The last time the Penguins and Flyers met in the post-season six years ago, it was a wild affair with the two teams combining for 56 goals in six games. And if this season was any indication, we could be in for more of the same high-scoring fun in 2018. Circumstances on both teams have conspired to make this potentially a six- or seven-game series of pond hockey. The Penguins won all four games over the Flyers in the regular season, with two of those wins coming in overtime, and they scored five times in each game. On the other hand, the Penguins will never be confused with the 1995 New Jersey Devils when it comes to keeping the puck out of their own net, either.
How They Win: Stop us if you’ve heard this before, but Pittsburgh has two of the best centers on the planet in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The team plays very fast, leaving opponents in fits as the Pens lock them down at both ends of the ice. Phil Kessel is one of the top offensive threats in the game, and Pittsburgh has a devastating power play. What’s new? The Penguins kept their center depth at the top of the league by adding Derick Brassard before the trade deadline. So they basically have a second-liner as their third-liner, managing to upgrade from the very good Nick Bonino. More importantly, the team has a healthy Kris Letang once again. Don’t forget: Pittsburgh managed to win the Cup last year without its No. 1 defenseman for the entire playoff run. Coach Mike Sullivan clearly knows how to pull the right levers, and the Pens are practically old hands at this whole championship thing.
How They Lose: Despite Letang’s return to full strength, the Penguins have been weak defensively, ranking in the bottom third of the league in goals against. Some of that can be pinned on the disastrous Antti Niemi experiment, but also on the injuries sustained by starter Matt Murray – who has yet to play an NHL season that didn’t end up in a Cup win. Murray’s post-deadline concussion was the most ominous news for the team, as head injuries can be very tricky to come back from. Without Murray, the Pens relied on a battery of Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith. And while it’s fair to point out Pittsburgh won a Cup with a rookie goalie two years ago (Murray), catching lightning in a bottle twice would be miraculous.
How They Win: Dating back to his University of North Dakota days, coach Dave Hakstol has always gotten better results in the second half of the season. That partially explains how his Flyers went on a stunning run in February after slogging through a 10-game losing streak late in 2017. With everyone on the same page, the Flyers are a scary team, and center Sean Couturier has been a difference-maker this season. The former shutdown ace has become a two-way force, putting up career offensive numbers while maintaining his beefy possession stats. Toss in the usual excellence from captain Claude Giroux and playmaking winger Jakub Voracek and you’ve got the makings of a potent offense. Shayne Gostisbehere has shaken off his sophomore slump, giving the Flyers a mobile blueline to jump-start the rush. They’re also one of the best faceoff teams in the NHL, giving them an advantage on set plays.
How They Lose: Philadelphia is very streaky. If the Flyers lose their mojo, their post-season could end quickly. Fans better hope they didn’t peak early when they took over first place in the Metro at the end of February. The Flyers are pretty middle-of-the-road in the big stats categories, though the power play hovered just outside the top 10. The penalty kill, on the other hand, is a glaring weakness, and that’s not a good sign once those post-season nail-biter games come around. Goal- tending was also a roller-coaster ride much of the season (surprise!). Former Red Wings stopper Petr Mrazek got off to a great start once he joined the squad prior to the trade deadline, but then he stumbled down the homestretch, surrendering at least three goals in each of his final seven starts. As a result, Brian Elliott will likely open the playoffs as the Flyers' starter.
Five Things To Watch
1. Special teams on both sides of the ice. The Penguins finished the season with the league’s top power play at 26.2 percent while the Flyers finished with the third-worst penalty killing in the NHL. Not a good combination. In the four games between the two teams, the Penguins scored five power play goals on just 13 opportunities (38.5 percent). If the Flyers don’t stay out of the penalty box, they’re in trouble.
2. Even-strength play, too. If the Penguins have a big edge in special teams, the Flyers have the potential to dominate at 5-on-5. The Penguins allowed 176 goals in 5-on-5 play this season, which was fifth-worst in the NHL and the worst among any team in the playoffs.
3. Goaltending is a huge wild card. Murray has endured a difficult season both on and off the ice, but had a .923 save percentage in games against the Flyers. Elliott went 2-0-0 at the end of the season after returning from surgery, but lost both starts against the Penguins while recording just an .864 save percentage.
4. Expect Couturier to follow Crosby to the Penguins dressing room. Couturier has developed into one of the league’s best two-way forwards. But Crosby took him to school on a play late in the season and is a notorious Flyers killer, with nine points against Philadelphia this season.
5. Fine line between winning and losing. Two points in the standings was the difference in the Penguins having home-ice advantage and it could be the difference-maker in the series. Only the Winnipeg Jets earned more than the 62 points the Penguins had on home ice. However, Pittsburgh also had the worst road record (17-20-4) among playoff teams in the Eastern Conference.
THN Series Prediction: Penguins in 6.
LINE COMBOS, DEFENSE PAIRINGS & GOALIES