Since the Broad Street Bullies of the 1970s the differences in style of play between the Penguins and Flyers have been equal to the miles in between the two Pennsylvania cities. Where the Flyers relied on physicality and intimidation, the Penguins preferred speed and skill. While Flyers last sipped from Lord Stanley in 1975, the Penguins have danced with the Cup three times since 1991.
But as the Penguins and Flyers get set to renew acquaintances at 7 p.m. on Tuesday night at Mellon Arena in the front end of a home-and-home series, a philosophical change has taken place across the Commonwealth. Led my new head coach Peter Laviolette, hired to replace John Stevens on Dec. 4, the Flyers are installing an aggressive, up-tempo system similar to the one run by the Penguins under Dan Bylsma.
“They have changed a little bit structurally and systematic-wise,” Bylsma said. “It’s not the same old Flyers in terms of system. There is a little more of an adjustment, seeing a team for the first time.”
Such a radical transformation like the one the Flyers are going through will likely not take place overnight, no matter how easy the Penguins made it look last year when they went from a team that was 27-25-5 prior to Bylsma’s arrival to the offensive juggernaut which finished the season 18-3-4 and went on to capture the Stanley Cup.
“I am still a little bit surprised by our team and how we did last year,” Bylsma said. “I know looking back at the season and the wins we had against Montreal and Philly and even the game we won in Chicago, we were not quite playing our best or close to playing our best but we were still able to get enough wins so that we had success. That success built upon the ‘buy in’ factor.
“They didn’t buy in right away when we were winning games. We were still figuring it out for five or six games before we started to say this is how we’re going to play, this is how we can play. I still do look back in a bit of amazement and compliment the guys in how they did, the turnaround and buying in right away.”
Six games into the Laviolette era the Flyers are still working on that ‘buy in’ factor. A 3-1 victory Monday night over the Boston Bruins improved their mark under the new coach to 2-4. In those six contests the Flyers have been outscored, 20-13.
“It’s kind of a drastic change,” Brooks Oprik said. “I think it was surprising how quickly we adjusted to it and how well we responded that quickly. I think what they are trying to do is similar to what we were trying to do.”
The biggest struggle through the first two-plus months for Philadelphia has been the inability of the forwards to find the back of the net. They have a cast of characters who have 30-goal seasons and numerous all-star berths on their resume, yet 31 games into the season not one player is on pace to average a point-per-game.
A potent offense which ranked fourth (tied) in the NHL with 264 goals in 2008-09 has struggled five-on-five this year and currently sits 19th overall with 90 goals. A slow start from Claude Giroux, who was great in the first round of the playoffs against the Penguins in the spring, hernia surgery for Simon Gagne and recent dry spells in the goal-scoring department from Carter (five goals in 19 games) and rookie James van Riemsdyk (one goal in 13 games) has sapped some of the secondary scoring the Flyers were counting on.
Switching from the defense-first system employed by Stevens to the puck-possession approach under Laviolette should help restore the firepower that thus far has been missing.
“I am not really sure what is going on there,” Orpik said. “If you look at their lineup it’s pretty talented, especially the forward groups they have. They have three lines that are arguably first lines.”
Such talent is why management is betting that Laviolette’s brand of hockey will rejuvenate a team many experts had on their short list of Stanley Cup contenders during the preseason.
In addition to having the horsepower up front to play a puck-possession game, Philadelphia is blessed with a defensive corps capable of both putting the puck onto the blades of their forwards and jumping into the rush to create odd-man opportunities.
“If you look at the talent there they have a lot of speed on the back and a lot of guys who move the puck well,” Orpik said. “You think it would benefit them.”
Each of the Flyers top-four blueliners, Chris Pronger (20), Kimmo Timonen (19), Matt Carle (17) and Braydon Coburn (11), have recorded double-digit points thus far. In Pronger and Timonen the Flyers have two of the better power-play quarterbacks leading a powerful unit which ranks sixth in the league, to take advantage of the extra man-advantage opportunities their new system is sure to create.
A 3-7 mark their past 10 games has pushed the Flyers from the middle of the playoff pack to the outside looking in. While it is still December, the Penguins would like to keep a healthy distance from the Flyers, as Pittsburgh currently sits 14 points in front of Philadelphia in the Atlantic Division. They know a strong effort during this home-and-home series with the Flyers will help accomplish that.
“(Philadelphia) is pretty motivated,” Sidney Crosby
said. “They’ve had some trouble lately, but I’m sure they’re looking at the game as a rivalry game and one they can easily get up for and change things around. We’ve got to make sure we expect their best.”
“Maybe this is what they need, a couple rivalry games with us,” Orpik said. “It’s definitely something we will be prepared for. Hopefully it does take them a couple more games to adjust here.”