Penguins Prepare for Battle with Familiar Foe

Perhaps Scott Hartnell, the feisty, talented Flyers forward who has fast become a Penguins nemesis, broke down this series best.

“You’ve got a couple of the best goalies in the league, both D are playing really well, and both sides have got a lot of guys who can score. It’s going to be a battle. I’m sure it’s going to be a chess match; it’s going to be hard, it’s going to be intense.

“I’m sure there’ll be a lot of blood, and a lot of goals.”

History

Any bloodshed will be well-earned between the cross-state rivals, which have an extensive, high-stakes history. This will be the sixth time the clubs have met in the playoffs, with Philadelphia winning the first three meetings (1989, 1997, 2000) and Pittsburgh winning the last two (2008, 2009). Three times, the winner of the series has gone on to the Stanley Cup Final – and, again this year, both teams finished in the league’s top six and should be considered solid contenders for the hardware.

Offense

There could indeed be a lot of goals. Philadelphia is among the only teams in the league that can keep pace with Pittsburgh, finishing No. 2 behind the Penguins in goals scored this year. Pittsburgh boasts world-class depth down the middle with 50-goal scorer and likely MVP Evgeni Malkin, a healthy Sidney Crosby and two-way threat Jordan Staal. And the supporting cast is equally impressive, with winger James Neal coming off a career year with 40 goals and several other forwards, including Chris Kunitz, Pascal Dupuis and a reinvented Matt Cooke, putting up career numbers as well.

“There are guys on there that you don’t like, guys that are obviously some of the best players in the league. You see them on the highlights every night and it annoys you,” Hartnell said. “For us to be great and win the series, we’re going to have to shut those guys down.”

The Flyers also have a balanced attack, with the top line of Claude Giroux, Hartnell and Jaromir Jagr leading the way for scoring threats on every line that include Danny Briere, Jakub Voracek and Wayne Simmonds, who’s coming off a breakout season. Pittsburgh also knows a little something about fourth-line forward Max Talbot, the longtime Penguin grinder who consistently finds a new level to his offensive game in the playoffs, including scoring both Pittsburgh goals in 2009’s Game 7 to win the Stanley Cup.

Defense

These two teams played to a 1-2 finish in goals-for; on the goals-against side, however, they finished 15th (Pittsburgh) and 20th (Philadelphia). Although both are preaching defensive responsibility – and both have a fine shutdown pair in the Penguins’ Brooks Orpik and Zybnek Michalek and Flyers’ Braydon Coburn and Nicklas Grossman – these are, at heart, “definitely two offensive-minded teams with a lot of firepower,” Talbot said. A healthy Kris Letang, who missed two long stretches with concussions this season, is key to the creativity and mobility of the Pittsburgh defense, which looks to join in the offensive rush, while Kimmo Timonen is a versatile power-play quarterback and two-way defenseman for the Flyers.

Goaltending

Penguins netminder Marc-Andre Fleury had his most consistent season, setting a career mark for wins with 42, and thrives under the high-pressure situations of the playoffs.

“It’s awesome,” Fleury said. “Every night is important, every play is.”

At age 27, Fleury has already proven himself under the most glaring of spotlights, coming up with the clutch saves that took Pittsburgh to two consecutive Stanley Cup Finals and, in 2009, robbed the Detroit Red Wings of a game-tying goal at the buzzer to preserve the Penguins’ Game 7 win.

“Experience is something that, when you’re younger, maybe you kind of push it to the side and think it’s overvalued,” Orpik said. “In 2008, when we played Detroit in the Finals, we were down 2-0 before we knew it; obviously the experience caught up to us. So I think now, as you’re a little bit older, we’re definitely a more experienced team, and I think you appreciate the value of the experienced guys. They’ve got some older, experienced guys as well, but maybe in goaltending we do [have an edge].”

The Flyers’ goaltending has been their Achilles’ heel since around the time Ron Hextall exited the pipes and, last summer, Philadelphia went out and did something about it, signing Ilya Bryzgalov to a nine-year, $51 million deal. After a shaky start to the season, Bryzgalov finished in impressive fashion, with 10 wins and four shutouts in March, but his worst enemy can be his own self-doubt.

Backup netminder Sergei Bobrovsky has had good success against the Penguins, particularly at Pittsburgh’s CONSOL Energy Center – but, if he comes into the series, it’s probably not good news for the Flyers if the Penguins have set a goaltending carousel in motion.

