Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Flyers vs. Penguins: First Round Breakdown

Here we go again! Every Flyers player and fan has been waiting for this ever since the Penguins handled Philly in five games in the Eastern Conference Finals last season. It's time for the Keystone Clash to continue, this time early in the playoffs when both teams are fresh. A lot has changed since these teams last met in the playoffs, including the Flyers being much healthier along the blueline and the Penguins being robbed of much of their depth in the offseason. Having won 18 of their last 24 games of the season, the Penguins are the hotter team entering the series, but you can throw away records and streaks when these two teams play. Expect a long, hard-fought series between two teams that truly do not like each other with the winner emerging battered and bruised after 6 or 7 grueling games. Let's take a closer look at how these two teams matchup and see who comes out ahead.

Offense: This essentially boils down to depth vs. top-end talent. Everyone knows about the Penguins top two scorers, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, who both finished with over 100 points on the season and are a threat to make a pretty play every time they touch the puck. After those two, the offense takes a big dive, with Chris Kunitz and Jordan Staal the next biggest threats. Since they lost Ryan Malone and Marian Hossa in the offseason, the Penguins secondary players haven't been nearly as good and that leaves the Pens with really only two scoring lines. Of course, they do get plenty of offense from defenseman Sergei Gonchar, but if the top scoring threats can be slowed down (not an easy task), there is little bite left in the Penguins attack.

The exact opposite can be said of the Flyers, they have depth all throughout their forward lines. Six forwards scored 25 goals, the most for any team in the league, and those six don't include Danny Briere and Claude Giroux, who weren't with the club for most of the season. The Flyers roll three solid scoring lines, with tremendous depth down the middle in Mike Richards, Jeff Carter and Giroux. The 4th line is largely a throw away line, although Darroll Powe has proven to be an effective penalty killer. With the Flyers, other teams have to pick their poison. Should the Penguins put out their shut down defensemen against the Gagne/Richards/Knuble line or against the Hartnell/Carter/Lupul line? And what do you do against Giroux and Briere, who have eyes in the backs of their heads and routinely make beautiful passes? It's not an enviable position to be in. Because of that, I give the Flyers a slight edge in offense. The Penguins top two are incredible talents but no team in the NHL can match the depth the Flyers are throwing out there.

Defense: This is the biggest difference between the series last year: Braydon Coburn and Kimmo Timonen are healthy. The rest of the Flyers defense is nothing to get too excited about, although Ryan Parent has been solid when paired with Timonen. The Flyers certainly spend most of their cap money on forwards, and it shows in their lack of depth on the blueline. It will be nice to have Luca Sbisa back with the club as the 7th defenseman but one has to wonder if the rookie will be able to step up to the intensity of playoff hockey if he suits up.

The Penguins defense is solid but unspectacular. Sergei Gonchar is the blue chipper on the back line and is arguably the best offensive defenseman in the league. Hal Gill and Brooks Orpik are also solid stay-at-home defensemen who lead the rest of the disciplined blueliners. Pittsburgh as a team plays a really aggressive style which leads to both the forwards and defensemen trying to force turnovers, so any weaknesses they have on D can be masked. For this reason, I give the slight edge to the Penguins. The Flyers defense is prone to too many breakdowns and that will kill them against talent like Crosby and Malkin.

Goaltending: Martin Biron and Marc-Andre Fleury put up very similar numbers this season but got to those numbers in very different ways. Biron has been up and down all season, looking locked in one night and completely lost the next. He hasn't proven that he is a true number one goaltender in the NHL, although if he can somehow flip the switch and play like he did in the playoffs last year, things would be very different. Fleury is the more consistent goaltender, playing well in the playoffs last year and covering up the mistakes that the Penguins attacking style can sometimes leave open. Everyone knows that NHL playoff series are won by whichever goaltender is hotter, so Fleury gets the edge in the goaltending department because his play has heated up down the stretch. Look for Biron to do everything in his power to prove that he is a better goalie than he has shown recently.

These two teams appear to be about as even as you can get. The Penguins are the slightly better team on paper but the Flyers are known for overcoming long odds in the playoffs. While you may accuse me of being a homer, I like the Flyers to win the series in seven games. It will be a tough series between two teams determined to have the same playoff success they had last season. This will easily be the best series in the first round, with plenty of entertaining games and lots of interesting matchups to follow. Hopefully the Flyers can slow down Crosby and Malkin enough to get themselves out of the first round. From there, let's hope they aren't too beat up to make another deep run.

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