We are now at the series that as being regarded as the best of the first round. I have different opinions on that, but I do think that this will be a very entertaining series as it features two of the best teams in the Eastern Conference. It's a shame that one of these teams has to go out in the first round because I think both are capable of pulling off a great run, especially this season.
Going by the season series, one could say that the Flyers have the upper-hand in this series but the Penguins have played better in this series than the final scores indicate. In some of the games they lost against Philly, the Pens outshot and outplayed the Flyers for most of those games but fell victim to poor goaltending and it ended up sinking them. The team's second to last meetings is a fine example of that.
Both teams have undergone various roster changes over the season, too with so many different players getting hurt and returning throughout the year. Therefore, going by the season series isn't going to tell you everything you need to know about this series. After the jump, we'll take a closer look at both teams and determine who will advance to the second round.
Pittsburgh is one of the best team's in the league in terms of puck-possession, so obviously they are going to have the advantage in most of the underlying numbers. The Flyers don't have bad numbers, it's just that Pittsburgh's are a lot better, especially at even strength.Team 5v5 FenClose 5v5 Tied 5v5 Shots Pittsburgh 55.02 54.96 54.9 Philadelphia 51.14 49.34 52.1
Team 5v5 Sh% 5v5 Sv% Pittsburgh 9.1% 0.905 Philadelphia 8.1% 0.913
Team PP Sh% PK Sv% PP SF/60 PK SA/60 Pittsburgh 11.8% 0.898 56.5 40.1 Philadelphia 13.3% 0.847 51 40.2
The Flyers' are controlling possession at even strength at a pretty strong rate, but Pittsburgh is still better than them by 3-4 percent. We are going to see this a lot with a few teams in the playoffs, especially in the West. The Pens do have the adavntage here but both teams are still very good at even strength, so I think this shows that the series can really go in either direction at even strength. The Penguins are the healthier squad right now, so that probably gives them the advantage at even strength.
The Pens also seem to be getting luckier in the shooting department and that usually happens when you have two of the league's best goal scorers on your team and the NHL's best player. Not that the Flyers are any slouches when it comes to goal-scoring as they've had some ridiculous seasons from Scott Hartnell, Wayne Simmonds and Claude Giroux, the former two having career highs in goals and the latter having a career high in points with 93. Both team have very imrpessive forward corps and multiple lines who can produce offense, so I'm sure that we're in for a few high-scoring games.
That point is reassured when looking at the goaltending both teams have gotten this season. Granted, Philly's team save percentage is dragged down by the horrendous start that Ilya Bryzgalov got off to, but he has rebounded nicely over the last couple of months and he is usually one of the best goalies in the NHL. Meanwhile, Marc-Andre Fleury hasn't had a terribly good season at even strength and his back-ups brought down the team save percentage a lot. Fleury is a fine goaltender and should be able to give the Pens solid goaltending, but the advantage in net goes to the Flyers. Regardless of Bryz's problems earlier in the year.
We are in for a very interesting matchup on special teams with the Flyers strong powerplay against Pittsburgh's stout penalty kill. The Pens are in the top 10 at preventing shots 4v5 and have gotten some great goaltending when shorthanded, while the Flyers are getting plenty of shots and chances off on the powerplay and scoring at a pretty decent rate, too. On the other end, Philadelphia's PK has actually been pretty good at preventing shots, the problem is that Bryzgalov & Bobrovsky have let most of them in. That atrocious .847 save percentage might put their team in a hole unless Bryz can step up his game there. Not that the poor save percentage is all his fault, but the Flyers defense appears to be doing a fine job at preventing shots while Bryz seems to be letting a lot in. Both are going to have their work cut out for them because the Pens powerplay is extremely dangerous.
When everyone is healthy, Pittsburgh has one of the best top-nine's in the league. Evgeni Malkin, James Neal and Chris Kunitz have been one of the best lines in hockey this year and things only got better once Sidney Crosby returned. Sullivan is now playing on that line with Kunitz playing with Crosby and Pascal Dupuis now but just about everyone in their top-nine has been effective at scoring and driving possession.
Dupuis' underlying numbers aren't as impressive as the rest of the team's but he brings a strong two-way game to the table and doesn't seem to be hurting that line at all. However, I would not count on his 10.10 on-ice shooting percentage to sustain for much longer.
Pittsburgh's third line with Jordan Staal is what helps Malkin, Neal, Crosby, etc. be so effective. Staal's been doing his usual job of taking the defensive zone draws and playing against opposing team's top lines to free up easier ice-time for Pittsburgh's top six and that method is still working like a charm. It also helps that Staal is winning those matchups. Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy are usually on that line, too but Kennedy appears to be starting in the offensive zone more than his peers. Either way, I would expect Staal to be stapled to the Giroux line whenever they are on the ice.
