Over the last three days arguably the most talked-about opening round series of the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs has been the Eastern Conference matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Philadelphia Flyers.
Coming into the series we were promised brutality. We were promised disdain. We were promised blood. Through the first two games it appeared as though all the experts that promised the preceding elements for this series would be proven wrong. That was until Game 3.
Now that all the animosity these two teams have for one another has boiled over, Game 4 promises to be the most exciting game of the entire first round.
The Penguins sit on the brink of an unthinkable sweep at the hands of their cross-state rival. The Flyers have an opportunity to close out the series on home ice, and they’ll be looking to do so as quickly as possible.
Here are the players you need to be watching when the puck drops on what should be an epic Game 4 in Philly.
Briere has earned the moniker of “Mr. Playoffs” with 101 points in 100 playoff games. He’s been the catalyst of two of the first three come from behind victories for Philadelphia.
Briere is small and quick. He is crafty and ever dangerous in the offensive zone. When Briere has the puck he has the ability to slow down the play.
In a series in which physicality has become the top story, Briere’s skill set would seem to take a backseat to the bigger and more bruising combatants, but Briere has shined through the first three games and is one player that can’t be ignored.
It was Malkin’s year in 2012. The Penguins star stole the stage in the NHL throughout the regular season. He took home the Art Ross Trophy and looked poised to lead the Penguins on another Stanley Cup run.
Malkin has been held without a goal for the first three games of the series. In a season in which Malkin has owned opposing goaltenders, its been the enigmatic Flyers goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov that has had the upper hand in the series.
Make no mistake, if the Penguins are going to make a historic comeback in this series it begins and ends with Malkin. If Malkin can’t get it going fast the Penguins season is over already.
The Flyers season may rest on one man’s shoulers, whether he likes it or not. Bryzgalov is the owner of those shoulders.
The Flyers goaltending carousel was supposed to stop with Bryzgalov’s signing last summer. Instead the man they call “Bryz” was lost for the first half of the season only to finally get his game going in mid March.
Bryzgalov has been shaky in this opening round for Philadelphia. Fortunately for him, the Flyers have had more than enough firepower to make up for his shortcomings. He hasn’t stolen games for the Flyers in this series, but he has done enough to win, and in the playoffs all that matters is winning.
The Flyers may need Bryzgalov to be better moving forward, but for now he’s made key saves at key moments and that’s worth watching for tonight.
If Bryzgalov has been simply “okay” for the Flyers, Fleury has been downright awful for the Penguins. The guy who carried the franchise to their 2009 Stanley Cup title has left it in a downward spiral with his play in this series.
If Malkin is to be the Penguins offensive spark, Fleury has to be that guy on the back end. The Flyers have scored an uncanny 20 goals in the first 3 games of the series, 17 of which were conceded by Fleury (Brent Johnson, 2, Empty Net, 1).
Fleury has the ability to steal games for his club. He hasn’t been sharp to this point in the series, but a talent like Fleury can flip the switch and be stellar almost instantaneously.
If Fleury can get hot quickly this series is far from over, but it must start tonight.
84 Goals, 130 Assists, 214 Points. That’s what the Flyers top scoring line of Giroux, Hartnell and Jagr posted in the 2011-2012 Regular season.
5 Goals, 10 Assists, 15 Points. That’s what the same line has done in just 3 games of work in the post season.
To stop the Flyers offense is to stop this line. No easy task.
The Flyers will look to this line for their offense again in Game 4. They’ve had contributions from nearly everyone on the roster when they’ve needed points, but this top line is what gets it all going.
Where do you start when discussing this series and the Penguins captain?
His early goals in Games 1 and 2 got things going for Pittsburgh. He then seemed to disappear in latter stages of those games as the Flyers battled back.
In Game 3 a beast awoke in the belly of Crosby. Unfortunately for the Penguins, on two separate occasions that beast led to two teammates getting tossed from the action, one of which, Craig Adams, is now suspended for tonight’s contest.
Crosby has received a lot of heat in the media over the extended break between Games 3 and 4. How he responds to that heat on the ice may be the best way to gauge the teams mentality heading into tonight’s pivotal match up.
If Crosby looks world class, the Flyers can start packing for Pittsburgh Friday night. If he shows the same gritty edge he showed in Game 3, rather than focusing on his offensive game, this series is all but finished.
Assuming that the Flyers breakout 19 year old rookie is in fact 100 percent after taking a blind side hit up high from Penguins forward James Neal in Game 3, fans should keep one eye locked on number 14 in orange tonight.
Couturier has played for head coach Peter Laviolette in every situation this season so it should come as no surprise that he’s been tasked with doing the same in his first ever playoff series.
What has been surprising, and a welcome surprise for fans of the Flyers, is the way in which he has handled his toughest assignment to date, marking Malkin in the playoffs. Malkin’s lack of production in this series is no fluke. Couturier has completely erased Geno from the series.
Instead of watching Couturier tonight, watch Malkin when Couturier is on the ice. Just the rookie’s presence alone has forced Malkin to be wary of where he is on the ice and like a polarizing magnet rarely will the two come together.
The Flyers youngster has imposed his will on the Penguins star. It’s certainly a sight to behold indeed.
It’s encouraging to see that with all the extracurricular activities that have transpired in this series Matt Cooke has not found himself in the middle of it all.
He’s been shown chirping the Flyers bench, getting in the face of their stars, and overall being an outright pest, which is his job after all.
What we haven’t seen is Cooke’s elbows making headlines. In fact, more often than not Cooke has been in the middle of the Penguins best scoring chances.
With Neal, Craig Adams, and Aaron Asham all out of the line-up for Game 4 Cooke’s game could morph into the style of one of these three guys. The Penguins had better hope its Neal that Cooke tries to emulate and not Adams or Asham.
If you think this series is ugly now imagine how much worse it could be if Cooke loses his cool.