Series Preview: Pittsburgh Penguins (4) vs. Philadelphia Flyers (5)

Our previews of the 2009 Stanley Cup playoffs' opening round, featuring pretty pictures and a special guest video by the great Steve Dangle at the end.

Is the world ready for another Battle of Pennsylvania?

Last season's had the makings of a classic encounter between these two hated rivals, but in the end turned into a one-sided affair that gave the Pittsburgh Penguins a trip to their third Stanley Cup Finals and a year of bragging rights.

Instead of meeting for a chance at the Stanley Cup on the line, it's a 4/5 matchup between a team that's stayed in the pack of the Eastern Conference standings for most of the season, and one who went through upheaval and got things back on track on their way to the playoffs.

The 'Keystone Clash' will be its usual intense, physical self; and you can be sure that the Sidney Crosby hating will be turned up a notch when things get to Philadelphia for Game 3.

Will the fact that this series could be survival of the fittest hinder either team's progress in the later rounds? In other words: Who survives this war?

Season Series (Penguins won 4-2)

Oct 14: at Pittsburgh 3, Philadelphia 2, OT
Nov 13: at Pittsburgh 5, Philadelphia 4, SO
Dec 13: at Philadelphia 6, Pittsburgh 3
Jan 13: Pittsburgh 4, at Philadelphia 2

Sat Feb 21: Pittsburgh 5, at Philadelphia 4
Mar 22: Philadelphia 3, at Pittsburgh 1

Forwards (Advantage: Pittsburgh)

Two of the top three leading scorers in the NHL on one team and, on occasion, the same line would make any opposing team jealous.

Evgeni Malkin is your Art Ross Trophy winner with 113 points. After his stunning Game 1 goal, that of the 10-foot-out variety, Malkin disappeared for the remainder of the playoffs, only potting two more goals in Pittsburgh's next 10 games. Some speculated he was injured after Flyers captain Mike Richards ran him over moments before the goal, but that was never confirmed. As dangerous as the Penguins offense is, they cannot afford Malkin to disappear like Alexei Yashin's career.

There's some in the hockey world calling Sidney Crosby's 103 points this season a 'down year'. With 33 goals and 70 helpers, Crosby certainly wasn't a slouch and will be a driving force on the Pittsburgh offense. He'll have to deal with the Philadelphia crowds sporting pacifiers, scuba diving gear, and booing him every chance they get, but as Derian Hatcher learned in 2006, you don't want to make Crosby mad.

Rounding out the Penguins offense are Chris Kunitz who's made fans quickly forget about Ryan Whitney's existence; Jordan Staal, who the Penguins are hoping have another productive off-season, and a revived Bill Guerin who is enjoying the twilight of his career playing with Sidney Crosby instead of Jon Sim. The rest of the supporting cast features Petr Sykora and Ruslan Fedotenko, who are both playing for contracts.

Philadelphia lost a key cog in their offense for 53 games this season, but Danny Briere's absence allowed Jeff Carter to break out as one of the league's most underrated stars. Do people realize this guy scored 46 goals? That's 17 more than his previous career high.

Carter came into his own and was helped by hair-raising Scott Hartnell (30 goals, 60 points), a healthy Simon Gagne (34 goals, 74 points), and team captain Mike Richards, who is probably the most underappreciated player in the League.

Unheralded Joffrey Lupul (50 points) and Mike Knuble (47 points) bring a scoring touch, while Arron Asham (155 PIM's) and Daniel Carcillo (254 PIM's) bring the jam. During the last month of the season, the line of Asham, Carcillo and Danny Briere have been a pleasant surprise for head coach John Stevens, with the two tough guys making room available for Briere.

Defensemen (Advantage: Philadelphia)

Pittsburgh's defense was bolstered after getting blue-line anchor Sergei Gonchar back in March. His presence was a calming influence on a struggling defense corps and a shot in the arm for their offense. Kris Letang is enjoying an increase in production, but still needs to think shot first and pass second at times. Rob Scuderi (19:09), Mark Eaton (17:06), and Brooks Orpik (20:19) won't be expected to put pucks in the net, but provide a needed defensive presence. Potential ‘black ace' Philippe Boucher will be an interesting depth player to watch and an added bonus to the lineup should an injury occur.

The Flyers didn't have the services of Kimmo Timonen a year ago in the Eastern Conference finals and it showed. The Penguins did what they wanted for the most part and scored at will. Now healthy, he and partner Ryan Parent form a formidable shutdown tandem. Potential steal of the season, Matt Carle (5 goals, 26 points), and Braydon Coburn give Philadelphia an offensive component to their defense. While it's not much offense being provided by the blue line, it's enough to support the arsenal up front.

Goalies (Advantage: Pittsburgh)

Last spring, we saw what Marc-Andre Fleury is capable of doing between the pipes. His athletic ability poses a threat for opposing teams, but also puts him out of position at times. Positioning has been one thing he's worked on with Pittsburgh goalie coach Gilles Meloche and he's shown improvement in that area. Rebound control on the other hand, well, that's a work in progress. Despite the Penguins struggles this season, Fleury was still 35-18-7 with four shutouts. With a Cup run and a healthy season under his belt, there will be pressure on Fleury to replicate what he did a year ago.

Martin Biron proved what a dangerous goaltender he can be when he guided the Flyers to the Eastern Conference finals. Defeating the Washington Capitals and then upsetting the top-seeded Montreal Canadiens brought Biron into the spotlight. A year later and playing for a new contract, could he be more of a wildcard heading into a rematch with Pittsburgh?

Biron's inconsistency during the season cause him to split time with Antero Niitymaki, but down the stretch he reclaimed his No. 1 spot; and goaltenders who are hot down the stretch typically ride that into the postseason.

If This Series Was a Movie, It Would Be ...

