One of the most contentious first round series is that of two Pennsylvania teams -- the Pittsburgh Penguins (51-25-6, 108 points) and Philadelphia Flyers (47-26-9, 103 points) -- battling for state supremacy in the postseason for the third time in the past five springs. With the Penguins taking the other two previous meetings from their eastern counterparts, it's been all about the western side of PA in recent seasons.
Two of the top three offensive teams are represented in this series; Pittsburgh with an NHL-leading 282 goals, and the Flyers with the third-overall at 264.
Led by League scoring leader Evgeni Malkin's 109 points, the Penguins boast the fiercest arsenal in all of hockey. Pittsburgh had five players hit career-high marks with 25 goals or more -- Malkin was one of only two 50-goal scorers, James Neal hit the 40-goal mark for the first time, Chris Kunitz notched 26, and Pascal Dupuis and Jordan Staal each potted 25. Throw in Sidney Crosby -- who scored eight goals and posted 37 points in just 22 games, with 13 multi-point contests -- and defenseman Kris Letang -- who averaged nearly a point per game in an injury-plagued campaign -- this group is enough to give any coach fits. Matt Cooke changed his game and scored 19, and 37-year-old Steve Sullivan overcame a slow start to become a steady contributor over the last half of the year in his first season in the 'Burgh.
With many new faces among the forward ranks, Philadelphia had a much different look up front this season. After being manhandled in front of the net and in the corners by the Boston Bruins in an Eastern Conference Semifinals sweep last year, Philly got a lot younger and bigger on the wings. The result was one of only three teams to have 11 different players hit double digits in goals. Claude Giroux makes the Flyers' offense go, finishing second only to Henrik Sedin in assists with 65 and third in NHL scoring with 93 points. Add in career-best goal scoring seasons from Wayne Simmonds (28), ex-Penguin Maxime Talbot (19), Jakub Voracek (18), and 24 from Calder Trophy candidate Matt Read, and Philadelphia is one of very few teams that can match Pittsburgh's firepower. With veteran Danny Briere slumping for most of the schedule, rookies stepped up with 64 goals -- more than 24% of the Philly goal total.
With Letang, Brooks Orpik, Zbynek Michalek, Paul Martin, Matt Niskanen, Deryk Engelland, Pittsburgh has a very good top-six. Letang provides excellence at both ends of the ice but really makes the Pens' power play offense click, while Orpik is a feared physical presence for any opposing skater who ventures near the Penguins' crease.
Philadelphia's blue line has been hit hard by injuries, having lost captain and defensive anchor Chris Pronger until next season at the earliest, and Andrej Meszaros until mid-second round as a best-case scenario. Nicklas Grossmann, acquired before the trade deadline, is expected back for Wednesday's opener after suffering a knee injury last week on a knee-on-knee hit by Pens' Joe Vitale. Braydon Coburn, Kimmo Timonen, Matt Carle, Pavel Kubina, and Andreas Lilja round out a solid unit that improved late in the year.
Both team's power play units finished with a 19.7% success rate, good for a tie for fifth in the NHL. Not surprisingly, both clubs were represented in the top goal scorers with the man advantage, as Pittsburgh's Neal scored a League-leading 18, and Philly's Scott Hartnell followed with 16. Malkin recorded 12 , while Simmonds posted 11.
The area where the Penguins hold a decided advantage in special teams is on the penalty kill, finishing third overall with an 87.8% kill efficiency, while the Flyers floundered at 17th with just 81.8%.
But the season series was a different story, as the Flyers scored on six of 29 PP chances against the Penguins (20.7%), while the Philly penalty-killing was a stellar 19-22 (86.4%) against a formidable collection of Pittsburgh scorers.
Pittsburgh's Marc-Andre Fleury ended the year with a 42-17-4 record, with a 2.36 goals-against average and .913 save percentage -- numbers that prompted TSN's Darren Dreger to mention Fleury's name in Hart Trophy discussions. But against the Flyers, he managed just a 1-3-1 record, with a 3.41 GAA and .872 save %. Backup Brent Johnson saw just 28 minutes of action against the Orange-and-Black, closing out the last half of Saturday's season finale to pick up the victory.
At the other end of the rink, Ilya Bryzgalov finally turned in performances the Flyers were hoping for when they signed him to an UFA contract over the summer. Bryzgalov was named the NHL's First Star for the month of March, going 10-2-1 with a 1.43 GAA, .947 save %, and League-high four shutouts. His play versus the Pens was solid, as he posted a 2.60 goals-against average and .912 save percentage, while backup Sergei Bobrovsky went 2-2-0 with a 3.84 GAA and .885 save percentage.
THE FLYERS WILL WIN IF ... First and foremost, Philly will need to stay out of the penalty box. Discipline in all areas of the game will be paramount, as will the health of the key contributors. Briere (upper back contusion) -- who struggled through arguably his worst NHL season, but had begun to find his rhythm down the stretch with two goals and nine points in his last five contests -- will likely return in time for the series-opener Wednesday and the Flyers will need a continuation of his past clutch playoff performances. Rookie Sean Couturier centers a line that has had success shutting down the Malkin line, and head coach Peter Laviolette will count on the shutdown trio to come up large in the postseason. As the team's last line of defense, Bryzgalov's performance will be crucial to any chances for Philadelphia to pull out the series. Add in the fact that the Flyers have won five of the six games played at CONSOL Energy Center, and home-ice advantage may not mean as much as usual.
THE PENGUINS WILL WIN IF .. Pittsburgh has to be viewed as the favorites to take the series, and if the big guns perform in Steel City, they will be tough to beat. The continued health of Crosby and Letang are a must, as Malkin and company could make up for the prolonged absences of the two elite players with regular season games against inferior competition, but would be hard-pressed to carry the Penguins offense over the course of such a physical, emotionally-charged series. A similar discipline will be required for the Pens, as they cannot afford to give Giroux, Hartnell, and the rest of the Flyers' power play numerous opportunities. Fleury will have to raise his level of play against Philadelphia if Pittsburgh is to move on, and he has shown in the past he can do just that, having won the 2009 Stanley Cup.