For the first time since their playoff series in 2012, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers will revive their battle for hockey supremacy in Pennsylvania. The last time these two powerhouses met in the postseason, they combined for 56 goals, 312 penalty minutes and 10 days of insanity.
The Penguins won all four regular season meetings this season, but that goes out the window as the quest for Lord Stanley’s Cup kicks off Wednesday night in Pittsburgh.
Let’s break down what will determine the outcome of this series.
Pittsburgh: This is the Penguins’ bread and butter. Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and Sidney Crosby were all among the league’s top scorers this season. Patrick Hornqvist, known for being a pest in front of the net, is playing the best hockey of his career and mid-season acquisition Derrick Brassard has fit in nicely with the defending champs. Assuming Brassard is healthy, the Pens have the best four forward lines in hockey.
Philadelphia: Just like the Penguins, the Flyers are lead by three of the NHL’s top scorers in Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek and Sean Couturier, and have their own force to be reckoned with in front of the net with Wayne Simmonds. Giroux and Voracek both had massive bounce-back seasons after struggling a year ago, with both of them setting career-highs across the board. Giroux topped the 100-point mark for the first time in his career and led the league in assists.
Advantage: Pittsburgh. The Flyers simply cannot match the depth of the Penguins. The Pens have four lines which constantly produce, while the Flyers tend to struggle when Giroux is not on the ice.
Pittsburgh: The Penguins won the Stanley Cup without Kris Letang a year ago. The good news is he is back in the lineup. The bad news is that he has been one of the most volatile defenseman in the league this year, looking both brilliant and awful at times. The Pittsburgh defensive core has been solid at suppressing shots when it comes to 5-on-5 play, but they make a lot of glaring mishaps that continue to cost them dearly. Having given up more than three goals a game, the Pens head into the playoffs with the highest goals-against margin among playoff teams.
Philadelphia: Led by Ivan Provorov, Shane Gostisbehere, Travis Sanheim and Robert Haag, the Flyers have the long-term foundation of their blue line in place. The 20-year-old Provorov led the league in goals scored by a defenseman, while the rest the young core made valuable strides in their development. One thing is for sure — this group will certainly have their work cut out for them against the Pens.
Advantage: Philadelphia. Neither of these teams are very solid defensively. They both have areas that can and will be exploited in this series, but the Flyers have the slight edge because they have not looked as bad as Pittsburgh has at times during the regular season.
Pittsburgh: As prolific as their offense was, the Penguins would not have been able to win the Stanley Cup a year ago without great goaltending. They have not received the same level of production this year from Matt Murray, and that has to be a concern. The young, 2-time Stanley Cup champ has shown flashes of greatness, but he has also had times where his play has struggled mightily.
Philadelphia: The Flyers have had a revolving door in net this year. They seem to have caught Brian Elliot in one of his down years, Michal Neuvirth simply cannot stay healthy, and Petr Mrazek has been pitiful since coming over from Detroit.
Advantage: Pittsburgh. Both teams were in the bottom third of the league when it came to save percentage this season, but you cannot argue with Murray’s track record in the playoffs.
Pittsburgh: The Penguins’ power play unit has been lethal this season and enters the playoffs as the best in the NHL. Opposing teams cannot afford to get caught taking penalties against this deadly squad. On the other side, the Penguins penalty kill has been anything but. They cannot afford to take penalties, either.
Philadelphia: The Flyers power play unit finished in the middle of the pack in terms of efficiency this season, while their penalty kill was ranked 29th in the league. They will be looking for better production on both fronts against the Penguins.
Advantage: Pittsburgh. A dominant power play against one of the league’s worst penalty kills. There should be no surprise here.
Pittsburgh: Bryan Rust. He is one of those players that has a knack for scoring big goals in huge situations. Rust can play on any line and brings a speed element that the Penguins love.
Philadelphia: Travis Konecny. The 20-year-old is getting hot at the right time. Konecny finished the season third on the team in goals with 24 and really looked to be taking his game to the next level towards the end of the regular season.
Penguins in six. This will certainly be an entertaining first-round match-up. Both teams have similar strengths and weaknesses, but the depth of Pittsburgh will ultimately be too much for Philadelphia.