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Not Such a Bad Format After All

April 10, 2018, 9:02 AM ET [9 Comments]
Jay Greenberg
Blogger •NHL Hall of Fame writer • RSSArchiveCONTACT
When, in 2017, the team with the second-greatest point total in the Eastern Conference (Pittsburgh) met the third best (Columbus), the format that automatically matched the 2 vs. 3 finishers in each division seemed like a more misbegotten concept in The ‘Burgh than even Jaromir Jagr in a Philadelphia uniform.

A year later, nobody is complaining about a set-up that brings together the Flyers and Penguins, largely because it is the Penguins versus Flyers! In a 31-team league that schedules annual home-and-homes with every team from the other conference, the scant four matchups per season between divisional foes doesn’t do much for the fear and loathing we all love. To create grudges, you need long playoff series and even longer memories.

A Ranger-Flyer rivalry stoked by a mean and bitter 1974 conference final seven-gamer and then seven meetings in nine years, went into hibernation when the two clubs didn’t meet in the postseason between 1997 and 2014. That 2014 seven-game series, though competitive through a 2-1 Game Seven Ranger victory, nevertheless resulted in barely an after-the whistle-shove in any of the contests. What did these guys know from what Dave Brown once did to Tomas Sandstrom?

But a fourth series between the Penguins and Flyers in 11 years leaves scores unsettled for more reasons than the way the Mason-Dixon Line was extended in 1780 to make Pittsburgh part of Pennsylvania.

Though this is the first post-season contest between these teams in six years, it seems not even close to that long ago, largely because there are five Flyers–including Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier, Wayne Simmonds, and Jake Voracek–and a corresponding three most important Penguins-Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang–who were principals in the 2012 hostilities.

And we do mean that it got mean. In addition to an astonishing 58 goals scored in six games and three Philadelphia rallies from deficits of two and three goals, one of the most breathtaking series in NHL history contained a Crosby petulant whisk away of Voracek’s glove as he went to pick it up, and even a steel-cage death match between Giroux and Crosby.

Just as the Penguins crept back into the series from 3-0, a mighty 5-1 squashing by the Philadelphia underdogs in Game 6 finished off Pittsburgh. For a Flyer franchise that has been to 10 finals, including 16 semifinals, there have been first-round triumphs of great pressure and resultant relief. But for sheer animosity and thrills, culminating in Giroux dumping the hated Crosby on his butt and scoring in the first minute of the putaway victory, that series was the most celebrated first-round victory in franchise history. It was so emotional that participating Flyers recall that their team had little fuel left for another division rival, the Devils, who next put away the Flyers in a surprising five games.

“The Devils played a style that took all the emotion out of it and we had a hard time bringing it back down,” recalled Danny Briere on Monday. “But I wouldn’t change anything. That series with Pittsburgh was so much fun, one of those moments you play for.

“I remember my three series against Pittsburgh more than any others.”

Such is why this time, and every time, archrivals meet, a series becomes so much more than about advancing to the next round.

And, we can even think of a few more reasons to watch this one:

1) How long can the winning go on for the Penguins? It wasn’t just the Predators, Senators and Capitals that made last year’s championship more hair-raising then the year previous. It’s supposed to be harder. If not, every champion would win two in a row.

On paper, the trade-deadline addition of Derrick Brassard and the return of Kris Letang–did the Penguins really win last year without him? –restores some of the depth lost from cap casualties Chris Kunitz, Nick Bonino, Matt Cullen and Trevor Daley. But Brassard will play Game One Wednesday night directly off a five-game absence, and a season of streak and slumps by the Penguins speak to a cumulative mental fatigue.

Repeatedly when it has looked all-but over, the Penguins have thrown the switch, both in the playoffs and the regular season. But do they have the cumulative strength, physically and emotionally, to do it again? Credit to them, they are the only back-to-back winners of the 12-year cap era, the first example of how rare such a feat will be. So much of the lore of the game is built around its dynasties. This might be our last shot in decades to see a three-peat.

2) Crosby vs Giroux. It’s a center against a left wing now. But the matchup exists whether Mike Sullivan and Dave Hakstol play their top lines against each other or not.

In 2012, the Penguins had gotten back into the series with consecutive wins only to be drained by a premeditated first-minute Giroux hit on Crosby. “Watch this first shift,” Giroux had said to Danny Briere and the hit preceded a Giroux goal, a moment earning a place among the greatest for a franchise with no shortage of them. After the 5-1 Philadelphia victory, Coach Peter Laviolette called Giroux “the best player in the world”, a bit of a reach at the time for all Crosby had accomplished. But certainly it was a ballpark assessment, considering Giroux’s point totals for his first four years in the NHL.

