Flyers 2021-22 Opponent Preview: Pittsburgh Penguins

The Philadelphia Flyers made several attention-grabbing offseason acquisitions this summer. Most notably, they traded for Ryan Ellis, Rasmus Ristolainen, and Cam Atkinson to complement core players Sean Couturier and Claude Giroux. It remains to be seen if the changes will work to the team’s benefit. 

The Metropolitan Division has been arguably the best-contested division in the NHL over the past decade, thanks in large part to the arch-rival Pittsburgh Penguins and their captain Sidney Crosby. The Penguins have qualified for the postseason in 15 consecutive seasons. They have won three Stanley Cups during that span. 

While the Flyers and Penguins performed on a relatively even playing field from 2008-2012, the two franchises have headed in different directions since. Pittsburgh has surrounded Crosby with top-tier firepower while the Flyers have missed the playoffs in five of the past nine seasons.

Claude Giroux (Philadelphia Flyers), Sidney Crosby (Pittsburgh Penguins) (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Flyers finally appeared to be catching up to their cross-state rivals entering the 2020-21 season. They had won their first playoff series since 2012 in the Toronto bubble in August 2020, and the Penguins exited quietly in the qualifying round with an aging core of Crosby, center Evgeni Malkin, and defenseman Kris Letang. However, Pittsburgh refused to pass the torch. They finished the regular season at the top of the East Division.

2020-21 Record: 37-16-3 (77 points, first place in East Division)

Notable Additions: LW Brock McGinn, D Domink Simon, C Danton Heinen

Notable Losses: C Jared McCann, LW Brandon Tanev, D Cody Ceci, C Mark Jankowski, RW Colton Sceviour, C Frederick Gaudreau

2021 Draft: F Tristan Broz, D Isaac Belliveau, D Ryan McCleary, D Daniel Laatsch, F Kirill Tankov

Flyers 2020-21 Season Series Record: 5-3-0

The Flyers swept the Penguins in two games in Philadelphia to begin the 56-game season in January. It appeared as though they were finally seizing control of the rivalry. However, the Penguins took two of three consecutive matchups in Pittsburgh during the first week of March in a series that proved to be a pivotal turning point of the Flyers’ season. The final three games of the series were played when the Flyers were out of playoff contention. They won 2-1 in a shootout in mid-April and split two games in Philadelphia on May 3 and 5.

Penguins Mull Future of Crosby, Malkin, Letang

The Penguins hired Ron Hextall as general manager and Brian Burke as president of hockey operations during the 2020-21 season. The decisions led to discussions about how their window of opportunity had closed and an imminent rebuild. The front office changes have even spurred speculation about potentially dealing Crosby due to the “unavoidable mortality inherent to any dynasty” looming over their aging veterans.

Sean Couturier (Philadelphia Flyers), Evgeni Malkin (Pittsburgh Penguins) (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Both Crosby and Malkin are facing injury concerns entering the season, and the Penguins haven’t won a playoff series since beating an inferior Flyers team in 2018. On the surface, “increased age, a lack of playoff success, and shallow prospect depth” logically suggest that a rebuild might be in order. 

However, the product on the ice is the true indicator of a direction a franchise should take. A first-place finish in the temporarily-formed East Division last season gives no indication that the Penguins should consider their Stanley Cup window of opportunity closed. Hailey Salvian of The Athletic Hockey Show spoke about the window of opportunity and pointed out that the Penguins “keep on keeping it open” in a tough division even when the conversation centers around their demise. 

Penguins Weakness: Goaltending

The Penguins will enter the season with major goaltending questions. They found success at earlier points during the Crosby/Malkin/Letang era with Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury in the crease, but they turned to the tandem of Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith last season. 

Jarry started 38 games while DeSmith started 17. Neither goalie pronounced himself as a number one that the organization could count on long term. The Penguins fell in the first round of the playoffs to the New York Islanders despite controlling the play for a good amount of the series. Jarry started all six games and struggled to provide stability between the pipes. He finished the series with a .888 save percentage (SV%).

Flyers vs. Penguins in 2021-22 NHL Season

The Flyers enter the 2021-22 season with their own goaltending questions. They will depend heavily on 23-year-old Carter Hart to rebound from a disastrous 2020-21 season. The rivalry has a history of emotionally intense matchups and high-scoring affairs, and goaltending could be a back breaker for either team if the respective netminders don’t bring their sharpest efforts.

Carter Hart Philadelphia Flyers
Carter Hart, Philadelphia Flyers (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The depth of Philadelphia’s forward group is thought to be a team strength, but their lineup won’t feature the elite firepower the Penguins have when Crosby and Malkin are playing at full strength. Crosby has recorded an astounding 115 points in 77 career games against the Flyers. He has gotten the best of them in many unforgettable matchups. The Flyers should never expect to outmatch the Penguins if they can’t stop him. The overstated and long-lasting need to contain Crosby will be a major key to this division matchup in 2021-22.  

Schedule

  • Nov. 24, 2021 @Pittsburgh Penguins
  • Dec. 23, 2021 @Pittsburgh Penguins
  • Jan. 6, 2022 vs. Pittsburgh Penguins
  • April 24, 2022 vs. Pittsburgh Penguins

2021-22 Penguins Season Prediction: 4th Place Finish

The Metro is again expected to be a highly competitive division. The Penguins, through all their obstacles, were able to finish first in the East, made up mostly of Metro teams, in 2020-21. They are no longer the powerhouse that is a given to finish near the top of the division during the regular season, and they will need to prove the depth of their roster after losing Jared McCann and Brandon Tanev up front.

However, they have consistently shown better overall continuity than the Flyers have in recent seasons. Until there is tangible evidence of declining play, the Penguins should be picked to continue their impressive playoff appearance streak. The Flyers will need to earn their spot in the pecking order of the division if they want to be considered a stronger team than the arch-rival Penguins.


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