Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Flyers vs. Penguins: Eastern Conference Finals Breakdown

The wait is killing me. After only a day between the first and second rounds of the playoffs, the Flyers will end up going a full six days between games when they finally start their series with the Penguins. The Pens will have also been off for five days, so neither team will be carrying much momentum with them into Game One. I understand why the NHL wants to wait until the weekend to start the series, but they are really ruining the flow of the playoffs. Flyers fans have been salivating about a match-up with the team that ducked them at the onset of the playoffs for almost a month now and they are ready to get it started. We are still two days away from the start of the series, but it's time to take a closer look at what we are going to see when they finally drop the puck on Friday.

Offense: Depth is the name of the game here. The Penguins are deep, with two amazing scoring lines, but the Flyers are deeper. Just looking at the Flyers depth at the center position shows just how strong they are no matter which line is on the ice. The Flyers have tremendous depth down the middle with Danny Briere, Mike Richards and Jeff Carter lining up at center on the top three lines. Carter would likely be a second line center on most teams. Fourth line center Jim Dowd is no pushover either, playing a key penalty killing role. The point is, the Flyers get good shifts from all four of their lines, and you never know where they are going to get their scoring from. Against the Capitals, Danny Briere and Vaclav Prospal did most of the goal scoring. When those two cooled off against the Canadiens, R.J. Umberger picked up the slack. Mike Knuble and Jeff Carter have also chipped in some big goals and you can never underestimate the skill and speed of Scottie Upshall. My point is, the Flyers have a balanced scoring attack with 8 players scoring 3 or more goals in the playoffs so far, and you can't key in on one line and hope to contain their offense. They simply have too many ways to beat you.

The Penguins have good depth as well but they are more top heavy and they don't roll four lines as well as the Flyers. Everything offensively starts with Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby who will give the Flyers fits trying to slow them down. The Flyers have a shutdown pair of defenders in Braydon Coburn and Kimmo Timonen who will try to slow down one of the superstars, but the rest of the Flyer defense will have big problems trying to contain the secondary scoring attack. The Penguins have also gotten some timely goals from Petr Sykora and Marian Hossa and they have the always dangerous Ryan Malone and Jordan Staal, but from there they have a big drop-off in talent. The top groupings are more skilled than anything the Flyers can put out there, so I will give the Penguins a slight edge. The Penguins have a better top end, the Flyers have better depth.

Defense: Both teams have their big bruisers and their puck-moving defensemen. Pittsburgh has arguably the best offensive defenseman in the league in Sergei Gonchar and Hal Gill is a massive specimen on the back end. They don't have anyone else who will wow you with their talent, but they play disciplined, sound hockey. As a group, the Penguins defense is very underrated.

The Flyers have their great first pairing of Coburn and Timonen and Derian Hatcher has been steady, but the rest of the defense has done little to impress. Randy Jones has his moments and Lasse Kukkonen has played as well as can be expected, but Jason Smith is a turnover machine. Smith did better against the Canadiens than he did with the Capitals, but he still has puck control and positional issues. This group will be tested by a speedy Penguins attack, but after keeping up with the lightning quick Canadiens forwards they have proven they can skate with just about anyone. I still give the Penguins defense a slight edge over the Flyers because they seem to have a more complete group of defenders.

Goaltending: These are the two hottest goaltenders in the playoffs. Marc-Andre Fleury has bounced back from a shaky playoff performance last year to post some great numbers and Martin Biron has single-handedly carried the Flyers through many a defensive breakdown. Picking which goaltender is better is nearly impossible, but I will give the slight edge to Martin Biron because he seems less likely to get rattled. I still think the Fleury is yound and is still susceptible to losing confidence if he gives up a bad goal while Biron has been unshakable this entire playoff run. Obvious statement: Whichever goaltender plays better in this series will be going to the Stanley Cup Finals.

The Penguins seem to be the slightly better team on paper, but so has every Flyer opponent so far. Where the Flyers have a big advantage over everyone is in the intangibles like leadership and determination, and that will make this an extremely entertaining and long series. I still think that the Penguins will win in seven games, but the Flyers are going to make it very difficult along the way. They will hit Crosby and Malkin every chance they get to slow them down and neutralize their speed, but the Flyers will come up just short. Believe me, I will be rooting for the Flyers every step of the way, unfortunately the Penguins will be able to expose the Flyers back end too easily. Pittsburgh will move on, but the Flyers will be happy to know they will wear them down so much that the Detroit Red Wings will wipe out the Penguins in the Stanley Cup Finals.

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