But that highest praise turned to hyperbole as Giroux’s numbers declined for four straight seasons including an unimpressive two losing Flyer first-round appearances since. That was until this year, when a healthy Flyer captain scored a career high 102 points and earned as much MVP consideration as any hopeful amongst the deepest set of candidates in memory.

On the eve of the series, he is deflecting that 2012 series–his signature one that included 14 points, six in Game Two–saying it wasn’t any more exciting than the 2010 comeback from 3-0 against Boston on the way to that year’s finals. But of course, he remembers how special that Game Six was and one would imagine Crosby, a designee for abuse from his second game ever at Wells Fargo Center in 2005, does too.

Crosby was outscored by Giroux by a substantial 13 points this season. The best player in a Penguin-Flyer series should be worthy of discussion again.

3) Ilya Bryzgalov was barely better then Marc-Andre Fleury in that 58-combined goal series. We are not likely to see another one as wide open or with as many lead changes but of course, the best goalie in the series will win it, as he usually does. .

The Flyers couldn’t have asked for much steadier netminding than they received from Brian Elliott until his surgery in early February, but he is back for the playoffs on just two games warmup. Elliott was bad in the first one, and looked much more comfortable in the second, albeit with a small workload.

Both were pressure wins though as Florida forced the Flyers to go 7-1-3 in the last 11 to get in. So regardless of the assumption that the Flyer goaltending curse goes on and on and on–on the contrary Steve Mason was stellar in that 2014 series with the Rangers and Michal Neuvirth brilliant in 2016 versus the Caps–they really are at no disadvantage in this series. Matt Murray has been mediocre at best since his return on March 20. A Cup winner twice, the second time with practically the entire load, he doesn’t have a Fleury net below this time.

4) The Flyers would have remained a rising team even they had blown the playoff spot. Win or lose this series, GM Ron Hextall will make the same personnel changes going forward. But of course, it still was huge to get in to provide a large number of Flyers who never have been in the Stanley Cup playoffs before–Nolan Patrick, Oskar Lindblom, Travis Sanheim, Travis Konecny, Scott Laughton, Jordan Weal and Ivan Provorov–a taste of the level of intensity required to win in the post-season.

Having that many kids is not conducive to playoff success – or even playoff qualification for that matter – so experience is a definite Pittsburgh advantage. That said, based on Provorov’s unflappable rookie season, and spit in the eye of the sophomore jinx, we would be shocked if he is anything but outstanding. Provorov will be a Norris Trophy candidate for a decade. Enjoy his spring cotillion.

5) Which team is deeper? For large portions of the season, when the cap casualties seemed dearly missed, that did not seem like the Penguins. But that was before the Brassard trade. The Flyers, top two lines are as good anyone’s, but the absence of a center better than Val Filppula has left top-six caliber players like Simmonds and Jordan Weal unproductive.

The Flyer defense is not as good as it will be when two more high picks-Robert Hagg, who did nothing to deserve to become the odd man out, and Sam Morin–make the lineup and mature. Philadelphia will need Brandon Manning and Radko Gudas, the besieged third pair, to be a lot more efficient than it was during last six weeks of the season.

Both played their best games in a long time in the clincher over the Rangers, but of course, the Penguins will bring much more pressure. There is only so much that Dave Hakstol can shorten his bench if he plans to still have any wind left in his team by Game Six. If Manning and Gudas repeatedly are exploited, the Flyers can’t win.

On the other hand, can the Penguins triumph by being so reliant on the power play? Although Pittsburgh was five-for-13 on the power play in winning all four regular season meetings, and, statistically, the Flyers had the third-worst penalty killing in the league, Philadelphia also spent the third-least number of minutes in the penalty box.

Unless emotions get the better of them—admittedly, a Flyer tradition–the Penguins are going to have to hit on close to that regular season 36 per cent of their five-on-four opportunities to effectively win the series on their power play. Even though the Flyers 20.7 per cent success with the man advantage ranks only 15th, that rate is good enough to put them in the top 10 most years. Good as the Penguins are with the extra man, we don’t see any advantage to Pittsburgh.

When the series is over, the possession stats are the ones more likely to tell the story. The Flyers will be coming with an underdog mentality, plenty of energy, and, Letang aside, superior firepower from the back end. None of that tilts the series, unless Philadelphia exits the zone cleanly. This has not always been its strength. So give the Penguins a 55 per cent chance of winning because their transition game figures to be cleaner, not because their power play is superior.

At whatever strength, enjoy the star power. There isn’t another series with this much of it. So thank the format for an early-round playoff treat.
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