While the Atlantic division does not belong to either of the two teams from Pennsylvania, the Pittsburgh Penguins or the Philadelphia Flyers, it is easy to imagine that the team that makes it out of this first round series has a legitimate chance of hoisting the Stanley Cup in June.
Both of these teams have been playoff contenders in recent history. The Penguins, led by the same core of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Marc-Andre Fleury, went to two consecutive Stanley Cup Finals in 2008 and 2009, and hoisted the Cup the second time. The Flyers have undergone a change of leadership since their Stanley Cup Finals loss in 2010, as Captain and Assistant Captains Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, and Simon Gagne are now with the Los Angeles Kings. However, many of the key young pieces remain from that team including James Van Riemsdyk and Claude Giroux, who finished third in NHL scoring this season.
Keys to the Series
The key for the Pittsburgh is, not surprisingly, the health and consistent play of Captain Sidney Crosby.
Crosby missed most of the season due to lingering effects of a concussion suffered during last season's Winter Classic. Without Crosby, the Penguins are an excellent team, with the NHL's leading scorer in Evgeni Malkin, and a 40-goal scorer in James Neal. With Crosby in the lineup, the Penguins are nearly unstoppable, boasting a 9-4-1 record since Crosby's final return on March 15, with Crosby notching 25 points in those 14 games.
The issue for Crosby is whether or not he will be able to sustain production for up to seven games against a physical team such as Philadelphia, which will surely be mindful of Crosby's ability. Having a healthy Crosby in the lineup not only adds another superstar, but removes some of the pressure off of the top line, and forces Philadelphia to choose which of Pittsburgh's stars to focus their attention on and play the shut-down pair against.
The key for Philadelphia is keeping pucks out of their net. Philadelphia's tough style of play comes at a cost, as the Flyers earn the most penalty minutes of any team in the league, and only have a middling penalty kill to go along with it. That is a recipe for disaster when playing the explosive Penguins who boast the fifth-best power play in the league even without Sidney Crosby for the majority of the season.
In order to win the series, the Flyers must get some consistent goaltending out of either Sergei Bobrovsky or highly touted offseason acquisition Ilya Bryzgalov. While both goaltenders have had their flashes of brilliance this season, especially Bryzgalov, who had an 8-0-1 record in March with 3 shutouts, both are prone to cold streaks and the Flyers cannot afford to have a poor goaltending performance against this Penguins team.
The only thing that I can be sure of is that the Penguins and the Flyers will play a hard-fought, hard-hitting series, and the team that survives will be prepared for whichever team they face next. The X-factor in the series may be Flyers grinder Scott Hartnell, who, although not known for his scoring, managed to score a career high 37 goals this season. If Hartnell, or one of the Flyers' other skilled grinders such as Max Talbot or Wayne Simmonds, has a breakout game or two, the series could turn in their favour. Overall, I think it is difficult to bet against a team that can call the best two players in the NHL their own and that is why I am picking....
The Pittsburgh Penguins in 7 games