Flyers-Penguins: 1st Round Preview
It is time for playoff hockey in Philadelphia and it’s another edition of the Battle of Pennsylvania on tap in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Flyers get a tough draw in the defending back-to-back Stanley Cup champions in the Pittsburgh Penguins, but in the playoffs, anything can happen.
We'll have game previews on each game, starting with Game 1 on Wednesday, but here is an overall preview of the series and keys to how both sides can come out on top.
How the Flyers will win:
Passionate yet disciplined hockey. The Flyers need to keep up with the Penguins speed and size, especially at 5-on-5, which has been a bit of a weakness for Pittsburgh. That said, while bringing a passionate and energetic game to the ice every night, they need to remain disciplined. The Penguins are lethal on the power play and the Flyers will not survive a series that is dominated by special teams. Their best chance to gain an edge in the series is to play smart, focused hockey at 5-on-5 and avoid the penalty box.
How the Penguins will win:
Expose the Flyers weaknesses and don’t let the rivalry get in your head. The Penguins have proven over the last several seasons to be a matchup nightmare for the Flyers, but the playoffs can be different. That said, good luck containing the trio of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel, not to mention the host of other players in Pittsburgh’s supporting cast, which at times just keeps on coming with relentless pressure. The Penguins have also had more success against the Flyers by being more disciplined in their own right. The Flyers just don’t get under the skin of the Penguins like they used to. A rivalry series can bring out the worst in even the best players. As long as the rivalry doesn’t get in their heads, the Penguins will be plenty focused on their quest for a third straight Stanley Cup.
5 Things to Watch
- Special Teams - It is the ultimate key of the series. The Penguins have the NHL’s best power play. The Flyers rank 15th. The Penguins rank 17th in penalty kill. The Flyers finished the regular season in 29th in penalty kill.In the four regular-season games between the two teams, the Penguins were 5-for-12 on the power play. The Flyers were 2-for-16.The good news out of those numbers is that the Flyers did manage to bait the Penguins into more penalties in their meetings. The problem lies in that the Flyers penalty kill is one of the worst in the league and is no match for the Penguins top-ranked power play.
If the Flyers even want to have a chance in the series, they not only need to stay out of the box, but also take advantage of the opportunities that they have on the man-advantage.
There is a chance that special teams could put the Flyers clear over the top in the series. It could also easily be the reason they never have a chance to make noise in the series. It all comes down to discipline.
- Goaltending - It’s always a question and this postseason is no different.The Flyers have used four goalies this season, but Brian Elliott has easily been the most consistent and received the best results in front of him from the rest of the team.That said, Elliott is two games back from injury with mixed results despite two wins. His last trip to the playoffs in 2017 was a total disaster as well and he’ll be facing shots from as high-powered an offense as there is in the NHL.
What may end up helping the Flyers is that Matt Murray has dealt with injury and struggle in the regular season as well. He’s obviously been able to rise to the occasion in the playoffs in each of the last two seasons, but he’s Pittsburgh’s go-to guy now. There is no backup plan like they had in 2016 or 2017.
The last time these two teams met in the playoffs in 2012, goaltending was essentially optional. The Flyers cannot get caught in these shootout style games, but have been able to keep up with the Penguins scored at times this season in both 5-4 overtime losses. Those could be the types of games we are in for this series.
- The Flyers Playoff “Rookies” - It might be easier to count the Flyers players who have played in a playoff game before.In all seriousness, the Flyers are coming into this series with a number of players who will be making their playoff debut. Ivan Provorov and Travis Konecny are the most notable, being that they were on the team last season when the Flyers missed the playoffs. Rookies Nolan Patrick, Oskar Lindblom and Travis Sanheim will all be making their playoff debut in their rookie seasons.The inexperience can be a blessing and a curse for the Flyers. It shouldn’t be difficult for these kids to try to elevate their game, but a lack of experience could also become a lack of discipline and smart play very quickly.
For the Flyers to win this series, they need to be the smarter team, and that’s easier said than done against the back-to-back Stanley Cup champions.
- Line Matchups and Scoring Depth - If you just looked at the results from the regular season and saw four losses for the Flyers in which five goals were allowed in each, you might think this series is a total mismatch. Inside the box score, you see that all four of these games were more competitive than it appears.In the first meeting between the two teams in November, the Flyers led 3-1 after two periods and had a 4-3 lead with under two minutes to play. They lost 5-4 in overtime.In the second meeting, the Flyers and Penguins played a scoreless game for nearly 30 minutes. Pittsburgh scored first, but the Flyers tied the game less than a minute later. Then the Penguins got three goals in a 2:15 span and the game was essentially over. The Flyers lost, 5-1.
