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Penguins, Flyers continue rivalry in postseason

Saturday, 04.07.2012 / 9:00 PM / Head to Head Stanley Cup Playoffs Series Previews

By NHL.com Staff

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Penguins, Flyers continue rivalry in postseason
The Penguins and Flyers have developed a distaste for one another, and it will continue into the first round of the Playoffs.


Seed: 451-25-6108Pts.


Seed: 547-26-9103Pts.
These teams do not like each other. The pyrotechnics have been stunning across the six games these two teams have contested this season, including two in the final eighth days of the season that featured wars between players on the ice and wars of words between the coaching staffs.
Expect the intensity to continue in this sixth edition of the Keystone Showdown, which features perhaps the most star power in the League -- including Hart Trophy candidates on both sides -- Evgeni Malkin for Pittsburgh and Claude Giroux for Philadelphia. Oh yeah, Sidney Crosby and Jaromir Jagr are also involved in this series.
Historically, this series has been pretty even in postseason. Philadelphia won the first three series, but Pittsburgh has taken the two most recent editions in 2008 and 2009. Pittsburgh went to the Stanley Cup each of those seasons, taking the title in 2009.
This season, both teams are among the top-six in standings points this season, yet one of them will go home after no more than seven games this April. The stakes, simply, are huge for both Stanley Cup hopefuls.
Pittsburgh's  group of forwards is unmatched in the League for its star power, scoring and depth. Unlike a year ago, though, everyone is healthy and ready to go for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Last year, Sidney Crosby (concussion), Evgeni Malkin (knee) and Matt Cooke (suspension) all were out against the Lightning and those absences were deadly in a seven-game loss that saw Pitt score just four goals in the final three games

Malkin took the Art Ross Trophy in a runaway and reached 50 goals for the first time in his career. He finished with 28 points in his final 15 games. Crosby is a whirlwind offensively since returning from a 40-game concussion-related layoff in mid-March and James Neal is coming off a 40-goal season.

The Penguins are so deep that the imposing Jordan Staal usually centers the third line. And who would have guessed that Pascal Dupuis would outscore Jaromir Jagr? In fact, Dupuis finished season with a point in 17 straight games.

No team has as versatile an offense as the Flyers, who attack in waves and have double-digit goal scorers on each line. In fact, the Flyers are one of just three teams to top the 260-gaol mark during the 2011-12 season.

The top trio of Claude Giroux, Scott Hartnell and Jaromir Jagr receives the most attention, and for good reason. Giroux was a contender for the Art Ross Trophy for much of the year and is also in the Hart Trophy conversation. Hartnell is among the League leaders in goals and power-play goals during what is a breakout season for him. He has raised his game to that of an elite power forward. Jagr, at 40, remains a consistent scoring threat and gasme-changer.

A second line of Danny Briere -- if he returns from a back injury that sidelined him for the final three regular-season games -- Wayne Simmonds and Brayden Schenn has emerged as a threat. Simmonds, obtained from Los Angeles during the summer, has been the key here. After never managing more than 16 goals in any of his first three seasons with the Kings, Simmonds almost doubled that total in his first season with the Flyers.
The trio of Eric Wellwood, Matt Read and Jakub Voracek could be the fastest in the League.

Meanwhile, the shut-down line of Sean Couturier, Maxime Talbot (who had a career-high in goals) and Zac Rinaldo can frustrate and create offensive chances in transition. They will likely be key in blunting a Penguin's attack that can three lines deep.

The Penguins supposedly lacked a high-quality shutdown pair when they began their 2009 Stanley Cup run, only to have Hal Gill and Rob Scuderi emerge. The Penguins believe Brooks Orpik and Zbynek Michalek, who were paired about three-fourths of the way through the season, can be such a lockdown duo this spring.

Michalek and Paul Martin owned the worst plus-minus ratings on the team when they were paired, but both have healthy plus totals since being separated. Of course, being paired with Kris Letang often is a fast way to improve a player's statistics. The gifted Letang, who has battled concussions this season,  is capable of being a game-changing, two-way player with his speed, precise passing and ability to run the power play.
The Flyers don't have the most mobile back end, but they make up for it in size and strength, as four of their top six stand 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds or bigger.

They won't get a lot of offense from their top pair, as the first priority for Braydon Coburn and Nicklas Grossmann is shutting down the best players from other teams. Grossmann has been a shot-blocking machine since arriving in Philadelphia in a February trade from Dallas. His recovery from a lower-body injury suffered April 1 will be a key component toward any postseason success for the Flyers.

Kimmo Timonen and Matt Carle are the Flyers' most offensive-minded pair, but coach Peter Laviolette has no problem putting them out in defensive-zone situations, which is a plus if Laviolette wants to match defensive pairs against specific attacking lines.

