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Pens, Flyers evenly matched for this first-round feud

Sunday, 04.12.2009 / 10:38 PM / 2009 Playoffs Conference Quarterfinals

By NHL.com Staff




Get the children inside -- here comes the Keystone Clash! The NHL's two Pennsylvania-based teams don't like one another and the beneficiaries are hockey fans who should see a great series.

The Penguins and Flyers each finished with 99 points, and the Pens earned the home-ice advantage with 45 wins, compared to the Flyers' 44. Staying with the "Hey, they're evenly matched" argument, both teams scored 264 goals on the season and were one goal apart defensively, with the Pens surrendering 239 and the Flyers 238.

There is star power aplenty here, with the Penguins boasting regular-season scoring champ Evgeni Malkin (113 points) and Sidney Crosby, who finished third with 103 points. Philly isn't far off the star meter, either, with Jeff Carter and his 46 goals and the overall excellence of Mike Richards and Simon Gagne.

Now, toss in a Hatfield vs. McCoy mentality and this series has the potential to be the most entertaining of the opening round.





With two of the League's top scorers, offense is not one of the Penguins' worries

Sidney Crosby had revolving linemates for most of the season, but the acquisitions of Chris Kunitz and Bill Guerin have enlivened him, and in 17 games since returning from a groin strain he has 10 goals and 24 points, and recently had a 16-game point-scoring streak -- the second-longest of his career -- snapped.

With Kunitz and Guerin on board, Malkin can center his own line and give the club scoring depth. An MVP front-runner, he finished with a League-best 113 points.

While Malkin and Crosby are givens, the Pens can't become dependent on those two superstars. Kunitz, Guerin and Ruslan Fedotenko are experienced playoff performers who will need to step up, and Jordan Staal needs to perform like he did last season, when he had 6 goals in 20 playoff games.


Philadelphia's biggest strength is its scoring depth, with four 30-goal scorers and six players with at least 20. And that doesn't include last season's second-leading scorer, Danny Briere, who seems to be finding his game after a season-long battle with groin injuries, or flashy rookie Claude Giroux, who has played in just 42 games. The 2006 first-round pick has 9 goals and 27 points and, while playing out of position at center, he's drawn comparisons to former All-Star Peter Forsberg.

Coach John Stevens likes to juggle his lines, but the Flyers' most-effective groupings had Mike Richards between Simon Gagne and Mike Knuble, and Jeff Carter with Scott Hartnell and Joffrey Lupul.

A third line of Briere, Giroux and Arron Asham has been a major surprise in the past month. Asham isn't the biggest player in the League, but he does a great job clearing space and is fearless going to the front of the net.





The Penguins' fortunes changed completely when Sergei Gonchar returned to the lineup Feb. 14. While Gonchar sat out recovering from preseason shoulder surgery, the Pens struggled to a 27-24-5 mark. Following his return, they went 18-3-4 and shot up the Eastern Conference standings. The power play also has gotten a huge boost from Gonchar's presence. Without him, the Pens were at 16.2 percent with the extra man; since his return, it's at 18.2 (21-for-115).

 
As wide-open offensively as the Pens can be, they need to be more responsible in their own end. They allowed an average of 30.3 shots per game. Of the Eastern Conference playoff teams, only Boston, Montreal and Philadelphia allowed more.

Kimmo Timonen might not be the Flyers' most valuable player, but he's likely their most indispensible. He plays more than 24 minutes per game, quarterbacks the power play and kills penalties. His absence in last year's Eastern Conference Finals matchup between these teams was a big reason the Flyers lost.

Timonen and Ryan Parent make an effective first pairing, as Parent plays a similar style to Timonen -- minus the offensive abilities. Braydon Coburn and Matt Carle are a smooth-skating second pair.

The Flyers lack the intimidating presence of a Derian Hatcher, but all six players move the puck well and limit their mistakes. They won't contribute much to the offense, but with the firepower up front, it's not a major issue.

Tale of the tape

FLEURY
G - Pit (#29)
HEIGHT: 6' 2" WEIGHT: 180
'08-09 Stats:
GAMES: 62
RECORD:
35-18-7
SV%: .912
GAA: 2.67
biron
G - PhI
(#43)
height: 6' 3"
weight: 180
'08-09 Stats:
GAMES: 55
RECORD:
29-19-5
SV%: .915
GAA: 2.76




There are no more doubts regarding Marc-Andre Fleury's big-game pedigree. He's stayed healthy all season, and while he didn't lead the League in any regular-season category, his team has the confidence that he can and will make the big saves when necessary, especially after last season's march to the Stanley Cup Final.

Martin Biron was the star of last season's playoff run, backstopping the Flyers to the conference final in his first extended postseason experience. He had an up-and-down regular season, but has played better the last few weeks, breeding hope of a repeat performance this spring.





When Dan Bylsma replaced Michel Therrien Feb. 15, he opened up the offense, and the team answered with an 18-3-4 record in Bylsma's tenure. Bylsma never had been a head coach at any level before this season -- when he took the head job at AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton this fall -- so he'll be learning playoff hockey on the fly.

John Stevens has achieved a unique balance -- he can criticize his team while remaining liked and respected by his players. Stevens never gets too high or too low, and that rubs off on his team. Stevens won an AHL title a few years ago, and showed his NHL playoff mettle last season with a three-round run.





Gonchar's return rejuvenated the power play, and, in a short series, his presence could be lethal if the opposition takes too many penalties.

Penalty killing has been markedly better since Bylsma's arrival; under the new coach, the team is killing at an 86.4-percent clip.

With the underrated Mike Knuble ruling the area around the net, the Flyers' power play finished sixth at 22.5 percent. Consistency, though, remains an issue.

The penalty killing has been good, and it's had to be as no team spent more time in the box than the Flyers. They also lead the League with 16 shorthanded goals.





Bill Guerin, Penguins -- The veteran forward has made it to the Stanley Cup Playoffs 13 previous times, but has not enjoyed sustained success since his first few trips with the Devils. In fact, he has reached double digits in points once, scoring 11 points when New Jersey won the Cup in 1995. The Sharks traded for his playoff experience two years ago, but Guerin managed just 2 points in nine games as San Jose flamed out in the second round. Guerin will have to produce more if the Penguins want to get past Philadelphia.





Pittsburgh will win if -- It can come out ahead in the special-teams' battle. There is very little that separates these teams, so special teams could be the difference. Pittsburgh, obviously, has a good power play, but will be going up against an aggressive, highly efficient penalty kill. If Philadelphia's shorthanded unit can blunt the effectiveness of Gonchar and Co., this could become a frustrating series for the Penguins.

Philadelphia will win if -- It can establish a physical superiority. These aren't the Broad Street Bullies of old, but they are a team that still feeds off setting a physical tone and wearing a team down. With Pittsburgh's bevy of skill players -- especially Crosby and Malkin -- it behooves the Flyers to initiate contact whenever possible in an attempt to slow down or discourage the Penguins.



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