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Pittsburgh vs. Philadelphia Preview

by Sam Kasan / Pittsburgh Penguins

Pittsburgh Penguins (39-26-8-86) vs. Philadelphia Flyers (38-22-10-86)

Where: Mellon Arena
Sunday, March 22, at 12:30 p.m.
WXDX Radio, FM 105.9
NBC National Broadcast
Season Series: Pittsburgh leads 4-1-0. The Penguins won both contests at Mellon Arena this year, once in overtime and once in a shootout. Pittsburgh finished 2-1-0 at Wachovia Center this season.



  Pens vs Flyers 2/21

Swagger: The Penguins are playing with a confidence and swagger that is currently unmatched by any team in the league. Pittsburgh has become a well-oiled, systematic machine, rolling through opponents with efficiency. If the Penguins can sustain their recent execution, the Flyers will become their next victim.
xxxxTwo years ago Philadelphia had the worst record in the NHL. General manager Paul Holmgren rebuilt the club by stockpiling young talent and dumping aging veterans. The Flyers were rebuilt from a team of muscle to a team filled with speed and skill. As a result, the Flyers rebounded last season with a 39-point improvement and an appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals in head coach John Stevens first full season on the job.

Philadelphia has been a streaky team this season. They had a shaky start to the year, losing their first six games (0-3-3). They responded with four straight wins, followed by three losses in a row. At that point, Philadelphia caught on fire, losing only once in regulation in its next 17 games (13-1-3). Philadelphia has been hitting around the .500 mark for the past few months and their once-comfortable spot in the No. 4 slot in the East is being challenged by the Penguins.
The Flyers lost a lot of key contributors from last year’s playoff team, including R.J. Umberger, Vaclav Prospal, Sami Kapanen and Jason Smith. Holmgren didn’t make any flashy signings in the offseason, adding short-lived Steve Eminger and Ossi Vaananen at defense and center Glen Metropolit. For once, the Flyers have a GM in Holmgren who won’t just throw money at aging veterans. But Philadelphia tried to bolster its defense with a couple of in-season moves. First, they added Andrew Alberts from Boston. Then the team sent Eminger, Steve Downie and a fourth-round pick to Tampa Bay for Matt Carle and a third-round pick. At the March 4th trade deadline, Holmgren added to the Flyers toughness by grabbing former Penguin Daniel Carcillo from Phoenix in exchange for Scottie Upshall and a second-round pick.
Philadelphia is loaded with young talent up front with Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Joffrey Lupul, Daniel Briere and Scott Hartnell. Add in Mike Knuble and Simon Gagne and Philadelphia might have five players score 30 or more goals – six currently have 20 or more. The Flyers rank sixth in the NHL with an average of 3.19 goals per game.

Carter has exploded out of his shell and developed into one of the best finishers in the National Hockey League. His 39 goals this season are third most in the entire league. He’s also the Flyers second-leading scorer with 71 points. The Flyers recently shuffled their lines and Carter is now working between Briere and Hartnell. Briere, who has been sidelined throughout the year with various injuries, was struggling in his return. He was scoreless in his first seven games until Stevens put him with Carter Friday night at Buffalo. Briere responded with two goals. Hartnell has chipped in 53 points this season (26G-27A) while fulfilling his dual role as agitator and scoring threat.

Philadelphia signed 24-year-old Mike Richards to a 12-year contract and anointed him the Flyers captain. He’s responded to the new leadership role by leading the team with 74 points (28G-46A). He is currently working with Lupul and Carcillo. Lupul has 44 points this season (21+23) and Carcillo gives the combination an intimidating, physical presence.

Rookie Claude Giroux hit the jackpot with linemates Gagne and Knuble. Gagne is playing at full speed and appears to have no lingering affects from the concussion that cost him 57 games last season. He has 28 goals and 37 assists for 65 points. Knuble has chipped in with 25 goals this year, including four against the Penguins in the past three contests.
The Flyers early season struggles were due to the team’s inability to keep the puck out of their own net. Four months ago, Philadelphia was surrendering 3.36 goals per game, seventh worst in the NHL. The team addressed the issue with a few in-season trades. The moves appear to have paid off as the team’s goals against has dropped to 2.83, ranking 13th.

Braydon Coburn is the 24-year-old cornerstone of the defensive corps. Coburn and Kimmo Timonen emerged as top-tier defensemen and were particularly impressive in the team’s playoff run. Timonen is having an excellent season with 38 points and a plus-18 rating. Coburn is second in scoring among Philadelphia blueliners with 24 points. Holmgren reworked the remaining defensive corps, adding Matt Carle and Andrew Alberts. Carle is a young, offensively blessed defenseman. As a rookie, he posted 42 points (11G-31A) with San Jose. Alberts, a big body at 6-foot-5, 220 pounds, adds a physical presence on the blue line.
Last year, Martin Biron had his best season in six years, winning 30 games with a 2.59 goals against average and .918 save percentage. Antero Niittymaki is solid, if not spectacular, and a quality backup goaltender.

Biron has gotten the bulk of the playing time and has a 23-15-5 record with a 2.77 goals against average and .915 save percentage. Biron struggled in the early part of the season and was letting a ton of rubber past his body. The Flyers upgraded their defensive corps and that has translated into help for the goaltenders. Niittymaki has performed admirably in his sparse starts with a 17-7-5 mark, 2.75 GAA and .912 save percentage.
Richards had a breakout season last year, more than doubling his point production and leading the team in scoring with 28 goals and 47 assists for 74 points. The Flyers re-signed him to a 12-year contract and dubbed him as captain. He’s responded to the new leadership role. Barring a serious slump, Richards will break all his career-best offensive numbers. He’s already tied his career high in goals with 28 and his current plus-23 rating will destroy his previous high (13). What’s more, he is one shy of tying a career high in assists and points. Richards was named as an NHL All-Star and is the unquestioned general for the Flyers.
“Sometimes it’s needed. We’re struggling to score goals here once in a while.”
Jeff Carter on John Stevens’ line juggling to Yahoo! Sports
Philadelphia has yet to allow a shorthanded goal this season while scoring a league-leading 16. The only team in the modern era to go an entire season without yielding a shorthander was the 1975-76 Montreal Canadiens.

Author: Sam Kasan

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