In an effort to land Evgeni Malkin the Hart Trophy, Sidney Crosby gets political in "Crosby Dynamite" ...

... because voting for anyone else will NOT make all your wildest dreams come true.

(By B.D. Gallof of Islanders Independent.)

Power Play (Advantage: Pittsburgh)

The Penguins' 17.2 percent success-rate compared to Philadelphia 22.5 percent is a bit deceiving, considering Pittsburgh's power-play suffered mightily while Sergei Gonchar was out. Anytime you can throw Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Gonchar on the ice, it's a safe bet a lot of rubber is going to be thrown at the net.

Philadelphia can counter with Jeff Carter (13 goals) and Simon Gagne (12 goals) making things happen with the extra man and Mike Knuble (10 goals) causing havoc in front of the net and banging in those always-welcomed garbage goals.

Penalty Kill (Advantage: Philadelphia)

Pittsburgh was eighth in the NHL at 82.7 percent on the kill. Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, Max Talbot, and Matt Cooke are a fearsome foursome down a man. Under Bylsma, the Penguins have been killing at an 86.4 percent success rate.

No team was better with a man in the box than the Flyers, especially considering they led the NHL with 446 penalty minutes ... Philadelphia was sixth in the League with an 83 percent kill-rate (also a great kill-rate if you're playing SOCOM: Navy Seals) and led everyone with 16 short-handed goals.

Fight We'd Love To See

Eric Godard and Riley Cote threw down three times with readers at choosing the Penguins tough guy as winner in two out of the three bouts. Sadly, Cote dislocated his finger against the New York Islanders a few weeks ago and Godard might not see the ice all too much as a regular fourth-liner. Maybe someone can set up something in the hallways at both Mellon Arena and Wachovia Center?

These two had a doozy back in October:

Coaches (Advantage: Philadelphia)

The experience prevails here. While Bylsma has found instant success behind the Penguins bench, it is unknown how, if any, his coaching style with change in a seven game series. Being able to make adjustments on the fly and counteract what John Stevens will do could ultimately be the deciding factor in the series.

Stevens turned around an abysmal Philadelphia team and led them to two 40-win seasons, bringing the passion back to the 'City of Brotherly Love'. His players believe in the system and, despite injuries and inconsistent goaltending, the Flyers still finished in the top-quarter of the Eastern Conference.

Best Player Nicknames (Advantage: Even)

Sid the Kid. Geno. Cooke-y. Sykie. Gonch. Vs. Carts. Caveman. Gags. Noobs. Lupes.

Nothing outrageously creative, but if we're using the "fan created nickname" as a tiebreaker, then Scott "Fartsmell" definitely wins out over "Cindy Crysby".

Home Ice (Advantage: Even)

Pittsburgh (25-13-3) and Philadelphia (24-13-4 home) were evenly matched playing on the home sheet. The home crowd helped the Penguins in goals allowed (102) compared to that of the Flyers (124), but Philadelphia has the edge in goals scored at home with 150 to the 131 of the Penguins.

Essential Blogging

For your daily dose of Photoshop hilarity, you need to visit ThePensBlog. Frank D's continuing educational series on Evgeni Malkin learning English is a must bookmark over at Pensburgh. Seth Rorabaugh from the Post-Gazette's 'Empty Netters' is a must-read that provides witty insight and a dash of fantastic reader photos from games.

The Flyers blogosphere is very underdeveloped, but you can get your daily dose over at Broad Street Hockey; chuckle with the always entertaining 700 Level, and follow the message boards at Flyer Flies.

Captains (Advantage: Flyers)

Sidney Crosby is surrounded by cagey veterans like Bill Guerin, Petr Sykora, Sergei Gonchar, and Philippe Boucher. His job is made easier by having such experienced players around him.

There's not denying that Mike Richards it he heart and soul of the Flyers franchise. With the never-ending comparisons to former Philadelphia captain Bobby Clarke, Richards plays an intense, physical game and is valuable on both ends of the ice. He does everything he is asked to do and doesn't care about statistical milestones. 

Pests (Advantage: Flyers)

Matt Cooke is the kind of guy who thoroughly enjoys taking players off their game. He's like that guy on a plane who doesn't shut up until your put your iPod buds in. The amount of pissed off Flyers will be increasing as the series goes on. Max Talbot's likes to bug opposing players making him not just a 'superstar'.

Even though he can score 25-plus goals a season, Scott Hartnell loves to mix it up and get in the middle of each and every scrum. Arron Asham and Daniel Carcillo will be sure to give Marc-Andre Fleury a few snow showers and only add to this already heated rivalry.

Potential Unsung Heroes 

Now that Jordan Staal is going to be getting a hefty raise very soon, does that still make him unsung? With six goals in 20 playoff games in 2008, Staal is now able to focus on playing instead of off-the-ice rumors about his future. He quietly rebounded from a disappointing sophomore campaign with a career high in points (49). Tyler Kennedy is also another Penguin who can go on a tear from time to time.

Did you know Mike Knuble has 114 goals in 310 games with Philadelphia and has six straight seasons of 20+ goals scored? Rookie Claude Giroux lit up the junior ranks and has shown at times he can reach the same level in the NHL.

Prediction: Penguins in six.

This Pittsburgh team is on a mission and a completely different club since Dan Bylsma took over. General Manager Ray Shero didn't completely fix what he broke over the summer, but adding Bill Guerin and Chris Kunitz, along with the return of Sergei Gonchar, gave the Penguins the grit and power-play quarterback they sorely missed for the better part of the season.

Martin Biron must play like he did through the first two rounds of last season's playoffs. Should he imitate his performance in the Conference Finals, head coach John Stevens will have to go to Niitymaki to salvage the season.

Take It Away YouTube Superstar Steve Dangle!

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