Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Philadelphia Flyers: In-Depth Preview and Prediction
As if the end of the NHL lockout and delayed start to the hockey season wasn’t enough to excite any fan of the sport, the 2013 season will open with the intense rivalry between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers.
Their six-game series highlighted the first round of the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs. The Flyers ended up serving the favorite Penguins an early postseason exit, only to be eliminated by the New Jersey Devils in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Neither team had a particularly stellar performance in the playoffs—especially Pittsburgh. Both sides are sure to have that in mind as they try and start off the abbreviated season on a strong note.
That said, let’s take a look at each aspect of Saturday’s huge game.
This game will be a matchup of offensive powerhouses. The Penguins led the NHL in goal scoring in 2011-12 and the Flyers were right behind them in second place.
Not too much has changed since then. Sure, the Penguins traded Jordan Staal and the Flyers chose not to re-sign Jaromir Jagr. They’ve filled those voids very well, though.
Formerly of the Carolina Hurricanes, Brandon Sutter has been brought in as the third-line center for the Penguins. He brings a valuable defensive mindset to the depth line, as well as the skill set to produce modest offensive numbers.
Brayden Schenn will get an opportunity to skate on the Flyers’ top line with Scott Hartnell and brand new captain Claude Giroux. The 21-year-old forward maintained a point-per-game pace in the AHL this season and should be a great addition to the line.
Unfortunately, Danny Briere’s hand injury will force him to miss the season-opener. While the Flyers will miss him, Sean Courtier is expected to step up as second-line center.
While Philly has a great group of young talent, any NHL team this year is going to have trouble matching the offensive potency of the Penguins’ top two lines.
The trio of Sidney Crosby, Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz has been reunited and will make up the club’s top line. The second line will consist of Art Ross Trophy recipient Evgeni Malkin and James Neal, with a third linemate likely rotating throughout the season.
Both teams primarily rely on offensive prowess. Because both the Penguins and Flyers are so strong in this area, this game will come down to other factors.
Pittsburgh and Philadelphia are in similar situations in this category, too. Both sides are lacking in defensive depth.
The Flyers' blueliners have been battling injuries. Andrej Meszaros’ status for Saturday is still up in the air. Further, the team should be worried about 37-year-old Kimmo Timonen with the condensed schedule. The veteran D-man is a valuable member of the roster and the Flyers can’t afford to lose him to injury.
One thing they do have to look forward to is the addition of Luke Schenn. He’s expected to flourish in Philly, where he’ll be under less pressure than he was in Toronto. Other than his excellent defensive awareness and knack for blocking shots, Schenn brings much-needed consistency to the table.
The Penguins aren’t much better off. For a team that has nine defensemen at its training camp, the Penguins have their fair share of defensive depth issues.
Brooks Orpik is the team’s most reliable defensive presence. They have Paul Martin on the blue line, but his defense isn’t quite where the Penguins need it to be. However, it’s not a longshot to say Martin could bounce back this season.
There’s also Kris Letang. His job isn’t exactly to protect Pittsburgh’s zone so much as it is to be a scoring threat. He’ll definitely be a crucial member of the team, but he won’t add much to its defensive depth.
The Penguins also made strides on defense by acquiring Brandon Sutter. He will center Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy. Besides scoring, that line will be able to force turnovers and work to shutdown Philly’s stellar offense.
There are few players in the NHL with as much pressure as Ilya Bryzgalov. After a season that can only be described as inconsistent and an abysmal performance in the postseason, the Russian netminder has a lot to prove in 2013.
With Bryzgalov, it’s black and white. He’s usually either terrific or downright awful.
Of course, part of the problem is the defense the Flyers play in front of Bryzgalov. If the playoffs opened their eyes to the necessity to protect their own zone, Bryzgalov should have a somewhat easier time in net.
Once again, the Penguins and Flyers are in the same boat. Marc-Andre Fleury is among the NHL’s most elite goalies. While he doesn’t struggle with consistency like Bryzgalov does, his performance during the playoffs was sub-par.
As mentioned on the previous slide, the Penguins have made the effort to tighten up defense in front of the net.
Combine that with having Tomas Vokoun on call as a backup goalie and the Penguins are in a great place for this game and the entire season.
Having a goalie like Vokoun on the bench will light a fire under Fleury. On top of that, the Penguins will be able to put him in without hesitation—preventing either goaltender from getting burnt out.
The Flyers aren’t quite afforded that same luxury.
Special teams are going to be a big factor in this abbreviated season, especially for the first few weeks. Whichever team plays with more discipline will have a huge leg up.
Teams will spend their first few games solidifying chemistry among lines and getting back into the groove of NHL level hockey. Penalties will happen.
One key to the Penguins staying out of the penalty box is not getting lured into an overly-physical game like they were in the playoffs. They made bad decisions and simply didn’t play well.
The Penguins and Flyers both had a near 20 percent conversion rate on the power play during the 2011-12 regular season. However, the Penguins have been making changes to their power-play philosophy.
James Neal will now be a rover on the point. This could either make their power play even more dangerous or hurt it by shifting the team’s leader in power play goals.
It goes without saying that both the Penguins and Flyers are hoping their penalty killing squads perform better than they did last time they were on the ice. Both of them can be found in the bottom three for penalty kill success rate in the 2012 playoffs.
What the Penguins lost with Jordan Staal, they gain with Brandon Sutter. They aren’t as big a threat to score shorthanded goals, but Sutter will be a cornerstone when it comes to halting the Flyers' power play. His ability to shut down offenses will make the Penguins look more like they did during the 2011-12 regular season.
Special teams will be the difference-maker. Whichever team excels will win the game.
There are always certain unknowns heading into a season-opening game.
In this case, the Flyers are in the middle of a captaincy transition. With Chris Pronger’s NHL career likely over, the club has named Claude Giroux its new captain.
There’s no telling how this responsibility will affect Giroux’s performance. Obviously, the team will continue to rely on him as a top offensive player. Continuing in that role is integral to the team’s success.
The big intangible for the Penguins is how not traveling abroad for the lockout affects Sidney Crosby.
Crosby hasn’t been playing hockey competitively since the first round of the playoffs. Don’t let that fool you, though—Crosby is as driven as ever. There are few things more dangerous in hockey than a determined superstar like “Sid the Kid.”
This showdown of offensive juggernauts is the perfect game to start the 2013 season.
The Penguins are better prepared to face the Flyers physically than they were over half a year ago, but they won’t get lured into playing poorly like they did then.
Both teams will present a huge challenge to the other’s defense. That much is certain.
Other than that, there are a lot of unknowns. A season-opener is hard enough to predict—let alone one that has been prefaced by only a short training camp. There are no preseason games to get a better idea of where these teams are going.
Due to the fact that these teams haven’t played competitively since April, they’re bound to take a few more penalties than they usually would. That’s why this game could definitely be decided by special teams.
Finally, Bryzgalov’s performance is easily the biggest unknown. If he’s the confident netminder that helped take the Flyers into the postseason, even Pittsburgh’s best scorers could have trouble getting by him.
However, it’s just as likely that the confidence-deprived Bryzgalov takes the ice Saturday. That will be another huge deciding factor.
Final score: Pittsburgh Penguins win 5-3.