When: 7:38 p.m. | Where: Consol Energy Center
Depth down the Middle – There’s not a team in hockey that can match the Penguins depth down the middle and while Philadelphia is deep themselves at center with Claude Giroux, Daniel Briere, Sean Couturier and Kyle Wellwood, Pittsburgh has a clear advantage with getting matchups for Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal. While the Flyers have a lot of grit, most of it’s on the wings and Pittsburgh has the ability to physically impose their will on the likes ofÂ Briere and even Giroux. “They’re a nightmare to matchup up against, ” scouts will often say of the Penguins depth down the middle.
X-Factor: Danny Briere – had a down year with 16 goals and 49 points but he’s a proven playoff performer who has 96 points in 97 playoff games and 59 points in 57 playoff games for the Flyers.
Scoring Ability: The Penguins led the NHL in goals, averaging 3.3 per game and since Sidney Crosby has returned, they have been a good bet to put up four or five goals per game. All three lines are a serious threat to score at any moment.
Like Pittsburgh, a key strength for Philadelphia is scoring where all four lines are a threat to score. While Philadelphia has a more balanced group from a scoring standpoint, Pittsburgh gets a slight edge because of the premier goal scorers they have.
X-Factor: Jordan Staal – Has flashed elite type goal scoring ability at times this season, but he still goes through a few stretches where he struggles to put the puck in the net. When Staal is producing offensively, Penguins are nearly impossible to beat.
Secondary Scoring: Compared to the past two post-seasons, the Penguins feel they have the depth this post-season to still put the puck in the net if the Flyers are to shut Malkin and Crosby down. You’re not going to win in the playoffs if you don’t get contributions from more than your first and second line. The Penguins know all about that from their 2009 Stanley Cup run. Pittsburgh and Philadelphia both have the depth players who could be big factors in the series. Aside from the big guns Malkin, Crosby, Staal and Neal, Pittsburgh has a number of viable secondary scoring options in Chris Kunitz, Steve Sullivan, Pascal Dupuis, Matt Cooke, Tyler Kennedy and even a 4th liner like Arron Asham has shown the ability to chip in with timely goals in the post-season. While Pittsburgh has the more proven secondary scorers from an experience standpoint, PhiladelphiaÂ can easily matchÂ Pittsburgh with the likes of Wayne Simmonds, Jaromir Jagr, Jakub Voracek, Matt Read, Brayden Shenn, Danny Briere, Sean Couturier andÂ Max Tablot.
X-Factor: Wayne Simmonds – Scored 28 goals this season and can play any game. A complete player, he’s fast, he can score, and he can check, bringing several dimensions to his game.
Defensive Play: Pittsburgh ranked 17th in goals against per game (2.66) and Philadelphia ranked 20th at 2.74 goals per game during the regular season. The wayÂ Pittsburgh and PhiladelphiaÂ play defensively is very similar in the aspectÂ that bothÂ are often thinking offense, offense all the time which leads to several breakdowns in the neutral zone with teams having the potential to push the play the other way. However in the defensive zoneÂ the Flyers and PenguinsÂ are vulnerable in different ways.
For Pittsburgh, the way to exploit them in the d-zone is to establish a strong cycle, front-net presence and space them out where they are susceptible to losing a defenseman or forward in space from jumping in from the blueline. The Penguins have aÂ group that can also be pushed around in front of the net.
By contrast, the Flyers are a defensive group that does a strong job of clogging the middle and they are excellent shot blockers. How to attack them: You have to come with speed through the neutral zone and beat them wide and the Flyers struggle with teams who can consistently do that and hit a trailing player in the slot off the rush. Transition game will be key for the Penguins
X-Factor: Paul Martin – put together another up and down regular season with more bad than good. At times this season he’s looked like he should be the 7th or 8th defensemen on the Penguins depth chart. Playing a top-2 pairing role, he’s among the keys for Pittsburgh winning this series.
