The Pittsburgh Penguins are next up on Philadelphia’s giant-killing expedition.
The Flyers already have claimed top-seeded Montreal and third-seeded Washington as victims. Now, the second-seeded Penguins are the only team that stands between Philadelphia and an improbable berth in what would be the Flyers’ first Stanley Cup Final since 1997.
But the Penguins might be the most difficult opponent yet to topple. Not only are the Penguins 8-1 in these playoffs, but they have outscored their first two opponents --– Ottawa and the New York Rangers -- by a convincing 31-17 margin.
"Just looking around the room, seeing guys excited at what they're doing, there's bigger fish to fry than revenge. It's playing the game the right way and playing hard between the whistles. There's no question it is going to be an emotional series, a physical series. But we need to do what we can to win this." - Philadelphia coach John Stevens
Plus, the Penguins are getting big-time contributions from all of their big-time players. Evegeni Malkin leads the team in scoring with 14 points, tied for third on the League scoring table. Sidney Crosby also has 14 points, including a tournament-best 12 assists. Marian Hossa, with five goals and five assists, is the third Penguin to be averaging more than a point per game.
In net, Pittsburgh’s Marc-Andre Fleury has been a revelation. His .938 save percentage is the best of the tournament and his 1.76 goals-against average is third-best.
But the Flyers, like all giant-killers, have some serious mojo on their side.
R.J. Umberger, an unheralded 26-year-old, has nine playoff goals. He had just 13 goals in 74 regular-season games. And, oh yeah, he hails from Pittsburgh. Daniel Briere, Philadelphia’s marquee free-agent acquisition, has a team-leading 14 points and Vaclav Prospal, a late-season acquisition, has a team-high nine assists.
"It's going to be a battle. We've worked hard to get where we are now. Why not play them and have this big rivalry? I think it's going to be great for the fans." - Pittsburgh’s Ryan Malone
But it is goalie Martin Biron who has been administering the knockout blows through the first two rounds. In his first playoff run, Biron has proven the wait was worthwhile. While the numbers are not eye-popping, his 2.72 GAA is eighth in the playoffs and his .914 save percentage is third among the four remaining starting goalies in the playoffs, Biron simply gets the job done.
Plus, the Flyers should be a confident bunch. Not only have they won 8-of-12 games against supposedly superior competition in the playoffs, but they have had Pittsburgh’s number in the regular season. The Atlantic Division rivals met eight times in the regular season and Philadelphia took five of those games, including two lopsided early-season wins and a 2-0 shutout to close the season series on the season’s final day.
It remains to be seen if the Flyers can claim a third giant in their march to the Stanley Cup, but recent history suggests it would be downright foolish to dismiss their chances out of hand.
Pittsburgh will win if -- It wins the battle on special-teams. No team has been shorthanded more in these playoffs than the Flyers, who have faced 57 man-disadvantage situations in a dozen playoff games. The Penguins are one of the most dangerous power-play teams in the NHL. Pittsburgh’s 23.4 percent conversion rate is fourth among playoff teams. Philadelphia is clicking at 24 percent on the power play, but Pittsburgh is loathe to take penalties and has killed 89.5 percent of the 38 shorthanded situations it has faced.
Philadelphia will win if -- It can hold a lead and wear down the Penguins physically. The Penguins have faced little adversity in the first two rounds, reeling off seven-straight wins before finally losing. Philadelphia needs to win an early game to rattle the Penguins and can only do that by holding a lead. The Flyers surrendered three two-goal leads in their first eight playoff games. Philadelphia must also impose its physical will on this series, hoping to wear down the more-skilled Penguins.