“Fleury’s a good goalie, we’ve got to be honest here, but Bryz is playing very good for us lately,” said Giroux. “We know he’s going to be working, he’s going to be giving us a chance to win every game and, if he does do that, we’ve got to make sure we help him. When he does play well, he gives us the confidence to go on the offense and be able to score some goals.”

Special teams

With special teams so important in the playoffs, the penalty kill will be an important part of any team’s defense, and Pittsburgh’s shone during the regular season with an 87.8 PK percentage, good for No. 3 overall. The Flyers finished 17that 81.8 percent, while the teams were in a dead heat on the power play, tied for fifth with a 19.7 percent conversion rate. Importantly, the Flyers also drew the most penalties in the league, earning 335 power-play opportunities.

If these clubs try to throw the opposition off its game with the kind of after-the-whistle shenanigans that dominated some of their regular-season meetings, special teams could become a significant factor in the series. Particularly important for Pittsburgh will be Malkin and Crosby’s ability to keep their frustration level with those tactics in check, so they’re not spending crucial minutes in the penalty box and giving the Flyers’ potent power play a chance to set up shop.

“Any team kind of wrestles with that balance,” Crosby said. “You have to be intense, but you have to be focused. The good teams, the teams that are able to do that, end up winning. And I think we’re going to be tested in that way; Philly’s going to be tested that way. When there’s so much emotion in this series, those details are important details and are going to become magnified.”

Storylines

In a series that already figures to have plenty of passion, the emotional stakes were ramped up in the last week of the season with wars of words between Flyers head and assistant coaches Peter Laviolette and Craig Berube, respectively, and Penguins head and assistant coaches Dan Bylsma and Tony Granato.

The matchup also offers the sidebar of Talbot and Jagr both returning to Pittsburgh in rival orange and black to face the team that drafted them, for which they played many successful years and won Stanley Cups (Jagr’s came in his first two seasons, 1991 and 1992, along with a Hart Trophy and five scoring titles). Jagr has been accustomed to hearing boos from Penguins fans since he departed in 2001; for Talbot, however, the situation will be new.

“The first game [back] was really emotional; I can’t say it’s not special playing here, but [in the playoffs] the attention gets more on the two teams going at it,” Talbot said. “I take it as more of a challenge; it’s pretty exciting for me.”

He even expects to muster up a healthy dislike for the Penguins, a team on which he still has several close friends.

“I’m sure that’s going to come out of a playoff series,” he said. “It’s going to be a hard battle, it’s going to be intense hockey, and I’m up for it.”

Intangibles

The Penguins’ home-ice advantage may be negligible, as Philadelphia was unbeaten in two seasons at Pittsburgh’s new rink until the last game of this year – which was essentially meaningless, with playoff positions decided and both teams more focused on avoiding injuries. The Penguins will look to play with emotion in front of their home crowd while straddling the line of keeping their emotions in check.

“It’s like the first game of the season; you’re going to be all revved up, especially at home,” Orpik said. “It’s kind of a fine line there – you want to play emotional, play with a lot of energy, but definitely control it. I think when you see a lot of younger guys, their first taste of it, they’re kind of running around like chickens with their heads cut off. You think you’re working hard but you’re not working smart.”

The Flyers, meanwhile, are very good at taking advantage of teams that fall into that trap, and feed off the hatred of opposing fans.

“We love coming into these buildings where fans despise you,” Hartnell said. “You know you’re going to get a tough game, and the playoffs are even better.”

“It’s pretty easy to wake up and play the Pittsburgh Penguins,” said Giroux. “They’re a rival team, we’re not big fans of the players on the other side and, especially on the road, we’ve been pretty good this year. We go in buildings and we outwork other teams and we have fun doing it.”

The Flyers took the season series convincingly, 4-2, but both teams are approaching the playoffs as a clean slate.

“We wanted to make sure we finished strong, and I think we were able to do that in the last few games,” Crosby said. “The real thing starts now.”

“I think it doesn’t matter what happened during the season; we’ve got to make sure when the puck drops Wednesday that we’re jumping and winning battles,” Giroux said. “They’ve got a lot of players that can make plays and score goals, so we’ve got to make sure we’re responsible defensively.

“At the end of the day, it’s going to be who wants it more.”

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