Flyers-Penguins playoff preview: What to expect from the Pittsburgh rival

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Penguins goaltender Matt Murray stops a shot with Flyers winger Wayne Simmonds (right) looking for a rebound during a March 25 game, won in overtime by Pittsburgh, 5-4.

Based on the regular season, the Flyers and Penguins are almost equals, separated by just two points over 82 games.

That suggests that their intriguing first-round Stanley Cup playoff series – which begins Wednesday in Pittsburgh – could go the seven-game distance.

Based on their head-to-head matchups, however, the series should be a short one. Led by superstar and Flyers-killer Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh won all four games against its bitter rival, including two in overtime, and scored five goals in each victory.

So which will it be? A cakewalk by the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins? Or a long, entertaining series because the upstart Flyers – who have an enticing blend of outstanding veterans and blossoming young players – seem to be peaking at the right time?

Before he knew which team the Flyers would face, center Sean Couturier said the first-round opponent didn’t matter.

“Any team in the playoffs is tough,” said Couturier, who had a career season with 31 goals, 76 points, and a plus-34 rating that placed him tied for third in the NHL. “To win it all, you have to beat the best teams.”

Poll

Will the Flyers knock off the Penguins in their playoff series?

The Penguins will have the home-ice advantage and that is a big deal because they went an imposing 30-9-2 at PPG Paints Arena. Conversely, Pittsburgh had the worst road record (17-20-4) among Eastern Conference playoff teams.

The Flyers blew leads in three of their four losses to the Penguins, including the two 5-4 overtime defeats in Pittsburgh.

In the OT loss on March 25, the Flyers outshot the host Penguins (45-32), won 61 percent of the faceoffs, and outhit them, 21-19.

“We had a lot of good stretches of play and just a couple of breakdowns here and there,” winger Jordan Weal said after collecting a career-high three points in that game.

The Penguins, Weal said, “capitalized on their opportunities We haven’t played a 60-minute game against that team yet, but if we meet them down the road, I think we’ll be able to put our full foot forward.”

The Penguins, of course, have a way of exposing teams because of their speed, skill, and experience.

Camera icon GENE J. PUSKAR / AP
Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby (87) who dominated the Flyers in the regular season, works the puck around Sean Couturier in the Penguins’ 5-4 overtime win March 25.

Pittsburgh, which doesn’t have as much depth as last season and has struggled to prevent five-on-five scoring, dominated special teams while sweeping the Flyers for the first time since 2006-07. The Pens went 5 for 13 (38.5 percent) on the power play and limited the Flyers to just a 2-for-16 showing (12.5 percent) in the four regular-season games.

You don’t have to be related to Scotty Bowman to know the Flyers must stay out of the penalty box. Pittsburgh has the league’s top power play (26.2 percent success rate) and it will exploit the Flyers’ weak penalty kill (75.8 percent, 29th in the NHL) if given the chance.

If the Flyers are going to have a chance, those special-teams numbers must improve. Ditto the numbers posted by goalie Brian Elliott in his two starts against the Penguins: a 5.31 goals-against average and .864 save percentage.

Elliott has played two games since missing nearly two months following core-muscle surgery. He looked rusty in the first one, a 4-3 win over Carolina, and was sharp but rarely tested in Saturday’s 5-0 blanking of the New York Rangers, a victory that clinched the Flyers’ playoff berth.

“Two games is not a lot, but you build off that, for sure,” Elliott said.

In five-on-five play, the Penguins are near the bottom of the pack in goals allowed (176). Only Carolina, the Rangers, the Islanders, and Ottawa – four teams that missed the playoffs – surrendered more five-on-five goals this season.

Sparked by MVP candidate Claude Giroux, the Flyers had a 159-145 advantage in five-on-five play.  They finished with 98 points (10 more than last season), an impressive total considering that they integrated several young players into their lineup and that they played most of the last two months without their top two goalies.

The Flyers go into the postseason on a roll. They collected points in 11 of their last 12 games (8-1-3) to earn their first playoff berth in two years.

“I think it’s a good thing to go through that kind of pressure at the end of the year, and to bring that into the playoffs,” Couturier said. “I think it can help us.”

Couturier will spend lots of time trying to contain Crosby or Evgeni Malkin.

Crosby (nine points) and Malkin (five) combined for 14 points in the four-game series against the Flyers, while Giroux (four) and Jake Voracek (one) had just five points. That will be one of the many story lines in a playoff matchup that was created when the Flyers moved past Columbus and New Jersey and into third place Saturday in the Metropolitan Division.

Columbus and the Devils sat some key regulars Saturday and they lost to Nashville and Washington, respectively, giving the notion they wanted to avoid facing the second-place Penguins in the first round.

Breakaways

The Flyers have won four of their six playoff series against Pittsburgh, including the wild six-game matchup in 2012, when the teams combined for 56 goals. … Weal, who was a healthy scratch in the last two games, and Giroux each had four points to lead the Flyers in the four games against the Penguins. … Nolan Patrick (plus-1), Radko Gudas (plus-2). and Oskar Lindblom (plus-1) were the Flyers’ only “plus” players against Pittsburgh. Shayne Gostisbehere, who was plus-10 this season, was minus-6, and Couturier was an uncharacteristic minus-5 against the Pens. … Penguins goalie Matt Murray had a 2.93 GAA and .923 save percentage against the Flyers this season. … The Flyers will get St. Louis’ first-round draft pick in June from the Brayden Schenn trade. Assuming they don’t move up in the draft lottery, it will be either 14th or 15th, depending on Florida’s result Sunday night. St. Louis can keep the pick if it’s in the top 10.

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