The Pittsburgh Penguins will open their Eastern Conference Final series against their cross-state rivals, the Philadelphia Flyers, on Friday night at the Mellon Arena.
The Penguins come into the series clicking on all cylinders, with the 'Big Three' of Crosby, Malkin, and Hossa leading the way. The Penguins have outscored the opposition by an impressive 31-17 margin during the first two rounds, and will look to have that same kind of offensive production in the Conference Finals.
The Flyers have been this year's Cinderella team. They have knocked off the Ovechkin-powered Capitals in the first round, and the Eastern Conference's top seed from north of the border in the Conference Semifinals. Pittsburgh's own R.J. Umberger has led the way for the Fly-guys by nearly replicating his season total of 13 goals, by scoring 9 goals in these playoffs.
So, what will be the difference in this series? I think it will come down to what I like to call the 'X Factors.'
For the Flyers
- Win a game on the road: The Penguins are undefeated at the Mellon Arena in the playoffs, and if the Flyers can steal one (or both) of the first two games at the Igloo, it may just rattle the home-ice confidence of the Penguins. If the Flyers head back to Philadelphia down 2-0 and fail to win both games on their home ice, this series will be over sooner rather than later.
- Talk with your sticks, not your mouths: As is the case in any major sports rivalry (such as the one that exists between the Pens and Flyers), the 'war of words' oftentimes can overshadow actually winning games. If the Flyers, and/or the Philadelphia media pull a Tom Renney and get involved in a war of words with the opposition, it will only add fuel to an already raging Penguin fire. Don't worry about Crosby embellishing calls, or the officials "fixing games for the Penguins because Sidney Crosby is hott and deserves to win a Cup RIGHT NOW", but rather capitalize on the opportunities that are presented to your own team.
- Be physical, but don't take stupid penalties: Just ask New York Rangers' Ryan Hollweg how an untimely mid-series penalty can demolish any hopes your team has of advancing to the next round. Hollweg is probably still seeing the #17 on the back of Petr Sykora just before he launched him into the boards, killing all of the Rangers' new found momentum in Game Three of the Conference Semifinals round. The Flyers need to continue to be physical, as they have all season long, against the Penguins' top lines, but they also need to take care to avoid taking penalties that may ultimately give the Penguins the ability to win a game solely based on the performance of their power play.
-Daniel Briere: Briere has had a habit of disappearing against the Penguins. This series is going to be much more physical than the previous two have been, for both teams. If Briere can't stand up to the challenge, he might as well not even bother leaving his Lazy-Boy and showing up at the arena.
For the Penguins
- Attack Biron early, and often: Biron is surprisingly in the midst of just his first career postseason run. The Penguins need to make sure to get a lot of pucks on the net, and crash the net hard, looking for garbage goals. Sure, everyone would love to see five power play goals every game set up by Gonchar-to-Malkin one-timers, but this is the playoffs, and that just isn't going to happen.
- Match the desperation of the Flyers: Just because the Penguins are the favorite to win this series, doesn't mean they don't have to play the games. Everyone in the Penguins' locker room knows that the Flyers will be coming out firing, looking to gain an advantage early in the series. The Penguins need to put the pedal to the metal, so to speak, and not let off until they win four games. If they decide to take a night off, and it translates into a Flyers' victory, the result may not be as favorable for the Flightless Birds as it was in the previous round.
- Tyler Kennedy: This rookie forward has silently had one of the best post season's of any rookie who donned a Penguins jersey since the days of Jaromir Jagr during the Penguins' first Stanley Cup in 1990-91. Although the score sheet might not say so, this third-liner has put in solid minutes in each of the first two rounds. Kennedy will score the first goal of his playoff career during this series, and if the Penguins' are lucky enough, this type of 'third-ary' scoring will come at an ideal time. Playing along side Jarkko Ruutu and Jordan Staal on the Penguins' third line, this threesome of role-players will need to supply a few goals, if for no other reason than to alleviate the strain placed on the Crosby and Malkin units.
This series will undoubtedly be one for the ages, and do its part to further solidify this Pennsylvania rivalry as one of the most compelling and heated rivalries in all of professional sports.
Whether the series comes down to which team can out-muscle the other, a battle of goaltenders, a duel between superstars, or whose role players can out perform the others', one thing is certain: this series will not be for the weak at heart.
If you are expecting to see the Flyers finally fold under the playoff-pressure and accept defeat if they end up trailing in the series, or the Penguins waltz through this round unscathed, you will be disappointed.
If you are expecting to see a series in which every player on both teams plays every shift as if it were their last, tune in, because we are all in for a great show.