- Scott Burnside, NHL
- 0 Shares
It seems like a long time ago that Ottawa coach Bryan Murray was accusing the Pittsburgh Penguins of dumping the final regular-season game to avoid a first-round matchup against Philadelphia and instead draw the injury-riddled Senators.
Regardless of what really happened in that game, the Penguins' Stanley Cup journey will indeed take them through the City of Brotherly Love. Of course, brotherly love is relative, especially when it comes to two teams that do not like each other.
Then, there's the Flyers' playoff slogan, "Vengeance Now." Very nice. Very family. Very Philadelphia. Both teams are coming off five-game series victories, the Flyers upending top-seeded Montreal and the Pens dispatching a veteran New York Rangers. In both cases, the games were close, yet neither team seemed in danger of actually losing control of tone and tempo.
The Flyers, who won five of eight matchups against Pittsburgh during the regular season, will try to establish a physical tone with the skilled Penguins, who have shown a surprising level of grit of their own. Both teams have displayed timely, balanced scoring, superb defensive play and stellar goaltending. Oh, and did we mention they can't stand each other? Stay tuned.
1. Malkin/Crosby, Crosby/Malkin. Through the first two playoff rounds, Evgeni Malkin has established himself, at least at this juncture, as the best player on the Penguins' roster and arguably the best player in the playoffs. Is that a snub of Crosby? No. But the fact the two players have combined for 28 points in nine playoff games illustrates the onerous task the Flyers will face in trying to shut down not just one, but two elite centers. Malkin, playing on a line with Ryan Malone and Petr Sykora, has displayed an uncanny ability to generate offense from what looks like a dead-end play. He is difficult to knock off the puck and his awareness of both the net and his teammates is superb. He appears to be unaffected by pressure. Crosby, who did not score against the Rangers but had three two-assist games in the series, remains the face and voice of the Penguins, and the Flyers and their fans will no doubt try to get under his skin as the Rangers and their fans did with little success. His work ethic sets the tone for a Penguins team that isn't all razzle-dazzle.
2. Questions answered, and then some. At the beginning of the playoffs, it would have seemed the quality and consistency of goaltending might be the biggest question for the Flyers and Penguins. Marc-Andre Fleury was coming off his first playoff experience a year ago in which he was easily rattled. Martin Biron, 30, was heading into his first NHL playoffs for the Flyers and had only earned the No. 1 job over Antero Niittymaki midway through the season. Yet here they are, Biron and Fleury, having played pivotal roles in their teams' successes thus far. Fleury has been sensational and leads the NHL with a .938 save percentage. His 1.76 GAA is third behind Chris Osgood and Marty Turco. More impressive, when he has needed to make big stops to either preserve a lead or keep his team in the game, he has done so. Biron was stellar against Montreal, a series in which the Flyers were badly outplayed for most of the series and outshot 177-133 over five games. Biron is coming off a series victory over heralded rookie Carey Price. Now, he'll have to outduel another young star in Fleury, the first overall pick in 2003.
3. Leveling the ice surface. The Flyers were outplayed for long periods against Montreal and were outshot in the first four contests before narrowly outshooting Montreal in the finale. Given the firepower in the Penguins' lineup, it won't be a surprise if the Flyers continue that trend in the conference finals. Unlike Montreal and untested Washington, though, this Penguins team knows how to finish, and if the Flyers continue to give up the number of scoring chances they did in the first two rounds, it will spell trouble. When they were successful in closing out Washington, the Flyers were able to control the puck for long stretches and would no doubt like to do the same against Pittsburgh. To do so means winning faceoffs and playing smart, but tough hockey. It's a tall order.
4. The sin bin. The Flyers represent a bit of anomaly in these playoffs as they are the most penalized team with 57 penalties in 12 games. Yet, that has not cost them. Yet. The Penguins have scored at least one power-play goal in eight of nine playoff games. There is no reason to believe they will stop the trend, and the more opportunities they get, the worse off the Flyers will be. As for the Penguins, their penalty-killing work has been superlative as they have allowed power-play goals in just four of nine games. Against the Rangers, they killed off 22 of 25 power-play opportunities. The only game they lost, Game 4 in New York, was the only contest in which they did not win the special-teams battle. The Flyers will have to score when they are given the opportunity to stay close. This task is going to be even more difficult given the emotion that will be at play here. Staying on the right side of the emotion line will be a difficult chore for both teams and the one that is most successful at that balancing act will likely advance.
5. The Umberger factor. Home-state pride and joy R.J. Umberger was a force against Montreal, scoring eight times and adding one assist. Would he love to do so in his hometown of Pittsburgh? You bet. But even if he doesn't, the Flyers will need an Umberger-like performance from someone to take the pressure off top scorer Daniel Briere. The Penguins will throw out two dynamite offensive lines, plus a very good third line capable of generating offense. The Flyers, who are second in goals per game in these playoffs, have surprising offensive depth, too. That will have to continue if the Flyers want to stay close to the Pens. Umberger answered the bell against Montreal. Who's next?
• Braydon Coburn and Kimmo Timonen vs. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin: Watch for Philadelphia coach John Stevens to employ his shut-down pair of Braydon Coburn and Kimmo Timonen against whichever of the Crosby/Malkin lines looks to be most dangerous at any given moment (nice job figuring that one out). Meanwhile, unless Michel Therrien changes up his defensive pairings, Sergei Gonchar and Brooks Orpik and Hal Gill and Rob Scuderi will handle the heavy lifting against Briere, Vaclav Prospal and Scott Hartnell.
• Penguins: Malkin had seven points and two game-winners in the five-game series against the Rangers. Gary Roberts has not had a point since the first game of the first series, when he scored twice, including the game-winner, against Ottawa. In total, Roberts has played in only four games because of a groin injury before becoming a healthy scratch.
• Flyers: Hartnell had goals in each of the last two games against Montreal after recording just one in the Flyers' first 10 playoff games. After scoring the overtime winner in Game 7 against Washington, Joffrey Lupul had just one goal in five games against Montreal.
The Penguins have too much going on both offensively and defensively for the plucky Flyers. Penguins in six.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.