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Thursday, April 10, 2014

Penguins Playoff Preview: @penguins v Flyers by @polemiclicense

Breaking Down Playoff Opponents: the Philadelphia Flyers

Pittsburgh (and the rest of the NHL) had themselves a good laugh when Claude “Best Player in the WORLD!” Giroux promised that he would lead his Philadelphia Flyers back into the playoffs during the throes of the Flyers’ disastrous opening to the season.

Giroux’s guarantee was all the more hilarious because he was in the midst of a personal goal scoring drought that exceeded 15 games.  Things were so bad in Philadelphia that 10 games into the schedule, Sidney Crosby had amassed more points than the entire Flyers team had goals.

Giroux did, in fact, rebound with a ferocious second half to the year, and will likely finish in the top five in league scoring, and barring a collapse, the Philadelphia Flyers will indeed make the playoffs and could be the Penguins’ opponent in the first round.

Pittsburgh Penguins (#2 seed, Metropolitan Winner) vs. the Philadelphia Flyers (#7 seed, Wild Card 1)

Injury Report:  The Penguins’ injury report reads like a World War 2 infirmary:  Evgeni Malkin (out until at least the start of the playoffs, maybe longer), Kris Letang (out indefinitely after suffering his stroke), Ollie Maata (day-to-day after the dreaded “upper body injury”), and Jussi Jokinen is now also day-to-day after his collision with Dustin Byfuglien.

Marcel Goc is also expected to miss three weeks, and Joe Vitale isn’t quite ready to return to the ice.

The Flyers have had various nicks and bruises along the way, but their injury situation is…Steve Downie.  And that’s it.

Advantage:  Flyers

Offense:  Even with their depleted roster, the Penguins feature more raw firepower than the Flyers.  The entire Flyers offense hovers around Giroux, and as he goes, so go the Flyers.

The Flyers are in the midst of a scoring slump, having been shut out in back to back games by St. Louis and Columbus.  Add to that their early season ineffectiveness, and Philadelphia is definitely a team capable of pulling an offensive Harry Houdini.

For Pittsburgh, the question isn’t whether or not the Penguins have the firepower to top that of the Flyers: they do, even if they have to play a game or two without the services of Malkin.

The question is whether or not the Penguins will be able to slow down Giroux.

Advantage:  Penguins

Defense:  The Flyers’ actual defensemen are marginal, but ever since Craig Berube took over as head coach, Philadelphia redefined itself as a defensive shell team akin to the Montreal Canadians under Michel Therrien.

Make no mistake, this commitment to defense is a stark departure from the “Broad Street Bullies” days, and a distinctly different tune than the Flyers typical run-and-gun style that has more or less defined the team over the past half dozen years.

The Flyers are prone to getting hemmed up in their own end and have great difficulty making the first pass, but once they’re able to get into the neutral zone and initiate their transition game, they tend to make things happen.

The Flyers’ transition game and subsequent heavy emphasis on aggressive forechecking- and checking in general- has created problems for the Penguins’ blue line before.  For some reason, the Flyers seem able to dictate the terms of play against Pittsburgh, and Bylsma’s system of feeding the center through the center of the ice is abandoned in lieu of protecting against big hits and/or trying to deliver punishing blows to Flyers busy making plays up ice.

In terms of strict personnel, the Penguins have the superior players, but the overall scheme and matchup is definitely an edge for the men in orange and black.

Advantage: Flyers

Goaltending:  As has been the case with every potential matchup for Pittsburgh, the barometer of goaltending success will hinge almost entirely on the shoulders- and more importantly, head- of Penguins’ backstopper Marc-Andre Fleury.

Fleury sports a better pedigree and has a Stanley Cup to his credit while Chris Mason was discarded by the Blue Jackets and Philadelphia is desperate to have Mason turn into their long-term solution to a position that’s been a revolving door since Ron Hextall.

Again: the Penguins have the personnel edge with Fleury, but his mental breakdowns over the past four years make him a legitimate question mark, especially against a team that absolutely OWNED him in the 2012 series.

Advantage:  Flyers

Special Teams:  If the Penguins and Flyers do indeed meet in the playoffs this spring, special teams will play a huge role in determining which city moves forward.

The Flyers powerplay has historically annihilated the Penguins regardless of Pittsburgh’s regular season success.  The Penguins are sporting a Top 5 PK, but all statistics seem to go out the window when facing Philadelphia.

The Flyers’ man advantage is entirely predictable and swings through Claude Giroux as a pivot, and the Penguins should consider employing a shadow on him and force Philly to have another player make plays.

The Penguins can definitely score against the Flyers, and that should be of little concern for Pittsburgh fans.  The question will ultimately be which team can play disciplined hockey and avoid the stupid penalties and retaliatory mistakes that have plagued both franchises in the recent past.

Advantage:  None

Series Prediction:  Everything about this series will come down to discipline and execution.  The Flyers’ players play a distinct second fiddle to the talent Pittsburgh can put out on the ice, but injuries have leveled what would otherwise be a distinct Penguins advantage.

If the Penguins can finally rid themselves of the mistake of trying to beat Philadelphia at the Flyers’ own game, then the Penguins can force Philly to try and compete with the Penguins on an individual skill level, and that is something the Flyers, outside of Claude Giroux, simply can’t do.

Unfortunately, history suggests that the Penguins won’t be able to shake their own demons and will once again make “proving a point” their goal instead of trying to actually score one.

Flyers in seven.

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