First-round breakdown: Pens vs. Flyers
The Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins are the same two teams that met in last season's Eastern Conference finals. In many ways, both are dramatically different, which suggests this series will be dramatically different than the five-game set won with relative ease by the Penguins in 2008.
Although Philadelphia defensemen Randy Jones (hip surgery) and Ryan Parent (groin) are banged up, this is still a much healthier team than Pittsburgh was last season. Daniel Briere has returned nicely from groin problems and makes an already imposing offensive squad even more dangerous. Last year, Kimmo Timonen, the Flyers' top defenseman, was gone with a blood clot in his ankle; Braydon Coburn, the team's second-best defender, took a shot in the eye early in the series and struggled when he returned to action; and gifted forward Simon Gagne was out long-term with a concussion. Now, the team is healthy and boasts a formidable offensive group, including Jeff Carter, who finished second in the league with 46 goals.
Still, the Flyers will hit the postseason plagued by questions about their consistency and identity, especially after blowing a third-period lead against the New York Rangers in a 4-3 loss Sunday that cost them home-ice advantage in this series.
The Penguins, meanwhile, made wholesale changes to their forward unit in the offseason and battled injuries along the blue line before making a midseason coaching change when a playoff spot was in jeopardy. Under rookie coach Dan Bylsma, the Penguins were 18-3-4. And while Pittsburgh would love to have Marian Hossa back in the lineup, Chris Kunitz and Bill Guerin were nice trade-deadline additions and the team's fortunes have predictably improved since Sergei Gonchar returned from early-season shoulder surgery. And, oh yeah, they've got a couple of players named Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
1. Strength down the middle. In the end, if you're going to stop the Pittsburgh Penguins, you have to come up with an answer for the three towers of power down the middle, Malkin, Crosby and Jordan Staal, a group that combined for 265 points this season. Occasionally, the Pens will use Malkin and Crosby together, usually when they're trying to shake themselves up offensively; but if the three elite pivots are leading their own forward units, it's usually a bad sign for opposing teams. Mike Richards, the Flyers' captain and team's emotional heart and soul, will be looking to take Crosby off his game. If there's one guy in the league who can handle that challenge, it's Richards, who looks to be a finalist for the Frank J. Selke Award for his exemplary two-way play. Defensively, though, whether the Flyers can contain the Penguins' big centers down low in front of netminder Martin Biron is where the series will be won and lost.
2. Presenting Martin Dangerfield, er, Biron. Speaking of Biron, outside of Chris Osgood in Detroit, is there another starting NHL netminder who has accomplished much but been derided more than the easygoing Philadelphia starter? Yes, Philly fans, we can hear you from here. You say he deserves every bit of it. But this is a town where Santa gets a rough ride, so a little perspective, please. Biron has collected 59 wins over two seasons for the Flyers and took them to the conference finals last season. The problem is, well, Biron never seems to put together those impressive streaks that say, "Hey, I'm a top goalie, give me a break."
Biron won four in a row once this season; too much up and down, too little straight up from Biron (at least for many folks' liking in Philadelphia). Now, if Biron put together a four-game winning streak starting this week, maybe people would stop asking questions about him. That's a pretty big if, though.
3. Mistakes mean mayhem? Even if you accept the old truism that goals are going to be hard to come by in the playoffs, this series promises to be a wild and wooly affair. Never mind the two teams can't stand each other; they each have the kind of arsenal that can make the other side pay quickly, and dearly, for mistakes. Those mistakes can take the form of turnovers (Malkin, the NHL's new scoring champ, led the league in takeaways), or they can come in the form of penalties taken while trying to subdue the other team's attack.
Either way, mistakes are bad news. The Flyers boast the sixth-ranked power play in the league, which is down from earlier in the season but still nothing to be trifled with. If you believe lack of discipline counts as a mistake (and you should), the Flyers will have to do some adjusting, as they led the NHL in penalties (17.5 average minutes a night). Pittsburgh, by the way, was 13th in average penalty minutes, which, if the trend held true, would give them two more power plays a night. It would mean an early exit for the Flyers.
4. True grit. One of the greatest complaints about the Pittsburgh Penguins through the first half of the season was that they lacked the sand they had last season, when guys like Ryan Malone, Jarkko Ruutu, Adam Hall, Georges Laraque and Gary Roberts were part of the roster. But a number of moves made by GM Ray Shero did address the issue, including the trade-deadline acquisitions of Kunitz and Guerin. Throw in a healthy Ruslan Fedotenko, Matt Cooke playing his agitating style without having to worry too much about scoring as he did earlier in the season when he played with Crosby, plus the exit of Miroslav Satan from the active roster (he was recently recalled by the Pens and cleared yet again through waivers), and this team is decidedly more difficult to play against than at the start of the season.
5. Coaching 101. We always wonder how rookies or first-time playoff performers will react to the pressure, increased pace and higher stakes of the postseason. Fair to ask that of coaches, too. Flyers coach John Stevens performed admirably last season, just weeks after he was rumored to be on the chopping block. He once again has his hands full with a Flyers team that is full of ups and downs. So, what of the bookish Bylsma, who began the season as an unknown, even at the AHL level, and now rides one of the hottest teams into the postseason? How will he handle the new stage and its bright lights?
• Philadelphia: Daniel Briere has recorded at least a point in 10 of his past 13 games (six goals, 10 assists). Scott Hartnell, he of the unshorn hair, failed to score in his final five games.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
2009 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS
The Stanley Cup playoffs kick off Wednesday. Scott Burnside, Pierre LeBrun and the rest of our NHL team preview the first round: