After a lengthy and costly 82-game trek, the Philadelphia Flyers find themselves in the fifth spot in the Eastern Conference ready to square off against their cross-state rivals in a Keystone State showdown with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Up until the last few weeks, the rivalry with the Penguins had begun to cool down a bit. The Flyers have had the upper hand in the past two season series as they won four of six games this year and last year thanks to a strong showing in the Western part of the Commonwealth. Over the past two games though, both teams have been publicly displeased with each other both on and off the ice, and it seems as if it’s going to be a great first round matchup because of the short turnaround time.
Air Traffic Control:
The Flyers will be without the services of two of their best defensemen, which is something the team has known for a while. Chris Pronger was lost for the balance of the 2011-12 regular season and playoffs due to post-concussion syndrome, and Andrej Meszaros, who underwent back surgery on March 21, is scheduled to be sidelined for 6-to-8 weeks — meaning a second round return would be the best case scenario for the 26-year-old blueliner.
Still suffering from the junior jinx, James van Rimesdyk is expected to be out at least another 2-to-3 weeks. Gritty left winger Tom Sestito will also continue to be out for the Flyers, as Paul Holmgren said he is still weeks away from a return after he had successful surgery to repair a torn groin muscle suffered all the way back in late February. On the bright side, the Flyers’ top playoff playoff performer Danny Briere and defenseman Nicklas Grossmann are targeting a return during the series against the Penguins.
Briere has stated he hopes to be ready for Game 1 after missing the last three games with a back contusion and van Rimesdyk had surgery to mend a broken bone in his foot due to a blocked shot, meaning he would stay out for 4-to-6 weeks. Grossmann is expected to be in the lineup for the series opener, apparently recovered from that knee-to-knee hit from Penguins hatchet man Joe Vitale.
Starting goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov is going to play through a chip fracture in his right foot. The Penguins are about as healthy as an NHL team could be going into the series, as both Kris Letang and Sidney Crosby have returned from concussion issues that they have dealt with for most of this season limiting them to just 51 games and 22 games, respectively.
Philadelphia earned a decisive edge in this season’s six-game slate, taking two of three at home as well as in CONSOL Energy Center. The Flyers displayed some of their trademark resiliency against the Penguins this season, as they were able to erase early deficits in three of their four wins. Another thing that bodes well for the Flyers as the fifth seed is that they’ve lost exactly one game in the Penguins arena since it was opened in October of 2010.
An interesting contrast arises: the Penguins boast the best home record in the Eastern Conference at 29-10-2, while the Flyers sport the best road record in the East at 25-13-3. The Penguins are riding a three game winning streak into the playoffs, while the Flyers have won just two of their last five games. The teams have also racked up 277 penalty minutes in the season series, with six misconducts dished out, and seven major penalties (six of them for fighting). These two teams do not like each other at all, don’t need much provocation, and throughout the last three games, the tension and disdain has only been building.
Both Philadelphia and Pittsburgh have gotten contributions up and down their forwards corps in the games against one another, but the big point producers are the big guns for their respective clubs. Claude Giroux had one goal and seven assists in five games against the Penguins this season, while Jaromir Jagr potted four goals and one assist for five points and Scott Hartnell netted three twine-ticklers and two helpers as they suited up for all six games. Wayne Simmonds has notched three goals and three assists for six points and Jake Voracek has two goals and five assists for seven points as they’ve played all six games of the season series as well. De facto captain and number one defenseman Kimmo Timonen has recorded two goals and four assists for six points against the Penguins this year.
No player had more points in the season series than Evgeni Malkin who scored three of his 50 goals and assisted on six others for nine points in six games. James Neal netted three goals for the Penguins, Crosby scored one goal and had three assists for four points against the Flyers in just three games, while Jordan Staal, Chris Kunitz, and Pascal Dupuis (who is riding an amazing 17-game point streak into the playoffs) each had five points.
In goal, the Penguins have started Marc-Andre Fleury in every game against the Flyers this year. In those six games, only once has he managed a save percentage of over .900 (.933) and he only played 32 minutes in that appearance.
Fleury has allowed 19 goals on 149 shots, while Brent Johnson has allowed one goal on six shots. In other words, the Flyers can beat the Penguins’ goalies and have done so handily this season. In his three starts against the Penguins, Bryzgalov has allowed seven goals on 80 shots, but his save percentage remained well over .900 (.926 and .950) in two of those games. In the one game where he didn’t finish (February 18), he allowed three goals on 13 shots.
Sergei Bobrovsky, who figures to be the backup, has allowed 13 goals on 113 shots. He has also garnered save percentage numbers of over .900 twice (.915 and .923) in two wins and under .900 twice in (.824 in relief and .826) in two losses. Prior to this postseason, he started all six games at CONSOL, going 5-1-0, with his only loss coming last Saturday with this series already locked down.
If the Flyers want to have any shot at beating the Penguins and advancing to the Eastern Conference Semifinals, they will need to shut down the Terror Twins Crosby and Malkin in most of the games.
If either of those two get going, the Flyers’ playoff run will be a real short one. And let’s not forget the responsibility of restraining the secondary scoring of Neal, Kunitz, Staal, Dupuis and Steve Sullivan — all part of a stacked top nine.
Another thing Philadelphia needs to focus on is getting off to good starts. The Flyers have certainly made a name for themselves as comeback kids, and while it’s a good thing that no lead seems to be safe for their opposition, no team can chase games as often as this team does without it eventually catching up to them. It also cannot afford to jump out to a lead and then simply while away the minutes for the same reason. Passivity in all phases of the game may very well come to haunt the Orange and Black if they are not prepared to put the hammer down at all times.
Finally, if the Flyers are to stay strapped into their seats until the next round, they need Bryzgalov to be the goaltender he was in March, and at the very beginning of the season. For better or worse with the young makeup of the team plus their injury issues, the final margin of error rests in the crease. If Bryzgalov remains on his game, there is no reason that the Flyers should be unable to survive the first test in what could be an extended playoff flight.