Pavel Kubina will anchor the third pair, with either Andreas Lilja or rookies Erik Gustafsson and Marc-Andre Bourdon playing with him.
Malkin is heavily favored to win the Hart Trophy awarded to the NHL MVP, yet there was a healthy debate in Pittsburgh whether he was even the Penguins' most valuable player. That's because Marc-Andre Fleury ignored a season-long succession of injuries to produce a second impressively consistent season in a row. During a 13-game run late in the season, he never once allowed more than three goals and he finished the season with a career-best 42 victories. After a rocky start, Ilya Bryzgalov has finished strong, posting an incredible March with 10 wins and four shutouts. He finished 33-16 with a 2.54 goals-against average and a .909 save percentage.
Now recovered from a foot injury, Bryzgalov will look to atone for a poor playoff performance this past season, while still with Phoenix. In that series, Bryzgalov allowed 17 goals in four games against the Red Wings.

Bylsma was the Jack Adams Award winner this pas season by steering the Penguins to a 106-ppoint season despite being without Crosby and Malkin from early February. Even without Crosby for three-fourths of this season, Bylsma directed the Penguins to the second most wins in franchise history.

Bylsma emphasizes playing a within-the system style designed to create turnovers that lead to scoring rushes and reduce the turnovers that can occur when a high-talent cast tries to get too showy. Bylsma was able to get his players to buy in during the 2009 run; whether they make another may depend on if they are willing to sacrifice flash and dash and concentrate on the basics.

Laviolette has faced a number of challenges this season, including the scrutiny that goes with playing in the NHL Winter Classic. Yet, he has seamlessly integrated a faft of new players into the squad and has used a sizable contingent of rookies -- which numbered 8 at one point this season -- to the best possible effect. His team has survived Bryzgalov's rocky start and continuing ups and downs and the near season-long absence of team captain Chris Pronger. And no coach better uses his timeouts.
Special Teams

The power play proved to be the Penguins' demise while converting on only one of 35 chances against Tampa Bay last spring. With Bylsma relying primarily on the same unit, it ranked in the top five most of this season. Bylsma experimented recently with an all-forwards cast that included Crosby playing a point. But that kept Letang off the ice too much, so Letang and Malkin returned to being the point men late in the season.

One of Bylsma's biggest accomplishments since taking over at mid-season in 2009 was upgrading what once was one of the League's worst penalty-killing units. Pittsburgh operated at nearly 90-percent efficiency for much of the season, a turnaround from those not-so-long ago days when the Penguins didn't care if they gave up five goals -- two on the power play -- as long as they scored six.

The Philadelphia power play comfortably leads the League in man-advantage goals, as well as opportunities, but the unit can be streaky.

The penalty kill ranks in the middle of the League, but has been much improved since the All-Star break, and killed 48 of 53 opposing power plays in March (90.1 percent).

Series Changer

Marc-Andre Fleury, Pittsburgh -- Regardless of what the Penguins' marquee stars do, it is most often Fleury who decides whether they win or lose in the playoffs. He was brilliant throughout the Stanley Cup chase in '09. When his play tailed off considerably in 2010, the Penguins were bounced in the second round. He was exceptional again this past spring, only to be let down by a lack of scoring. He is coming off his best regular season and, if that carries over to the playoffs, his ability to shake off bad games in a hurry and to make brilliant saves at key moments could make life miserable for multiple teams.

Maxime Talbot, Flyers -- It's going to be an emotional series for the former Penguin, who spent six years with the franchise and was the Cup hero in 2009 with a pair of huge goals. But, Talbot will need to keep his emotions in check and will be needed to play a strong defensive role if the Flyers hope to slow the deep Pittsburgh attack.

It won't hurt if he chips in a couple of big goals, which is definitely a possibility after his good showing in that category this season.

What If ...

Penguins will win if … They don't allow the Flyers to go into their heads. Crosby acknowledged that the Flyers' edginess sometimes gets him and his teammates off their game. The Penguins can't allow that to happen in a short series. If they can turn the other cheek in this round, there may be more hockey left to play for the NHL's most impressive collection of talent.

Flyers will win if... They get healthy, create scoring chances from all four lines and Bryzgalov's strong March carries over to the postseason.

Analysis by Alan Robinson and Adam Kimelman

Quote of the Day

He seemed to thrive on his own and didn't really need any push from me. I certainly don't want to get in the way of the coaches. You see how that goes sometimes. I never really worried about it and just enjoyed the ride.

— David Ekblad on his son's [Aaron Ekblad] journey to the NHL, signing with the Florida Panthers