It’s Wednesday, the first day of the NHL playoffs. Today is one of the most exciting days of the year for the fans and those of us who cover the sport. If you look at the round 1 matchups, the Flyers and Penguins look like the show stealer of the first round.
Certainly the Flyers will have a game plan of being physical going into this series, as it seemed to rattle Pittsburgh the last time it happened in the regular season contest. Players such as Scott Hartnell will be asked to wear more than one hat in the playoffs since the physical enforcers will be dressing much less and possibly not at all.
The last time these two teams met in the postseason in 2009, the Penguins were the clear cut better team. It wasn’t close. The Flyers went into the playoffs with Martin Biron as their starting goaltender, a team that looked like it was starting to cave on head coach John Stevens, and many would say immaturity in a lot of areas. It cost the Flyers as they lost in 6 games after blowing a 3-0 Game 6 lead at home following a poor decision by Dan Carcillo.
Dan Carcillo’s 2009 Playoff Fight
Needless to say, the Flyers and Penguins are both different teams this year. And good news for the fans: I think the series will be much closer than it was in 2008 or 2009. Sit back and enjoy the ride. The Flyers went 4-2 against Pittsburgh in the season series this year(2-1 at Consol Energy Center), most of which was without Sidney Crosby. The last regular season game was meaningless since both teams had nothing to play for. You’ll have people argue that it “sets the tone” but when your first liners aren’t playing I don’t believe it sets anything. I think that’s a foolish statement. The real games start tonight.
Now, for the breakdown.
Marc-Andre Fleury has the Stanley Cup playoff experience. So does Bryz, but his recent memories of playoff hockey aren’t too fond. As for Fleury, this hasn’t been his best year by a long shot, but experience matters. Ilya Bryzgalov has been much better lately but one thing he hasn’t been all season is consistent. That’s a problem. Unfortunately I see it becoming a problem in this round as well.
Dan Bylsma and Peter Laviolette are both terrific hockey coaches. Both coaches have won Stanley Cups before. Laviolette tends to wear his emotions on his sleeve maybe a little more but over the years both styles have proven to be effective.
The Flyers for a big part of the year led in scoring. It then cooled off. The Flyers scored 264 goals this year while Pittsburgh scored 282. Pittsburgh also has a lot of momentum with Crosby back and Malkin going on a tear. I’m giving the slight edge to the Pens on this one.
The Flyers had a problem on defense but with the acquisitions of Nick Grossman and Pavel Kubina, they really turned it around. On paper the Flyers have a better defense, but what worries me is the crap show that was April 1. I see the series going kind of crazy like that. Both defenses were horrible. Kubina is a healthy scratch in Game 1 which is concerning seeing as the Flyers gave up 2 picks to get him, but Grossman has been good. If the D corps can stay healthy I don’t think they’ll be the folks who blow it. The Penguins D was not very good the last few weeks of the season. The Flyers had some inconsistency. On paper, because of grit, I give a slight edge to the Flyers. In reality, I don’t see either D tremendously outplaying the other.
Earlier this season the Flyers looked like a different squad. There was not much physicality. However, especially in the Pittsburgh games, they turned it on. Late in the year when we saw them get down 1 or 2-0, they would start hitting and take control of the game via grit and grind out some tough wins. I think the Flyers are more prepared for this type of play than Pittsburgh. It will be what keeps them in the series.
This matchup is so much closer than it would have been in 2008 or 2009. Pittsburgh was clearly better then. I don’t see that this year. Crosby is great but still not 100% himself yet. However, home-ice advantage is huge. Just like in 2009 when I felt the Flyers could have beaten the Penguins with home-ice, I feel that way this year too. The Flyers have a chance to win this series, but I don’t think they will. The NHL’s hottest team in the 2nd half will win this series because of the home-ice factor. But it will be a classic. It will be a series full of hate, with Scott Hartnell playing the ultimate heel role in Pittsburgh as he does to perfection. And no, I don’t really care that the Flyers have only lost 1 game at Consol Energy Center. This is the playoffs, and it matters. It matters much, much more.
The Pick: Penguins in 7
Around the League: NHL Playoff Predictions
New York Rangers vs. Ottawa Senators
Craig Anderson is good. Henrik Lundqvist is better. Paul MacLean is a good coach. John Tortorella is a better one. The Sens overachieved during the season. They won’t in this round. The Rangers have it together after a brief slump. They won’t be the 1 seed that chokes this year.
Pick: Rangers in 6
Boston Bruins vs. Washington Capitals
I can’t think of a worse matchup for the Capitals. The physical Bruins who would have drained any team mentally and physically in the first round got the team that is perhaps the most mentally soft in the playoffs. The Capitals get a game because the Bruins haven’t played their best hockey the last couple of months. If this were the Bruins of last June or last November, I’d be picking a sweep.
Pick: Bruins in 5
Florida Panthers vs. New Jersey Devils
The Panthers have been abysmal lately. They have been so bad that the Capitals almost caught them for the division title. The New Jersey Devils are a better team, plain and simple. Even with aging future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur between the pipes, I see the Devils handling this series in 6.
Pick: Devils in 6
Vancouver Canucks vs. Los Angeles Kings
This is probably not the easiest of opponents the Canucks could have drawn in the 1-8 matchup, but just like the last few years, the Canucks are the better team. They’ll win, even if they have to work hard to do it.
Pick: Canucks in 6
St. Louis Blues vs. San Jose Sharks
The Blues have been far from looking like a 2 seed the last few weeks of the season. The Blues went 4-0 in the season series against the Sharks. Even though I’m a big believer in matchups, due to the late season struggles I think it’ll be a long series. I think the Sharks do have a chance, but I see the Blues winning. Their organization needs this and I think Ken Hitchcock will have his young team mentally prepared.
Pick: Blues in 7
Phoenix Coyotes vs. Chicago Blackhawks
The Blackhawks are the better hockey team here. The Coyotes should be commended for all they continue to do with distractions all year long, but again they’ll be out in the first round. They are running into young talent with a bunch of deep playoff experience. The Hawks are hungry after falling just short against Vancouver last year.
Pick: Blackhawks in 6
Nashville Predators vs. Detroit Red Wings
This is a series I can’t wait to see. Poor Nashville always gets the hardest matchups in round 1. However, I think they have a chance to beat Detroit this year, and I think they will, with home-ice being the difference. Detroit’s road record of 17-21-3 stinks for a team over 100 points. The physicality and goaltending of Nashville I think will finally get it done in a round 1 war.
Pick: Predators in 7