mention pucks, will swirl in the coming days: Ilya Bryzgalov. The star of the HBO reality series "24/7" has been sky-high and worm-low during this regular season. But Bryzgalov saved his best for the latter part of the season, going through a stretch in March in which he went 8-0-1 and recorded three shutouts. Bryzgalov suffered a foot injury shortly before the end of the regular season, but he returned to action and appears ready to embrace the role for which he was brought to Philadelphia: winning in the playoffs. The question of whether he has the mental toughness to win on this stage -- he was only ordinary in the past two playoff years with the Phoenix Coyotes -- stands as one of the key storylines of this series. One NHL executive told ESPN.com he thinks Bryzgalov has that kind of mental mettle.
"I wouldn't be surprised if Bryzgalov was the best player in the series," he said.
If Bryzgalov does falter, however, look for Laviolette to move quickly to Sergei Bobrovsky, who has played well against the Penguins.
2. The Health Factor: After enduring what seemed like nonstop injuries to key players over the past couple years, Penguins coach Dan Bylsma enters the playoffs with essentially a full complement of players at his disposal. James Neal and Steve Sullivan missed a couple games down the stretch but were expected to be ready for the postseason.
The Flyers, meanwhile, were in a much more precarious situation. Already without captain and former Hart Trophy winner Chris Pronger for much of the season, they are without defenseman Andrej Meszaros for at least a couple more weeks as he recovers from back surgery, and forward James van Riemsdyk (foot) is likewise at least a couple weeks away. Defenseman Nicklas Grossmann, who signed a new deal with the Flyers after being acquired from Dallas before the trade deadline, is day-to-day but should be in the lineup.
Most troublesome is the absence of forward Danny Briere, whose hit at the hands of Joe Vitale sparked the ugly brawl between the two teams. Briere, who is out indefinitely, has proven to be a key playoff leader and contributor. When the Flyers went to the Cup finals in 2010, Briere was outstanding with a league-best 30 points. If he cannot go in this series, it puts the Flyers at a distinct disadvantage, even if Briere has struggled at times during the regular season with just 49 points in 70 games.
3. The Fireworks: Never mind the off-ice stuff, these teams can light it up, as their standings atop the league's offensive categories suggest, and that firepower isn't focused on one or two players on each side. Both teams can roll three potent scoring units and both teams have skilled personnel who can grind it out or score off the rush.
The Flyers boasted four 20-goal scorers, two former Penguins, Jaromir Jagr and Maxime Talbot, at 19 and one at 18. They are led by Claude Giroux, who posted the best offensive numbers of any Flyers player in a dozen years.
The Pens, meanwhile, have five 20-goal men (with Malkin and Neal in the 40s) and renaissance man Matt Cooke at 19. Pascal Dupuis, a regular on Crosby's line, ended the season with a league-best 17-game point streak. Since Feb. 21, the Penguins have been averaging more than four goals per game.
"I think our depth at scoring has been better than some people have anticipated," Penguins GM Ray Shero told ESPN.com.
The Flyers and Penguins rank fourth and fifth respectively on the power play, which suggests a tremendous amount of pressure will be brought to bear on the respective blue lines and goaltending.
4. The Fine Line: The Flyers took by far the most minor penalties in the NHL this season, which suggests a team that plays as close to the edge as possible. Guys such as Scott Hartnell, having a career year with 37 goals, and Wayne Simmonds, who has likewise exceeded career totals with 28, spend a lot of time mucking about near opposing creases. Their task will be to make life miserable for Pittsburgh netminder Marc-Andre Fleury without taking penalties. In general, the Flyers will tread a fine line between agitation and (to steal a page from Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke) truculence and giving the Pens' potent power play room to move.
"Their big guys don't like to be touched," a scout said of the Penguins. "You can get in their heads a little bit."
Another executive said he thinks the Flyers represent the most difficult challenge in the conference for the powerful Penguins.
"They have confidence [against the Penguins]," he said.
The Flyers can afford to play on the edge because they possess the maturity to stay in games. They have compiled a 20-22-4 record when the opposing team scores first and have come from behind to secure wins against the Penguins this season. The Flyers managed to score first in just eight of 32 games since Feb. 1.
5. The Kid And His Buddies: Clipping along at almost two points a game (25 points in 14 games) in his latest return from concussion issues, Crosby has proven yet again he is the rarest of the rare. In his 22 games total this season, the Penguins captain had collected 37 points. He has brushed aside the recent criticism from the Flyers and New York Rangers as "garbage" and seems none the worse for wear for having missed such a significant amount of time to injury. At the heart of the matter for the Flyers is that the return of Crosby and the beast-like season had by Malkin, along with the continued strong play of Jordan Staal, reinforce the Penguins as Stanley Cup favorites this spring.
"They're the most talented team in the league down the middle one through three," one scout said, "which makes it very difficult for your coach to match up against them."
That was why home-ice advantage could be a significant issue for the Flyers, as Laviolette will try to get size out against Malkin's line (he has been playing with Chris Kunitz and Neal) and speed out against Crosby's unit (which includes Dupuis and Sullivan on the wings).
In short, and at the risk of overstating the obvious, having the best player in the world parachute back into your lineup always tilts the scales in your favor.
• Penguins' forecheck versus Flyers' blue line: Both teams will look to punish the opposing team's defense with a relentless forecheck. That will be especially true of the Penguins, who can be expected to test the injury-depleted Flyers blue line. A number of scouts and executives said they expect the Pens to specifically try to rattle puck-moving defenseman Matt Carle and rookie defender Marc-Andre Bourdon. Both teams are opportunistic, and turnovers in the defensive zone could well be the key factor in the series.
• Philadelphia's rookies: We often default to Detroit's Ken Holland as the game's best GM, but Philadelphia's Paul Holmgren is in that company as well. The team's strong eye for talent is reflected in the fact eight rookies have played 23 games or more this season for the Flyers. Furthermore, as many as eight first-year players could be in the Game 1 lineup in this series, which means players such as undrafted Matt Read (who leads all NHL rookies with 24 goals, including six game winners, most among first-year players), Brayden Schenn and Bourdon will be counted on to shoulder a heavy load against the Pens. Can those youngsters handle the pressure of what will be an emotionally charged playoff series? If the answer is yes, the Flyers' chances of upending the Pens go up significantly.
• Pittsburgh's Marc-Andre Fleury: It was interesting chatting with Shero prior to this series, and he agreed that Malkin was full value for the Hart Trophy buzz that suggests he'll win his first MVP award. "But having said that, Marc-Andre Fleury may be our MVP," Shero said. "Doesn't make any sense, but you know what I mean." Although the team did have a little letdown defensively in latter stages of the regular season, Fleury has been a rock, and his 42 wins were one shy of the league lead heading into the final day of the regular season and one shy of the franchise record established by Tom Barrasso. Shero invoked the names of former greats Gerry Cheevers of Boston and Grant Fuhr when he was in Edmonton in discussing Fleury's importance to the team. The sexy numbers such as goals-against average and save percentage may not be eye-popping, but it's about winning, "and the guy wins hockey games," Shero said of his No. 1 netminder. "He just has a winning mentality, and that's really important."
• It's a shame one of these teams will be gone in less than two weeks, but given the Penguins' health, the return of Crosby and an edge along the blue line, we're giving the nod to Pittsburgh. Penguins in six.