NHL Playoffs 1st Round Preview: Philadelphia-Pittsburgh

The Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers have had each other in the crosshairs for several weeks, as the Atlantic Division runner-ups who would have each won the Northeast and Southeast Divisions over Boston or Florida respectively, instead settle for being seeded in the 4-5 spot on the bracket with Pittsburgh holding home-ice advantage. TheSportsNotebook previews the battle of West vs. East in the state of Pennsylvania…

I’m generally skeptical of the idea that we should expect a lot of scoring in any big matchup involving quality teams, but especially in hockey. But if we’re going to make an exception, this would be the series to do it. Pittsburgh and Philly have well-established track records of generating high shot volumes, speaking to their ability to play as a team, and they’ve got their share of individual stars who can finish the job.

Let’s start with Pittsburgh, who led the NHL in both goals scored and shots. The center position operates at some level beyond exceptional. Evgeni Malkin is one of the best in the game, a contender for the MVP award, a 50-goal scorer and a good passer. Sidney Crosby, when healthy, is one of the best to every play the sport and at long last, Crosby is healthy. Then on the third line there’s Jordan Staal, whose 25 goals and 25 assists would mark him productive enough to start elsewhere, including on playoff teams. On the wings, James Neal leads the way, and while he is on the injury report with “Lower Body” listed as the reason, I generally assume a guy is going to play at this time of year, until we hear something more definitive than mild question marks. Neal is a top scorer in his own right.

Philadelphia center Claude Giroux also shows up on the injury report and didn’t play when these two teams met in Saturday’s regular season finale. But my understanding is that Giroux, one of the game’s best assist men, was simply ill and there should be no issue in this series. Giroux’s prime target is Scott Hartnell, a solid scorer and pretty good passer on the left wing. There are no stars on the right wing, but the position is deep with respectable passers, and one of them is Jaromir Jagr. He may be 40 years old. It may have literally been another millennium when he was a key part of back-to-back championships for the very Pittsburgh team he faces now (the 1991-92 Penguin teams where Jagr rode the coattails of Mario Lemieux) and won an MVP award (1999). But if you think playoff experience counts for something in a series where every edge will be firecely contested, than keep an eye on Jagr.

For as good as these offenses are though, the goalies are a problem. Both the Penguins and Flyers play good team defense, ranking 4th and 7th in shots allowed respectively. But the bottom line ranking on goals allowed is 17th and 20th. And when you look at the save percentages of Marc-Andre Fleury at 91.3% and Ilya Bryzgalov at 90.9%, you see why. This isn’t free-throw shooting where 90 percent makes you great. A good goalie needs to be up at 92% and before you think that’s splitting hairs, consider the huge volume of shots they all saw over the 82-game schedule and how many saves encompass a single percentage point. Both goalies have been sieves this season.

The teams have similar profiles, but the devil is in the details. Pittsburgh’s a little bit better offensively. Fluery is a little less worse than Bryzgalov, a goalie who was supposed to make a big difference for a Philadelphia team derailed by this same problem a year ago. And the one area where they are different is the ability to kill penalties. For whatever reason, Fleury has been better here than in 5-on-5 play (or the Penguin defense just rises up in desperation when they’re a man down, I don’t know, but the results speak for themselves). Philly can’t kill penalties. Then let’s tack on the intangibles in that Pittsburgh is hot, having won 15 of 20 and the emotional lift given to this team down the stretch by Crosby’s return is hard to quantify. It’s certainly reasonable to think Philadelphia can win this series. I find it less reasonable to actually predict them to do so.