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Round 2
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Stanley Cup Final

Flyers vs. Penguins: A point/counterpoint breakdown

Saturday, 03.31.2012 / 9:00 AM / NHL on NBC Spotlight

By Adam Kimelman and Corey Masisak - NHL.com Staff Writers

NHL.com "experts" Corey Masisak and Adam Kimelman decided to break down the big matchup Sunday between the Philadelphia Flyers and the Pittsburgh Penguins. Things might have gotten a little heated, but it was all in good spirits. We think.

It's always a physical, nasty event when the Flyers and Penguins meet. And the best part of this one? It could be a precursor to a seven-game, steel-cage match of a first-round playoff series.

The Flyers have won three of the first four meetings, so that makes them the better team, right Corey?

Adam, Philadelphia definitely is the better team … as long as Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang don't play, or the Penguins are playing their third road game in less than 96 hours. Crosby has faced the Flyers just once this season, and Pittsburgh is 1-0-1 with Letang in the lineup. The Penguins dominated the game March 18 for two periods before they ran out of gas.

Ilya Bryzgalov
Goalie - PHI
RECORD: 32-15-7
GAA: 2.46 | SVP: 0.910
The only reason Pittsburgh didn't lead that contest 5-0 after two periods was the excellent play of goalie Ilya Bryzgalov. That seems to be a great place to start when breaking down a matchup between these two teams, no?

I don't think I'm going out on a limb when I say if any team could choose between Marc-Andre Fleury and Bryzgalov, it would take the guy with his name on the Stanley Cup and more consistent play this season instead of the guy with the $51 million contract and wonderful (for the media, at least) sound bytes.

That said, Bryzgalov has played really well of late. He also has a cracked bone in his foot. Are we going to see "Mr. Universe" on Sunday, or will Pittsburgh have a "humongous big" advantage if the Flyers have to play Sergei Bobrovsky?

Corey, either goalie should be fine for the Flyers. Bryzgalov is 4-0-1 with a 1.90 goals-against average and .934 save percentage in six games against the Pens, and in his last start in Pittsburgh -- in the 2009-10 season -- threw up a 24-save shutout.

And if you climb into the way-back machine and rewind to Oct. 7, 2010 -- the opening of Pittsburgh's Consol Energy Center -- Bobrovsky, in his first NHL start, stopped 29 of 31 shots to ruin the Pens' party.

Either goalie, however, will only be as good as the defense in front of him, and that's one place the Flyers greatly have improved since the trade deadline. The acquisitions of Nicklas Grossmann and Pavel Kubina coincided with Bryzgalov's spectacular run. Grossmann has been a shot-blocking machine and has paired with Braydon Coburn to form a huge, physical top defense pair. Kubina is still working his way into things after missing time with an upper-body injury, but he'll definitely be an asset.

And when you add in All-Star Kimmo Timonen, it's a pretty impressive group the Flyers can put out there. They might not be the most mobile group, but between Coburn, Grossmann, Kubina and Andreas Lilja, that's an average of 6-foot-4 and 232 pounds per man.

As good as those Penguins forwards are, it's tough to handle that much beef.

Adam, the Flyers definitely have been better defensively since the addition of Grossmann and Kubina, and the Penguins are a different team without Letang. He may not be ready to play by Sunday, which could swing things in Philadelphia's favor.

James Neal
Left Wing - PIT
GOALS: 37 | ASST: 41 | PTS: 78
SOG: 317 | +/-: 8
When they're all healthy, though, Pittsburgh's defense corps is among the best in the League. Letang would have been a Norris Trophy candidate were it not for the injuries, while Zbynek Michalek and Brooks Orpik offer plenty of size and toughness, as well.

If there is one area where the Penguins have a clear advantage in this matchup, it's up front. Pittsburgh arguably had the best healthy player on the planet in Evgeni Malkin, and he likely will win the Hart Trophy for his efforts. Then they added the guy who is the best player on the planet, any category.

That's a pretty good place to start, but Jordan Staal and James Neal both have taken huge strides forward this season, and role players like Matt Cooke and Pascal Dupuis have had big seasons. After years of searching for scoring wingers to pair with the "Big Three" down the middle, the Penguins suddenly are deep on the wings and have maybe the best forward corps in the NHL.

Adam, did you know that Dupuis has more goals and as many points as Jaromir Jagr, and more goals and points than Danny Briere?

Corey, I know just how good the Penguins' forward group is, but did you know that the Flyers are tied for the League lead with eight players with at least 15 goals? And they also are tied for the most in the League with 11 players with at least 10?

What that tells you is that the Flyers can spread their offense across all four lines. The "2 All-Stars and a Hall of Famer" line (a little wordy, I know) of Claude Giroux, Scott Hartnell and Jagr might get all the attention -- and rightfully so, as Giroux should be in the Hart discussion with Malkin -- but they have two other lines that know how to fill the nets.

Briere has found a groove playing with Wayne Simmonds and Brayden Schenn, and a third line of Eric Wellwood, Matt Read and Jakub Voracek could be the fastest trio in the League.

The scoring even goes to the fourth line, where Maxime Talbot -- Pittsburgh fans might remember him -- has a career-high 18 goals.

That sort of depth gives a coach all sorts of matchup advantages. And if Flyers coach Peter Laviolette senses something isn't going well, the king of the timeout (remember the one he called in Game 4 of the 2010 second round against Boston?) will gather the troops and move some pieces around.

Laviolette has shown a deft hand dealing with serious injuries, a lineup that has featured as many as eight rookies and the lack of his No. 1 defenseman and team captain for most of the season.

I know the guy in Pittsburgh has done the same thing, so Corey, do you think either team has an advantage behind the bench?

Adam, I think coaching is one area that is just too close to call. Laviolette and Pittsburgh's Dan Bylsma are on the short list of the best coaches in the NHL. They both deserve consideration for the Jack Adams, but aren't likely to be serious contenders because both teams were expected to be strong this season and that's an award that typically goes to someone whose team defies expectations.

Marc-Andre Fleury
Goalie - PIT
RECORD: 41-16-4
GAA: 2.32 | SVP: 0.914
Both teams also have top-10 power plays, but if there is another area where the Penguins could have a slight advantage, it is on the penalty kill. Pittsburgh is third in the NHL on the PK, while the Flyers are in the middle of the pack. That said, the Flyers did start their comeback in their last meeting with a power-play goal early in the third period.

These games often are filled with plenty of goals and plenty of post-whistle shenanigans. Home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs could be on the line, and which side of Pennsylvania that series begins on could be decided in their final two meetings.

It is prediction time. Given that Marc-Andre Fleury is expected to get a night off Friday, I'll say the goalie is well-rested for Sunday's game and the Penguins rebound from back-to-back losses against the last-place Islanders and keep control of the race for fourth in the East with a 4-3 victory.

What say you, Adam?

I don't think the goaltenders will be the deciding factor in this game, Corey. I'm envisioning an entertaining, hard-hitting game that sees the Flyers get a goal from each line and winning it 4-2.

I've been getting frustrated lately, and the only thing keeping me sane was the team winning and other people stepping up and scoring. Then you just kind of let it go and realize you can end the series with one shot, that frustration goes away for a brief moment, and that's what happened.

— Montreal forward Max Pacioretty after scoring the series-winner in Game 4 -- his first career playoff goal -- to eliminate the Lightning and send the Canadiens into the second round