(Pittsburgh, PA) - One of the storylines of the first-round playoff series between the Flyers and Penguins is the battle between the Pens' top two players, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, and the Flyers' best two, Mike Richards and Jeff Carter.
Both sets of players saw about the same amount of ice time this season. Malkin led all forwards in total minutes played (1,846:24), while Crosby ranked 13th (1,689:33). Richards (1,716:57) and Carter (1,718:17) both played in excess of 1,700 minutes, making the Flyers the only team to have two forwards among the 11 who played that many minutes.
A deeper look into the numbers shows why the Penguins had so much more jump in Game 1 than the Flyers. While the total ice time among each team's "Big Two" is similar, Carter and Richards play a far harder game in that they spend so much time on the penalty kill. Richards averaged 3:12 per game shorthanded, while Carter averaged 3:03; meanwhile, Malkin averaged just 1:04 per game shorthanded and Crosby just 57 seconds.
Richards and Carter had excellent seasons, but both seem to be wearing down from the stress of so many minutes. Their performances in Game 1 Wednesday night bear that out. Richards played 23:17 -- including 3:19 shorthanded -- and had just two shots. Carter played 17 minutes -- including 2:54 shorthanded -- and while he had eight shots, only three of them came in the first two periods; the rest came when the Flyers were pressing to get back in the game and throwing everything they could at the net.
"We want to be on the ice when its time to kill penalties or play power play," Gagne told NHL.com. "That's the way I'm used to playing. No time to change it. Maybe something we could do in the future, but for now that's the way we're going to play."
Flyers coach John Stevens admitted he needs to spread the hard minutes around a bit, but he won't get away from using his top two lines in all phases of the game.
"I don't think we've become too reliant," said Stevens. "Especially on the road, I think when they're looking for matchups they want to have, we can rely on our third and fourth lines a little more, but at the same time we're always going to rely on our top two lines to carry the bulk of the work."
For his part, Richards said he isn't being over-played or wearing down.
"I'm 24 years old, I feel good," he said. "I feel all right, I feel good, I feel I have fresh legs. At the end of the game yesterday I felt fresh."
Stevens did admit he overused Richards in Game 1, and hopes not to repeat that mistake.
"I think in terms of Richey, I think yesterday I did him a little bit of a disservice to be honest," said the coach. "He's arguably our best player and maybe I relied on him a bit too much. Getting in penalty trouble, he's a left-handed centerman we like to use there. I think we get into a situation now where Darroll Powe has developed where he could take some of those minutes. Richey plays so hard all the time, and when you play against Crosby it's hard hockey and he competes at a high level. Maybe I use him too much. I have to spread it around a little bit, but we're not going to go away from him in the penalty-kill situation. I think he's terrific and he wants to be used in those situations. But I think we can thin it out a little bit."
Playing Powe and Claude Giroux
more on the penalty kill and possibly at five-on-five -- Powe, Giroux and Danny Briere
skated together on a line at practice Thursday -- is an option.
Other ways to thin out the hard minutes are to stay out of the penalty box and play with a lead. The Flyers were shorthanded eight times in Game 1, and in their last 26 games, they've led after the first period just four times.
"If you're winning it's a lot easier to play 25 minutes then when you chase the game," Gagne told NHL.com. "If you're chasing the game, you can play 25 minutes, but maybe 10 minutes are hard, hard minutes where you're trying to score a goal so you're going to burn more energy, so it's a little bit harder when you're chasing a game."