The second installment of the Keystone Clash begins Wednesday at Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh, two rounds earlier than it did last season. It will no doubt be one of the most hotly contested of the eight conference quarterfinal series.
When these two teams met up last year, Pittsburgh was a machine on its way to a berth in the Stanley Cup Final, while the Flyers were the surprise story of the season and ultimately ran out of gas after suffering a few key injuries.
The Flyers were the better of these two teams for much of the season, but Pittsburgh posted a superb record of 18-3-4 down the stretch after naming Dan Bylsma head coach in mid-February. They ended up tied in points with the Flyers but have home ice advantage by virtue of racking up one more win on the season.
But this isn't necessarily a bad thing for the Flyers, as they played better in Pittsburgh this year than they did at home against the Penguins. Here's how the season series stacked up.
Oct. 14 @ PIT: Penguins 3, Flyers 2 (OT)
The Flyers gutted out a tough point after initially falling behind 2-0. Pascal Dupuis won the game with 10 seconds left in overtime. It was a badly needed point after the Flyers lost their first two games of the season at home in regulation.
Nov. 13 @ PIT: Penguins 5, Flyers 4 (SO)
Trailing 3-0, the Flyers rallied with four goals in a span of 12:10 to take a 4-3 lead into the third period. Sidney Crosby tied the game with under three minutes to play and the Penguins eventually won in the sixth round of the shootout.
Dec. 13 @ PHI: Flyers 6, Penguins 3
The Flyers scored four power play goals (Kimmo Timonen assisting on all of them) and dominated from start to finish.
Jan. 13 @ PHI: Penguins 4, Flyers 2
After a three goal burst in the second period to take a 4-1 lead, the Penguins trapped their way to the win.
Feb. 21 @ PHI: Penguins 5, Flyers 4
The Flyers overcame deficits of 3-1 and 4-3 in the third period, but an ill-advised trip out of the net by Martin Biron led to Sidney Crosby's second goal of the game with 2:45 to play. The Flyers could not recover.
Mar. 22 @ PIT: Flyers 3, Penguins 1
The Flyers were opportunistic, netting two power play goals to take a 2-0 lead through two periods despite having only 10 shots on goal up until that point. They gave up a power play goal midway through the third, but effectively protected the lead and hung on for the win.
So now we enter a playoff series where both teams know the formula for beating the other, although this is all much easier said than done.
If Pittsburgh can get early leads and play a tight checking, trapping style of hockey, they will be in good shape.
They also have the luxury of riding their two big horses to an offensive explosion and can take advantage of the Flyers’ lack of a physical presence on the blueline to create screens and rebound opportunities in front of the Flyer net.
The Flyers can win on special teams and do their best to blanket Crosby and Malkin, forcing the Penguins to beat them with secondary scoring from the likes of Kunitz, Guerin, Staal, etc.
The Flyers’ offensive balance might also win out. If all three scoring lines can get going, the Penguins will not have a defensive answer for the constant pressure.
This will be quite the battle. Whichever team emerges will have a tough time winning their next series because of the toll that this one will take on them. But first thing’s first—someone has to win this matchup.
My pick: Penguins in six.