Goaltending: Pittsburgh has what many feel to be a clear edge in the goaltending department. Marc Andre Fleury is a great goaltender who has won a Stanley Cup and is coming off one of his best seasons. Meanwhile, Ilya Bryzgalov can be a great goaltender and could very well outplay Fleury in this series, but he’s such a wildcard based on his inconsistent season and subpar career numbers in the playoffs.
In 69 career playoff games, Fleury is 41-28 with a 2.52 goals against average and .910 save percentage. Bryzgalov has a 12-13 career playoff record with a 2.55 goals against average and .917 save percentage.
A few things to remember though is Fleury’s inconsistent play the past two post-seasons. Fleury in his last 20 playoff games (since 2010 post-season) is 10-10 with an .893 save percentage, stopping 453 of 507 shots he’s faced.
Power Play: The Penguins and Flyers hadÂ identical power play numbersÂ at 19.7% this season, 5th in the NHL. Both have great talent on their top units but the edge goes to the Flyers, despite less top tier talent. Pittsburgh has struggled with Philadelphia’s spacing and puck movement on the man advantage. Philadelphia was 6 for 29 (20.6%) vs Pittsburgh on the power play, while the Penguins were 3 for 22 (13.6%).
Penalty Kill: The Penguins were among the most dominant teams on the penalty kill this season, ranking 3rd in the NHL at 87.8% and scoring 11 shorthanded goals, 3rd best mark in the league. The Flyers were 17th at 81.8%. However, there’s not as big as a gap between the two teams as the regular season statistics may show. Philadelphia has showed tremendous improvement on the PK in the second half of the season and while they only scored 6 shorthanded goals, Philadelphia is a threat at anytime on the PK with the likes of Claude Giroux being among their best penalty killers. The past couple post-seasons, Penguins for some reason haven’t seen their prowess on the PK during the regular season translate to the post-season.
Last year they were 70.4% on the penalty kill (19-27) in the post-seasonÂ and in their last 20 post-season games, Pittsburgh is 71.4% (50-70) on the penalty kill.
Sean Couturier vs Evgeni Malkin’s Line: Sean Couturier played against Evgeni Malkin 65% of the timeÂ in the regularÂ season and Couturier will get the primary shutdown role against Malkin in the series.
LW Chris Kunitz (26G-35A-61Pts) – C Evgeni Malkin (50G-59A-109Pts) – RW James Neal (40G-41A-81Pts)
Expected D-Pairing (Paul Martin – Kris Letang)
There’s not a line in hockey that has a greater mix of skill, speed, goal scoring andÂ forechecking abilityÂ than the Kunitz – Malkin – Neal line.
In Evgeni Malkin at the center position, he’s so difficult to matchup against. He can do it all and he’s not a player you can push around any more. On the wings, Chris Kunitz is a 25+ goal scorer who brings that relentless forechecking ability, wins battles in corners, while James Neal is the elite goal scorer on the other side who’s not one dimensional by any means.
On the backend, Kris Letang helps fuel the transition game for this line and adds another dimension as Philadelphia has to be aware of his ability to join the play at any moment.
Defending the Malkin Unit:
LW Zac Rinaldo (2G-7A-9Pts) – C Sean Couturier (13G-14A-27Pts-+18) – RW Max Talbot (19G-15A-34Pts)
Shutdown D-Pair: Braydon Coburn – Nicklas Grossman
Malkin, Kunitz and Neal will see a heavy dose Zac Rinaldo, Sean Couturier and Max Talbot upfront with Braydon Coburn and Nicklas Grossman on the blueline. From a defensive matchup, Laviolette feels Grossman is the better matchup against Malkin than Kimmo Timonen and Matt Carle.
The Rinaldo – Couturier – Talbot line can cause the Malkin unit a lot of problems. They’re tenacious and they come at you, getting under your skin. There won’t be a situation where Rinaldo doesn’t look to take the body and he’s a player who can frustrate and wear down the opposition.
The Flyers feel they have intimidated the Penguins this season and there’s no denying they have gotten in the Penguins head. “It’s all intimidation sometimes, ” Rinaldo said today, while also indicating he will be coming at Malkin and Crosby.
