Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Flyers Face Penguins in First Round

(5) Philadelphia Flyers                                    VS.                            (4) Pittsburgh Penguins

The fifth seeded Flyers begin their journey to the cup in Pittsburgh tonight (7:30pm on NBC Sportsnet). 

The Flyers need this series. More than just about moving on in the post season, this is a defining series for the Flyers' new core.

The Flyers are a young team, pieced together this summer. Throughout this season there have been two main stories: the goaltending, and the youth of this team.

Goaltending will be answered on the ice, there is nothing I can say that hasn't been said five times already, in multiple languages. The youth of this team though is important. Much like the first round game 7 OT win against Washington Capitals years ago, this series has the potential to bring massive amounts of confidence and experience to a young core that promises to be dominant in the near future.

A win against the cross-state rivals,  the apple of the league's eye, the already cup winners, the "offensive dynamo," could be the catalyst that grows this team into a Cup winner.

If you look at past cup winners, The Anaheim Ducks had a long run, overcoming adversity only to fall short in the Stanley Cup Finals. After the maturation of that experience, they won a cup not too much after with the same core. Same with the current enemy, Pittsburgh. 

The Flyers were recently in the Cup Finals, but the impact of that experience goes out the window when you look at the fresh names on the roster who were not a part of that run.

If the Flyers manage to shut down the Penguins and beat them in the first round, I think you see their young core take the next step and become better hockey players. 

Now onto the preview...

The Penguins may have the best group of centers in the league. Crosby, Malkin and Staal are all constant offensive threats. However, the rookie duo of Schenn and Couturier have done well to match up with Crosby and Malkin. The teen aged Couturier has played especially well locking onto the much bigger Malkin. 

The performance of Schenn and Courturier will be a determining factor in this series. If they can keep up their superb defensive play, the center match up may be a wash, as Claude Giroux and Danny Briere are no slouches in terms of playoff performance. 

I believe that the Flyers centers will not be out-shined by Pittsburgh's despite the glowing media coverage the Penguins' pivots get. 

Rounding out the forward corps, the Flyers have the better depth of wingers. From first line to fourth, the Flyers can ice more talented wingers. Besides James Neal, the Penguins do not have top line wingers, more so a compilation of grinding forwards. Voracek, Simmonds, Hartnell, Jagr and Read have enough talent to create match up problems. 

If the Penguins centers can't spark the offense, their wingers most likely won't either. The Flyers clearly have the advantage on paper when it comes to wingers, but they have to keep it when the puck drops.

On the defensive side, the Flyers address the concerns on the backend when captain Chris Pronger went down for the year. Adding recently extended defenseman Nicklas Grossmann (4 years, $3.5m/year) has beefed up the blue line.  The tandem of Grossmann and Coburn have become a top shutdown pair which can help eliminate Pittsburgh offensive threat. In addition, Timonen and Carle are the puck movers in the top 4, but can also play odd man rushes well. The Flyers' D sees much more depth than Pittsburgh, with Kubina as a 7th.

Pittsburgh has depth issues on the blueline. Letang is their far-and-away best defensemen. However, his offensive presence sometimes leaves gaps in his own zone. The drop off to Brooks Orpik in talent level, their number 2, is big. And after Orpik, it is even bigger. Michalek and Martin owned the worst +/- rating for the Penguin's team and have underwhelmed since their arrival.

It is fair to say that the Penguins need to play tighter defense in the playoffs, as their run and gun offense won't keep them afloat by themselves. However, in relation to the Flyers roster, they just don't have the talent to do so. They will need to rely on a  great series from all of their blueliners if they want to keep Philadelphia from scoring.

And the goalies. Both Fleury and Bryzgalov have faltered this year. Bryzgalov is the bigger question mark as he has a questionable playoff resume and Fleury has a cup. However, by the numbers this year, Bryzgalov and Fleury are pretty close.

It comes down to who plays better on the ice, as of right now I would consider them a toss-up on paper. Bryzgalov has picked it up so far as the games got tighter in March. Fleury may have the nod over Bryz, but I don't think it is by wide enough margin to impact the series.

I think the Flyers surprise many in the hockey media by pulling out a 6 game series win. It will be a brutal series, and injuries may play a big part in it. However, I think the match-up favors the Flyers for one reason: Defense. The Flyers have the better defensive corps, and with their young centers focusing on shutting down the Penguins, the Flyers team D may steal them the series. 

I hope the officiating in this series allows the teams to decide the outcome on their own. It is not without precedent and merit that the Penguins have been considered "favorites" of the league and refs. If the refs try to take out the passion of the series by giving lots of roughings and 10 minute misconducts, it favors the team on the right side of the calls. 

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