In the third meeting, the Flyers only trailed after the first period because of a late power-play goal. They scored two goals early in the second and led 2-1 as the game neared the halfway point. Again, the Penguins scored to tie the game and then took over, getting two more goals in the second period and never looked back. The Flyers lost, 5-2.
In the final regular-season meeting, the Flyers took a 2-1 lead after the first period and battled through the second period to come away tied, 3-3. The Penguins took the lead just seconds into the third and the Flyers tied the game with seconds remaining in the third to force overtime before another loss, 5-4.
Each game had a brief period where the Flyers simply couldn’t keep up with the Penguins. In both games in Philadelphia, it was a small portion where the Penguins just scored at will and put the game away before the Flyers ever really had a chance. It is why matching lines and getting scoring depth are two keys to the series.
The Flyers will be able to match up well against one of Pittsburgh’s star centers. Either Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin will be marked by Sean Couturier and the Flyers top line in some capacity in every game.
From there, the Flyers are going to have to rely on young Nolan Patrick to be a responsible two-way center on the other star center. In earlier games, the Flyers were putting Valtteri Filppula’s line on Crosby or Malkin and the results were a disaster.
The Flyers also cannot get caught in their own zone where mismatches are also likely to happen. The Flyers had sequences against Pittsburgh in the regular season where the fourth line would be caught on the ice with Crosby or Malkin taking total control of possession.
Crosby and Malkin can do that of course. Crosby had two goals and nine points in four games against the Flyers this season. Malkin had two goals and five points in three games against the Flyers. Phil Kessel also had two goals and six points in four games.
Pittsburgh is built on much more than its three star players. Jake Guentzel, Conor Sheary, Brian Rust and Patric Hornqvist all have hurt the Flyers by scoring crucial goals this season.
The Flyers have to find a way to contain Pittsburgh’s scoring depth while getting a lot of it on their own. Giroux, Voracek and Couturier cannot dominate the scoring for the Flyers. They need their other forwards and defenseman to keep providing offense while maintain control on the back end and containing the Penguins offensive attack. It is the second hardest ask of the Flyers in this series, after staying disciplined and out of the box as much as possible.
- The Rivalry - You cannot ignore this aspect of the series no matter what. Yes, the two teams have changed a lot in the last six years since they last met, but the ghosts of that wildly entertaining playoff series still remain.The Battle of Pennsylvania has always delivered from an entertainment standpoint and it is sure to deliver again.Don’t expect as many fisticuffs as in previous years. The series has become much milder in recent years. But put these two rivals on the ice for an extended series of play and things are bound to get heated.
Players to Watch
- Claude Giroux - The Flyers captain just scored seven goals and nine points in the last week of the regular season, essentially willing the Flyers to cross the finish line. That should have solidified his bid to be a Hart Trophy candidate. If that and the last time the Flyers and Penguins met in a playoff series is any indication of what is to come, watch Claude Giroux at all times.
- Travis Konecny - Konecny has been bounced around the lineup from top line to third line and back a few times this season. Konecny has got great skill and speed to counter Pittsburgh’s talent, but what I’m looking to see is the pest in him come out. Konecny has the qualities that could bait the Penguins into some unnecessary penalties. Chances are, the Flyers will also need some greasy goals against the Penguins, so Konecny’s edgy play should go a long way in this series.
- Brian Elliott - It’s always something to watch. Goaltending, goaltending, goaltending. Brian Elliott’s last playoff appearance was a disaster and the Flyers managed to win a playoff series against the Penguins in 2012 despite horrendous goaltending. Elliott needs to be solid for the Flyers to have a chance. That means more of the composure he showed on Saturday against the Rangers and less of the fluky goals he allowed on Thursday against Carolina.
- Sidney Crosby - The Penguins captain knows a thing or two about the playoffs. He’s a three-time champion for a reason and as much as Flyers fans want to chant that he “sucks,” Crosby remains one of the best in the world.
- Derick Brassard - The Flyers didn’t really make any trade deadline acquisitions outside of a goaltender in Petr Mrazek, and that was more out of necessity. The Penguins have been down this road before and know that acquiring late-season depth, especially when you’re a major contender in the playoffs, is worth the gamble. So in comes Derick Brassard, who slots in as a third-line center. If he’s healthy enough to be fully effective, Brassard can be one more piece that can attack the Flyers outside of their usual stars.
- Matt Murray - It doesn’t get much better to start a career than the two seasons Matt Murray has endured. The regular season has certainly had its moments, but Murray has been a roaring success in the playoffs and has two Stanley Cup rings already in his short career. But this is also the first time Murray is taking the reigns in the playoffs as the No. 1 goalie from the start with no real security blanket behind him. No doubt Murray has helped the Penguins reach the top twice, but he’s going to be tested being the guy for the entire ride.
Kevin Durso is Flyers editor for SportsTalkPhilly.com. Follow him on Twitter @Kevin_Durso.