Jordan Staal vs Claude Giroux
While Evgeni Malkin will be seeing Sean Couturier quite often this series, Claude Giroux likely won’t be able to get away from Jordan Staal who will have the primary shutdown role against Giroux.
LW Scott Hartnell (37G-30A-67Pts) – C Claude Giroux (28G-65A-93Pts) – RW Jaromir Jagr (19G-35A-54Pts)
This is a line like the Malkin line that has a little bit of everything. Giroux like Malkin can do it all, while Scott Harnell is a 30+ goal scorer who adds a feistiness, pest ability and a front-net presence where he can impact a game on a number of levels. In Jagr the Flyers have a veteran who see’s the game so well and when given space can still be an offensive force.
“Youâre talking about a world-class player, someone whoâs been in all situations before and had an enormous amount of success wherever he goes and whatever team he plays for, ” Flyers head coach Peter Laviolette said. “I think he did a tremendous job coming in here, not only playing on the ice and his production and helping the Giroux line be successful, but the steadying influence for our young players and positive attitude every day.”
Defending the Unit:
Matt Cooke (19G-19A-38Pts) – Jordan Staal (25G-25A-50Pts) – Tyler Kennedy (11G-22A-33Pts)
Shutdown D-Pair: Brooks Orpik – Zbynek Michalek
Scott Hartnell makes the Giroux unit go and this is a line that you can’t give time and space too. Giroux is a craftsman with the puck and Jordan Staal has to be physical with him and use his size and strength to his advantage. Staal regarded as one of the best defensive centerman in the game, is a minus-16 in 67 career playoff games.
When it comes to defending Jagr, Pittsburgh has to be aggressive with him in the neutral zone and at or near the blueline. A situation to watch is Hartnell’s effectiveness in front of the net. He has an opportunity to exploit Zbynek Michalek in front if Bylsma doesn’t go to the Orpik – Kris Letang pairing.
Sidney Crosby’s line vs Daniel Briere’s line
PIT LW Steve Sullivan (17G-31A-48Pts) – C Sidney Crosby (8G-29A-37Pts) – RW Pascal Dupuis (25G-34A-59Pts) vs PHI LW Brayden Schenn – C Danny Briere (16G-33A-49Pts) – Wayne Simmonds (28G-21A-49Pts)
Talk coming into the series is head coach Dan Bylsma intends to target the Flyers second line of Brayden Schenn – Danny Briere and Wayne Simmonds with Sidney Crosby’s line. A big reason why is the Penguins see center Danny Briere as a defensive liability at the center position. This is a potential matchup problem for the Flyers defensively but this line can hold their own offensively and have a good mix.
The Flyers are thrilled to have Briere in the lineup for Game 1. “When Danny returns to the lineup for us, he’s a difference maker, ” Flyers head coach Peter Laviolette said. “I think His career path, not only in the regular season but especially in the playoffs, he shows what an effective player he can be. The bigger the circumstances, the bigger the performance.
Chris Kunitz – Evgeni Malkin – James Neal
Steve Sullivan – Sidney Crosby – Pascal Dupuis
Matt Cooke – Jordan Staal – Tyler Kennedy
Arron Asham – Joe Vitale – Craig Adams
Brooks Orpik – Zbynek Michalek
Paul Martin – Kris Letang
Ben Lovejoy – Deryk Engelland
Marc Andre Fleury in Goal
Scott Hartnell – Claude Giroux – Jaromir Jagr
Brayden Schenn – Danny Briere – Wayne Simmonds
Jakub Voracek – Eric Wellwood – Matt Read
Zac Rinaldo – Sean Couturier – Max Talbot
Braydon Coburn – Nicklas Grossman
Kimmo Timonen – Matt Carle
Marc Andre Bourdon – Andres Lilja
Ilya Bryzgalov in goal
Final Take: As the majority of NHL pundits are proclaiming the Penguins heavy favorites, count me in the minority of those who don’t feel the Penguins are a lock in this series and that the Flyers have a great chance to win this series. Philadelphia matches up very well with Pittsburgh and it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see them knock off the Penguins. In the end though, I see Pittsburgh prevailing in Seven Games.