The two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins begin their quest for three with home-ice advantage. That’s clutch. Pittsburgh boasted the best home record (30-9-2) in the Eastern Conference.
The Philadelphia Flyers, meanwhile, starved off early adversity — doesn’t that 10-game losing streak feel like forever ago? — to put together a fine season. GM Ron Hextall‘s group is arriving ahead of schedule.
The rivals haven’t faced off in the playoffs in six years (a 4-2 Flyers series win). Thanks to a rotating cast — mainly on the Flyers’ side — some of the nastiness from that series has surely subsided. But there’s always a chance it resurfaces.
First line. Philadelphia’s top line features a Hart Trophy candidate in Claude Giroux and a Selke Trophy front-runner in Sean Couturier. Not too shabby. Pittsburgh’s top line, as usual, features Sidney Crosby and wings du jour. Never discount Crosby, the noted playoff performer who has been a Flyer killer this season (nine points in four games). Jake Guentzel didn’t have the breakout season many expected after last postseason, but he still has a big game reputation. Advantage: Flyers
Depth. The Penguins got a big boost at the trade deadline with the addition of Derick Brassard, giving them one of the top center trios in the league. Defensive depth, however, is a big problem. Pittsburgh has a mediocre blue-line group, without depth. But they still seem ahead of the Flyers, who have relied on a lot of young players this season. That depth concern also extends to the net, always a problem area in Philly. Advantage: Penguins
Defense. This is Pittsburgh’s biggest area of weakness. If they don’t advance in these playoffs, it will be because of a lack of quality defensemen locking things down in front of Matt Murray. The Flyers are slightly above the league average in allowing 2.88 goals per game — which is impressive considering their usual goaltending woes. Second-year defenseman Ivan Provorov is one to watch out for in particular. Advantage: Flyers
Goaltending. It has been an inconsistent season for Murray, but all he needs to do is get hot like he did in last year’s playoffs, and boy was he hot (22 twins in 31 starts; a 1.95 goals-against average and a .928 save percentage.) For the Flyers, goaltending is a question mark — as usual. Brian Elliott will get the early nod, but would anyone be surprised if one of his backups ends up seeing time in net? Advantage: Penguins
Special teams. At times this season, the Penguins’ power play has looked unstoppable (it’s tops in the league at 26.2 percent). That has been especially true in games against Philadelphia: In their four-game series this season, the Penguins were 5-for-13 (38.5 percent) on the power play while the Flyers were just 2-for-16 (12.5 percent). The Flyers’ usual power-play weapon, Wayne Simmonds, hasn’t looked like his dominant self on the unit. Philly’s penalty kill is among the worst in the league at 75.8 percent. Advantage: Penguins
Coaching. During the team’s 10-game losing streak earlier this season, there was speculation that coach Dave Hakstol might be fired. My, how times have changed. While it’s impressive that he turned things around, his record doesn’t match up with Mike Sullivan, who has engineered the two-time defending Cup champion. Advantage Penguins
Health. Third-line center Derick Brassard is important to this lineup, and he’s currently working his way back from a lower-body injury. The Flyers welcomed top goalie Brian Elliott back from a long-term injury, which should be promising news. Advantage: Flyers
Series pick: Penguins in five.