The wait is over, and as the anticipation lingers, there's only one thing left do—hold on just a bit longer until the puck drops on one of the most exciting NHL first-round matchups in recent memory.
The Keystone State rivals met six times this season, with the Flyers emerging victorious four times. As one would assume, each game was a fierce battle, as there is simply no love lost between both teams. In fact, they met twice in the final week of the regular season, with the April 1st matchup igniting into an all out dumpster fire.
If this series promises to be anything similar to that clash, fans are in for a classic playoff series, full of the passion and energy for which the NHL's second season is best known.
Like any series, however, victory will come down to a few, make it four, key matchups that constitute the "game inside the game."
If the Penguins or Flyers wish to advance, they will have to gain the advantage in these four critical battles:
1. Fleury vs. Bryzgalov and Bobrovsky
It all starts between the pipes, doesn't it? Well, winning a playoff series requires solid goaltending, not that it has to be spectacular at all times, but it should be foundational, nonetheless.
Both teams' goaltending is a bit of a question mark, as Marc Andre Fleury struggled for the Penguins down the stretch and the Flyers struggled to solidify an No. 1 starter all season long. Ilya Bryzgalov, who showed signs of his old game in Phoenix, should get the lion's share of the minutes, but head coach Peter Laviolette will not be afraid to hook 'em in place for Sergei Bobrovsky if needed. Either way, the goalie that plays the way he's capable of will earn a series victory for his team.
2. The Man Advantage
If you have the advantage, make sure you capitalize.
There will be a lot of penalties called in this series, and both teams have extremely talented forward groups, so scoring on the power play will be extremely critical. Pittsburgh was a top penalty-kill and power-play team throughout the entire regular season, so the onus is on Philadelphia to elevate that dimension of their game. Or else it will be a long (actually, very short) series for the Flyers.
3. Forward Thinking
Two very talented forward groups will dominate the headlines in this series, led by Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin for the Penguins and Jaromir Jagr and Claude Giroux for the Flyers. The question is, which set of forwards, or offenses at large, will be able to take advantage of the less-than-stalwart defense of the opposing team. Neither the Penguins nor the Flyers can be considered "shutdown" defensive teams, making forward play elemental to advancing to the next round.
4. Leading Men
As if we needed a reminder that both head coaches are strong and determined leaders, Peter Laviolette crossed over to the Penguins' bench to confront Dan Bylsma after the teams' brawl on April 1. No April Fool's joke there, just two tough coaches with a chip on their shoulder.
Taking advantage of the last change, playing the right matchups, pairing the correct forwards and, in the Flyers' case, making sure the right goaltender is in net will all come into focus this series. Watch as both coaches look to expose average defenses and manipulate special teams to their advantage. This battle is between the ears, but it will be critically important.
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