The playoffs are here, and a civil war is about to be waged between two bitter intra-state rivals.
You will not find a more even matchup in the first round than Pittsburgh-Philadelphia.
Statistically speaking, these two teams are about as close to identical as you are going to get:
Power Play %
Penalty Kill %
This will be the second year in a row that these two division rivals meet in the playoffs; last season the Penguins upended the Flyers in five games in the Eastern Conference Finals en route to their first Stanley Cup Finals since they last won the cup in the 1991-‘92 season.
Despite the glaring similarities that exist statistically between these two teams, they are infinitely different in how they got there.
(4) Pittsburgh Penguins, 45-28-9 (99 points)
Led by Hart Trophy candidate, and Art Ross Trophy winner Evgeni Malkin, the Pittsburgh Penguins are playing the best hockey of anyone in the NHL over the last 25 games.
Left for dead in 10th place after 57 games, the Penguins fired head coach Michel Therrien and brought up Dan Bylsma from Wilkes-Barre Scranton.
The Penguins finished the season on an 18-3-4 run to climb to fourth place in the conference; quickly re-establishing themselves as cup contenders in the East.
Pittsburgh’s explosive style under Bylsma has allowed them to take full advantage of there talented roster.
Led by Malkin and Crosby, Jordan Staal joins the dynamic duo to create the best set of three centers in the league.
Each player heads a line capable of putting points on the board, and none more potent than Malkin (113 points) and Crosby (103 points); combined with Staal (49 points) the three forwards combined for 265 points on the year.
While each elite center is dangerous when leading their own line, they are all intricate parts of the Penguins special teams as well.
Malkin and Crosby often join together to spark the power-play, which has been sub-par all year, and Staal is one of the team’s top penalty killers. All three are superb two-way players, and Malkin leads the league in takeaways as well as points.
The catalyst for the Penguins in this series will be their net-minder Marc-Andre Fleury.
After a shaky start, that was made worse by injury, Fleury amassed 35 wins, a 2.67 goals against average and a save percentage of .912.
When the “Flower” is on top of his game he is nearly impenetrable between the pipes.
Utilizing the butterfly style, Fleury is one of the most flexible net-minders around. He has the uncanny ability to make highlight reel saves on a routine basis.
Fleury’s Achilles heel is his knack for allowing big rebounds and easy goals. If he can keep himself grounded, and control the puck, Philadelphia should have a lot of problems scoring on the Penguins.
For the Penguins to continue their hot streak they will need to continue to go with what saved them from the bowels of mediocrity.
They will need to shoot first, shoot second and shoot third until the puck is in the net. If they continue to play this open style of offense that has suited their talent so well, they will be a tough out for any team in the conference.
The Penguins have 11 players who have scored 10+ goals this season, and that number would undoubtedly be 12 had Sergei Gonchar not been recovering from offseason surgery which limited him to 25 games.
You can almost certainly increase that number to 14 if trade-deadline acquisitions Chris Kunitz and Billy Guerin were given an entire season to play with Crosby and the gang.
While the Penguins sorely miss Marian Hossa, no one could have predicted how well Kunitz and Guerin would have meshed with Crosby in a Penguins uniform.
(5) Philadelphia Flyers, 44-27-11 (99 points)
The chippy, physical style of the Flyers is the polar opposite to the precision attack of the Penguins.
The Flyers lead the league in average penalty minutes per game, and if this trend were to continue for Philly in the postseason, the Penguins would average two more power plays a night than the Flyers.
Whereas goals tend to be harder to come by in the playoffs, I don’t need to tell you how important those extra man-advantages can be.
Philadelphia has a very talented roster, and their cast of contributions extends further than just a top two; a la Pittsburgh.
Mike Richards, the team’s second leading scorer with 80 points, is the heart and soul of the Flyers lineup. He will be given the unenviable task of trying to through Sidney Crosby off his game.
Richards, who should be a finalist for the Frank J. Selke award based on his outstanding two-way play, should certainly be up to the challenge.
This series, however, will be based on whether not the rest of the Flyers’ roster is up to the challenge of shutting down the rest of the Penguins roster, especially down low in front of Biron.
This Flyers team will be a far healthier team than the one that lost to Pittsburgh in the Eastern Conference Finals last season.
Headed by Jeff Carter (84 points), who finished second in the league in goals scored with 46, the Flyers are more than capable of taking advantage of the rebounds that Marc-Andre Fleury is notorious for surrendering.
The Penguins lack the same kind of grit they had last season, the losses of Georges Laraque, Ryan Malone, Gary Roberts, Adam Hall and Jarkko Ruutu have contributed to that considerably, and the Flyers should be able to exploit the some of that weakness down low.
Philadelphia had five players break the 50-point mark this season, compared to the Penguins two; Carter (84 points), Richards (80 points), Simon Gagne (74 points), Scott Hartnell (60 points) and Joffrey Lopul (50 points) all contribute to the cause.
Hartnell, who failed to score in the final five games of the season, will need to turn it around fast for the Flyers, but the strength of this team lies within their power-play.
Philadelphia’s power-play ranks third in the East, sixth in the NHL, and will be the most important factor to the Flyers’ success in this series.
Five-on-five goals will be tough to come by for the Flyers, and they will need to take advantage of a Penguins team who ranked 13th in penalty minutes.
The player to watch in this series will be Martin Biron.
Biron, who has recorded 59 wins over the past two seasons for the Flyers, won four games in a row only once this season. Despite taking the Flyers to the Conference Finals last season, Biron has never really put together an impressive streak of games.
The up-and-down play of Biron has hurt the Flyers in their quest for any kind of consistency this season. If he can’t bring his game together in the playoffs, it could be an early exit for Philadelphia.
The key matchup to watch will be the Flyers power-play vs. the Penguins penalty kill.
The Penguins have improved their penalty kill from 20th in the league, to eighth in the league under Bylsma. For those that watched their season finale, you saw the capability to score short-handed goals; two in under a minute.
The Flyers power-play will need to generate as many goals as possible for Philly, as they will have their hands full five-on-five.
If Pittsburgh can continue to improve on their penalty killing, Philadelphia should have problems putting points on the board.
This is a classic case of the unstoppable force meeting the immovable object.
Which ever team controls the tempo of this game will control the series.
Pittsburgh will look to keep the game open and fast, while Philadelphia will most likely be looking to chip the puck down and generate offense in front of the net.
Morale will be down for the Flyers, after blowing a third period lead against the Rangers that cost them home-ice advantage in the series, and this could ultimately be the deciding factor as the Penguins are playing near perfection at home.
I fully expect the Penguins to win this series in six games; much like they did the season series…taking four of six games.