Penguins-Flyers Preview

Associated Press  |  Last updated January 18, 2013
The NHL lockout only seemed to drag on such an interminable length that last season was a distant memory. The reality is, April was only nine months ago, not so long that it's too hard to remember who won the first-round playoff series between the Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins. The Penguins-Flyers is a rivalry so big, it's kicking off NBC's season coverage Saturday in Philadelphia. It's an opener worthy of the spot. But the commercial, while highlighting stars Sidney Crosby and Claude Giroux, missed one key part of the showdown: Philadelphia's six-game win over the Penguins in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. "Claude Giroux and the Flyers have their sights set on revenge for last season's playoff loss to Pitt!" the voiceover said. Ah, not so fast. Yes, the Flyers ended yet another season without hoisting the Stanley Cup, extending a championship drought that dates to 1975. But they did knock off the Penguins before they were eliminated the next round in five games by the eventual conference-champion New Jersey Devils. They'll likely have to get by the Penguins and Devils again - and the Rangers, for that matter - if they want to reach the finals for the first time in three years. Led by Giroux, named team captain this week, and a roster that returns mostly intact, the Flyers (47-26-9) believe they have the talent to make another deep run in the postseason. In fact, when owner Ed Snider was asked this week if he had any area of concern entering this season, he was firm in his assessment: "No." Even die-hard fans may not agree with the founder, though. With Chris Pronger unlikely to ever play again following multiple concussions and Matt Carle gone via free agency, the Flyers' blue line took a big hit. Andrej Meszaros (right Achilles' tendon) isn't ready to go and there's no telling if the 37-year-old Kimmo Timonen, coming off back surgery, can hold up in a short season. Snider is counting on the defense to support goalie Ilya Bryzgalov. "I really believe that we'll tighten up a little bit to help him out," he said. "I think he's a darn good goalie." Bryzgalov was all over the map, with his play and personality, in his first season with the Flyers. He never quite warmed to hockey-mad Philadelphia, and even his own teammates were often left wondering what the Russian was really all about. In the postseason, Bryzgalov had a 3.46 goals-against average, partially because of the wild, high-scoring series against the Penguins. The Flyers turned every period into a defense-optional shootout, one that exploited Pittsburgh's inability to commit itself at the end of the ice where goalie Marc-Andre Fleury works. Philadelphia had a 30-26 scoring edge over the six games, numbers more fitting of the local rec league than the sometimes brutal two-month slog to the Stanley Cup. The Penguins know that for all the firepower the game's most explosive lineup provides, if they don't shore things up on defense they'll be home well before the calendar hits June. "You have to learn from that stuff," forward Pascal Dupuis said. "We'll try to take the positives from (Philadelphia) and try to build off it." Given all of a week to put a roster together, don't expect coach Dan Bylsma to make drastic changes on a team that finished a middling 17th in goals allowed last season. On most nights, a lineup that features reigning league MVP Evgeni Malkin and a finally healthy Crosby doesn't need to play lights-out defense to win. Just a little, though, could go a long way to helping the Penguins earn an easier road through the playoffs. Pittsburgh (51-25-6) narrowly missed out on winning the Atlantic Division title, the difference between being the top seed in the postseason or dropping to fourth and facing its archrivals. The Penguins did little to address the defense with personnel during the offseason outside of trading Zbynek Michalek back to Phoenix. Pittsburgh also traded for goaltender Tomas Vokoun to help take some of the burden off Fleury to carry the team through the 99-day, 48-game regular season. The issue, the Penguins insist, is execution, not a lack of talent. Kris Letang is considered a Norris Trophy candidate and Brooks Orpik provides steady leadership from the blue line. They still believe Paul Martin is worth his hefty $5 million contract. Having two of the best players on the planet healthy and in their prime helps, too. Malkin is coming off a career year in which he led the NHL with 109 points while Crosby is nearly a year removed from his latest bout with concussion-like symptoms. The 25-year-old superstar also has the peace of mind that comes from signing a 12-year contract extension that will keep him in Pittsburgh until he's nearly middle age. Yet that sense of security doesn't mean there's also a lack of urgency. He spent the better part of two years away from the game. It's time to get going. "We've got high expectations," Crosby said. "That's the way it's always going to be with our team and that's the way we want it to be." This matchup seems like the perfect way to get things started. "It's going to be real easy to get up for that game," Giroux said. "Just thinking about it gets me excited."
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