Flyers’ X-Factors in the First Round

For the seventh time, the Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins will battle in a seven-game series to see who advances one step closer to the Stanley Cup. The Flyers hold the historic advantage winning four of the previous playoff series but the Penguins have won two of the last three. Overall, in the 35 postseason games played between the two teams, the Flyers have won 19 while the Penguins have won 16.

The teams have combined for 236 goals (Flyers – 121, Penguins – 115) including a record 56 goals combined in the 2012 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. It’s no surprise that these series in the past have been hard fought, close ones, so who will be the Flyers X-Factors and how will this year’s chapter unfold?

Breakout Season of Sean Couturier

Sean Couturier broke out in a big way this season with a career-high in goals (31), game-winning goals (six), assists (45), points (76) and plus/minus (plus-34). The eighth-overall pick of the 2011 NHL Draft was always known as a good defensive player but finally stayed healthy and contributed offensively as the team’s No. 1 center.

Sean Couturier, Evgeni Malkin
Sean Couturier, Evgeni Malkin (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

In the regular season series, the Penguins outscored the Flyers only 15-9 in even strength play and that is where Couturier will have to continue to make his mark. He recorded 62 of his points this season at even strength, which is the most of any player at plus-30 or above. He will have to be a factor when playing against Sidney Crosby 5-on-5. During the regular season matchups, “Coots” only allowed Crosby to score two even-strength goals.

His last playoff run lasted only nine minutes when Alex Ovechkin knocked him out of the series with a bone-crunching hit in 2016. With that memory fresh in his mind, the 25-year-old will be one of the X-Factors for the Flyers to defeat the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions.

The Moose Is Loose

Brian Elliott will become the 32nd goalie to wear the Orange and Black in a postseason game when he takes the ice at PPG Paints Arena on Wednesday. The 11-year veteran will be playing in his 42nd career playoff game with his fourth different team. He has only made it out of the first round twice in his career and one of those was back in 2011-12 with the St. Louis Blues, when he wasn’t the Game 1 starter.

The 33-year-old does have playoff experience against the Penguins, as he was the Ottawa Senators’ starting goalie in a 2010 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals matchup against Pittsburgh. He lasted only four games, giving up 14 goals on 95 shots on net. The Sens lost the series in six games as Crosby had five goals and nine assists.

Brian Elliott
Brian Elliott (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Elliot does have decent career regular season numbers against Pittsburgh with a 7-3-2 record, 2.87 goals against average, and .918 save percentage. Though with the Flyers this season, he gave up nine goals on 66 shots faced against the Pens in two starts. “The Moose” will have to steal the Flyers some games and be an X-Factor. He is finally healthy, well rested and in a prime position for that to happen.

Prediction Time

The only seventh game that the Flyers and Penguins squared off in was their first series back in 1989. The 1989 Patrick Division Final seventh game was won 4-1 by the Flyers, as Dave Poulin scored the game-winning goal while shorthanded. Mario Lemieux had a five-goal, eight-point game in that series and his 14 points during the series were only bested by Tim Kerr’s franchise record 15 points.

The last time these two teams played a series in 2012, Claude Giroux had 14 points (six goals, eight assists), and I see another huge series by the Hart Trophy candidate. This series will go seven games and the Flyers are 14-4-3 at PPG Paints Arena, including the playoffs, and will win this series in another close and entertaining series.