The Eastern Conference Finals begin tonite with two Atlantic Division foes that have already squared off in 7 nasty, brutal contests during the regular season and 1 game at the end of the season that you may or may not think was a bit fishy.
The Pittsburgh Penguins, the winner of the Atlantic Division during the regular season, have fashioned themselves into quite a rival for their downstate rivals. After years of the Flyers just stomping all over the Penguins historically (including 3 playoff series), the Penguins came through the Atlantic Division in 2006-2007 and handed the Flyers their lunch, winning all 8 contests last year. The first of these contests is etched in the minds of a lot of Flyer and Pen fans in that it was the game that Derian Hatcher smacked Sidney Crosby up high and did some impromptu dental work on the young face of the NHL. After that game, Crosby seemed to make it his personal mission to make the Flyers pay, playing with a lot of passion and grit in the remaining games of that season.
On the other hand, alot of teams had their way with the Flyers last year....not just the Pens.
Entering into this season, with much of the same young nucleus still intact from the beatings the Flyers took the year before, the Flyers opened the season series with the Pens winning 4 straight, including an 8 - 2 asskicking complete with one of our players (Ben Eager, no longer with the Flyers) calling Penguin coach Michel Therrien a "joke". All of these games seemed like blood feuds with all sorts of fights and penalties of aggression. This all seemed appropriate payback to a team that had revelled in it's domination of the Flyers the year before.
The tide turned as the calender flipped to February of this year, as the Penguins began to warm to the task of playing their brethern from the Southeastern part of the state on a more level ice surface. The Pens won the following 3 games that featured just as much bad blood as the previous games. The Pens even paid the Flyers back for their earlier blowout win, by humiliating the Flyers by a score of 7 -1 on a nationally televised game. Reports were starting to come out of the media that Flyer coach John Stevens was going to be fired as a result of the Flyers' poor effort in that particular game.
The game that is on some people's minds, however, is the 2 - 0 Flyers win that closed out the regular season for both teams. While the game had some bite to it, it was hardly the two-sided blood feud that previous games had been. The Pens had decided to rest Sidney Crosby, who had played in the Pens' previous game, which also happened to be against the Flyers. The Flyers huffed and puffed their way to the win despite giving the Penguins 8 power plays. It was also a game that had many fans believing that maybe Martin Biron can be the goaltender the franchise has been missing as the Pens did have some great opportunities to score.
It was a game where many believed that the Penguins tanked the game so that they didn't have to face the Flyers early in the playoffs such that they would possibly incur injuries in a long, hard playoff series against a well-known foe.
Well, one thing I do know is that last game can say only one of two things, but not both:
1.) The Pens are scared of the Flyers.
2.) The Flyers are plenty good enough to compete with the Pens when they are diligent defensively.
I don't believe that the Pens are scared of the Flyers, but I also believe that the Pens thought they had nothing to gain by playing Crosby in that particular game. I also believed that the Pens did not play recklessly in that particular game because they were perhaps concerned with getting injured going into the playoffs (very valid concern). So the answer I'm going to give for that imfamous 8th game is that the Flyers are good enough to compete with and beat the Pens when they play the right way.
The real question is: Can the Flyers play the "right way" in a 7-game series against the Pens?
The forwards for the Pens will combine the offensive styles that the Flyers had seen in the previous two rounds. The Pens have the offensive-minded bull analagous to Alexander Ovechkin in MVP-candidate Evgeni Malkin. They also have the player, whom many pundits consider the face of the new NHL in Sidney Crosby. Crosby, since he was a kid, has been compared to Wayne Gretzky for his playmaking ability and vision on the ice. It's been amazing to see how Crosby has practically flown under the radar of folks since he incurred that high ankle injury and Malkin just exploded through the NHL. Most of the talk you see about Crosby now is about how he dives to draw penalties.
I would consider Malkin the bigger concern as the Flyers had no answer for him at all during the regular season. As mentioned previously, Crosby has been hobbled by a high ankle sprain for most of the 2nd half of the season, and I believe it has been partially limiting his explosiveness (much like has been the case for the Flyers' Joffrey Lupul).
In addition to having two of the premier forwards in the game, the Pens have snipers Marian Hossa and Petr Sykora. Sykora has been a Flyer-killer his whole career, dating back to his days with the New Jersey Devils. These two "second-tier" players can kill you if the Pens' frontline players don't. Follow these players up with Ryan Malone (27 goals), penalty killer Jordan Staal, and pest Jarko Ruutu, and it's obvious that the Pens have a very imposing set of forwards.
The Flyers have been led in the playoffs by Danny Briere, who has 14 points in 12 games. RJ Umberger had a "Keith Primeau"-like run through the Montreal series as he scored an astounding 8 goals in 5 games. Umberger also happened to score half of his regular season goal total (12) against the Pens, the team he grew up rooting for (BTW: I am SO tired of hearing and typing that Umberger was a Pens fan growing up). Mike Richards and Jeff Carter both have 4 goals in the playoffs, with Carter sporting a +6 rating, which is best amongst Flyer forwards. It will be the job of Carter and Richards to clamp down on Malkin and Crosby defensively; it remains to be seen if they can handle the assignment on this stage. Edge: Pittsburgh
The Pens have some pretty mobile defensemen, led by Sergei Gonchar (12 goals) and Ryan Whitney (12 goals), both of whom scored double-digit goals this year from the blueline. Defensively, however, I don't believe either Gonchar or Whitney would win a Norris trophy for play in their own zone. Smooth skating Kris Letang also provides offensive punch from the blue line, but whose defensive skills are similar to Whitney's. While Whitney and Letang are relative neophytes to playoff hockey, Gonchar has over 60 playoff games of experience under his belt.