As for their fourth line, it's not really anything great or horrible. My guess is that Vitale, Asham and Adams will be playing on that unit and they haven't exactly driven the play at all and are getting defensive zone draws against opposing team's depth forwards. They are still good for around 8-10 minutes a game, which is pretty much what you'd expect from most fourth lines.
It always amazes me how Pittsburgh manages to make due with playing guys like Steve Sullivan, Richard Park playing in top nine roles but Dan Bylsma has done that and made them all effective. He certainly knows how to utilize players to the best of their abilities and it's one of the reasons why Pittsburgh is as good as they are this season.
Harntell-Giroux-Jagr has been the Flyers best line for most of the year and Giroux's ability to play against tougher opponents makes him even more valuable to this team. Dany Briere has underperformed this year but him being out makes things a little easier on the Pens, because they can easily put Orpik, Michalek & Staal against that line as their key matchup. There are still some other threats the Pens have to worry about, though.
Even with Briere out, the Flyers have scoring depth in Matt Read and Wayne Simmonds, who aren't nearly as good as their point totals but they could be tough to stop. Read isn't getting completely protected, either so that helps. I also think that Jakub Voracek can be dangerous this series because he's a terrific possession driver and could definitely play on the second line and serve as a scoring threat. His boxcar numbers aren't impressive, but he has finishing ability and can definitely play in Breire's place. I am skeptical about how Simmonds and Schenn will perform because they aren't exactly driving the play forward despite getting a ton of offensive zone starts and Simmonds has benefited from a career high shooting percentage.
A good question is who gets matched up against Crosby and Malkin and my first thought would be Giroux because of his two-way play but that hasn't been the case this season. It has actually been rookie Sean Couturier, who has flourished as a defensive forward at only 19 years old. He played against Malkin for most of the season series and it is sounding like he will be playing in that role on a line with Max Talbot & Zac Rinaldo. I don't know who is going to play against Crosby but I would assume that Giroux can handle that matchup, but it's possible that Laviolette might want to protect him.
Orpik & Michalek have been getting the toughs all season and it won't change in the playoffs as they will be matched up against Giroux's line. They are negative in corsi relative, but I think that's mostly because the rest of the team is playing better. These two start more in the defensive zone, are on ice for a lot of shots against and have less than stellar possession rates as a result. In the grand scheme of things, these two get the job done.
Then you have Paul Martin & Kris Letang who are going to be logging the most minutes out of any defensemen in this series (I am willing to put money on that, by the way) and they should provide a good balance of offense and defense for the Pens. They've been matched up with mostly second line competition and are driving possession at pretty high rates, so I expect them to continue to do so in this series. Letang is also going to be a huge factor on the powerplay.
Matt Niskanen is your standard third pairing defenseman. He plays against weaker competition but he does his job at not being a liability on-ice and playing good enough in his own zone. He's a 4th defenseman at best, though. Deryk Engelland and Ben Lovejoy appear to be a toss-up in terms of who is better for the 6th defenseman spot. Engelland is not playing well territorially but he starts fewer times in the offensive zone than Lovejoy, so that puts him at a bit of a disadvantage. I'm expecting the top four to log the most minutes so whoever plays on the 3rd pairing likely won't be much of a factor.
The Flyers defense is destroyed by injuries right now with Pronger, Grossman and Mezsaros injured and I'm not sure who the tough minutes pairing will be. I would think that Kimmo Timonen would be assigned against one of the Pens' top two lines with Braydon Coburn and the other one would be handled by Pavel Kubina and Matt Carle.
The addition of Nick Grossman was nice because he gave the Flyers another guy who is capable of playing against tough competition, which would have really come in handy during this series with the Pens having three solid lines. If he comes back, then that would be terrific news for the Flyers because while he hasn't been great playing with tough minutes, he is a hell of a better option than Andreas Lijla.
I'm not sure what the Flyers' final defensive corps will look like, but I'd expect Timonen, Coburn, Carle & Kubina to be the top-four with Lilja and one of Bourdon or Gustafsson t be the bottom-pairing. The Flyers' top four is not terrible but depth of this defense corps is an issue. Bourdon is essentially an AHL defenseman and Lilja being matched against anything close to tough competition is a nightmare waiting to happen. Kubina's play has also dropped a lot with his age and his mobility will be an issue if he's going to play in the top-four.
I think this series is going to drag on for as long as humanly possible and I will love every second of it, as it will be very entertaining to watch. A long series isn't going to play into the Flyers' strength's, though as their depth issues are a huge concern and the Penguins finally have most of their roster healthy. The Flyers will give the Pens a great series but Pittsburgh will take it in seven games.
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