The Pens also have a few big, physical defensemen in the form of Hal Gill and Brooks Orpik. Gill has a long reach, but skates like Derian Hatcher. Brooks Orpik has been bad at points during this season on the blueline, such that he was a healthy scratch. He got back into the lineup when Mark Eaton went down for the year. Michel Therrien has also used him as a 4th line winger. Stay-at-home defenseman Rob Scuderi rounds out a unit that I believe is top heavy in offensive talent and is very average in their own zone. As a matter of fact, in Pen games I've watched since the beginning of the season until now, it looks to me like they are playing a more defensive style as a team to mask some of the weaknesses they have on their blueline.
The analysis of the Flyers' defensemen was a little rosier when it was thought that Kimmo Timonen would participate in the playoffs. The news of Kimmo Timonen's blood clot seared through Flyer Nation and the tone amongst fans is grim. Before the Timonen injury, I thought that the underrated story for the Flyers this playoff season has been the play of their defensemen. If Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Coburn haven't been the best defensive pairing in the playoffs so far, then I'd like to see who has been the best. Taking Timonen's place with be either veteran Jaroslav Modry or rookie Ryan Parent. Neither of those player can replicate Timonen's contributions.
Jason Smith had a rough go of things in the Washington series, but looked much better against Montreal. On the other hand, Derian Hatcher looked great against Washington, but less so against Montreal. It is vitally important for Hatcher to be on his game as he and the (surprisingly good ) Randy Jones will be matched against Crosby's line.
One real good thing about the layoff between the Montreal series and this one is the rest it gives to vets like Hatcher and Jason Smith. Both Hatcher and Smith have been injured during the season, so a week or so off can't possibly hurt. Both play physical and have a ton of playoff experience (Hatcher has about 120+ games of playoff experience) that will serve them well.
Edge: Pens (only because of the Timonen injury)
Pittsburgh's Marc-Andre Fleury is one of the several very high draft picks that Pittsburgh has garnered over the years because of how bad they were. As a matter of fact, he was the first pick of the entire draft in 2003. His lateral movement is lightning quick, but he languished behind crappy Penguins defensive schemes early in his career, possibly hurting his confidence somewhat. He has been playing very well of late.
What else can be said about Martin Biron? He made all of the big saves in the series against Montreal and has been publicly credited by coach John Stevens for stealing a game or two.
While Fleury has played well, he hasn't been tested the way Biron has been tested. Can't give the Flyers the advantage here, because of Fleury's pedigree, but I could make a case for the Flyers having a small advantage in goal because of Biron's play under fire in the previous rounds. Even.
Pens coach Michel Therrien had coached in the NHL before the Penguin job, coaching the Montreal Canadiens to a playoff berth in 2001-2002, but was mostly disliked by his players. He was so beloved for his work in Montreal, he was fired 46 games into the next season. There have been rumblings from hockey writers that Therrien is probably not the right coach for this team right now because of the defensive style he coaches and his abrasive nature, but the fact is, the Pens have improved under Therrien, like it or not.
John Stevens was a whisker away from losing his job after a blow out loss to Pittsburgh earlier this year. He probably would have been fired if the team didn't make the playoffs. But Stevens' players seem to like him, for the most part. He has used some dopey (changing around the lockerroom during a losing streak) and clever (making players create their own scouting reports of a player) motivational techniques to drive his players. The team has also gained a bit of a counter-punching identity over the past 6 weeks that they hadn't had previously. He doesn't appear to get emotional and remains steady under fire. Even.
Don't think for a second the league wouldn't want a Detroit - Pittsburgh final. The Pens are known divers, so expect them to get most of the calls in this series. Can any of the Flyer defensemen step up in Timonen's absence? Or better yet, can the Flyers get a short term emotional life knowing their best defenseman is out? Sometimes, when a key player is hurt, the team steps up it's play emotionally.
How will Pittsburgh react if faced with a little adversity? Pressure in this series is really on the Pens, who finished higher and have higher expectations; the Flyers are almost playing with house money at this point. Even.
Even before the news of Timonen's injury hit, I had Pittsburgh winning this series, if only because I'm worried about the ability of the Flyers to stay out of the penalty box as much as I am worried about the ability of the officials to know a dive when they see one. But with the news of Timonen's injury, the Flyers will be hardpressed to win this series.
The key for the Flyers will be Martin Biron maintaining his level of play that he acheived against Montreal and Timonen's replacement stepping up and giving the Flyers a heroic effort. They almost need something along the lines of Andy Delmore's hat-trick from back in 2000, where a defenseman came out of nowhere and became a hero. They need to stay out of the penalty box. If they get all of these things, they do have a shot to pull off the upset.
The action in this series will be intense. Pittsburgh may come out of this series, but it won't be without having lost a little blood. Pittsburgh in Six.
Picture of Briere: (AP Photo/Tom Mihalek)