Wednesday May 7th, 2008

Regular-season series: tied 4-4

11/7: Penguins 3, Flyers 1

11/10: Flyers 5, Penguins 2

12/11: Flyers 8, Penguins 2

1/24: Flyers 4, Penguins 3

2/10: Penguins 4, Flyers 3

3/16: Penguins 7, Flyers 1

4/2: Penguins 4 Flyers 2

4/6: Flyers 2, Penguins 0

You would have cashed in on some pretty long odds if you'd gambled on a resumption of The Battle of Pennsylvania in the Eastern Conference Final. That the Penguins are here is not a huge surprise. They were, after all, the second-best team in the East, and with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Marian Hossa, they rank as the most heavily armed unit in the postseason. Their 8-1 playoff record is an accurate reflection of their dominance to this point. If their four-game sweep of the limp Senators was greeted with yawns, their impressive rout of the Rangers -- a team some viewed as legitimate Cup contenders -- proved their playoff mettle.

The Flyers, on the other hand, are playing with house money. A team that was still chasing a playoff berth heading into the season's final weekend, they've used an aggressive forecheck, enviable scoring depth, and a Bernie Parent-like performance from Martin Biron to stun both the third-ranked Capitals and regular-season champion Canadiens. Exceeding everyone's expectations but their own, they're heading into this series with nothing to lose.

The Flyers will employ the same banging style that powered those first two upsets as they look to generate scoring chances by physically wearing down the Penguin defenders. It's a plan that's worked so far. Despite Pittsburgh's array of stars, Philadelphia actually ranks ahead of them in playoff scoring: 3.52 goals per game to 3.44. Led by Daniel Briere (eight goals, 14 points) and Vaclav Prospal (3-9-12), it's a group with the tenacity to match its high skill level. But they'll have to be extremely disciplined in their approach, because the Pens hold two distinct advantages: special teams and team defense.

The Pittsburgh power play shredded the Rangers, one of the top penalty kills in the regular season, on the way to a series win in five games. The Flyers' PK, struggling at 77.2 percent in the playoffs, will be hard-pressed to keep Philly in the series if the Pens are given too many man-advantage chances.

Much has been made of the play of Pens netminder Marc-Andre Fleury, and justifiably so. His approach has been calm and economical, and while he's suffered a couple of obvious lapses in concentration, he's made the stops he's supposed to, and limited the secondary opportunities that killed him in the past. At the same time, he's received strong support not just from the blueline corps, but the forwards as well. The Jordan Staal - Jarkko Ruutu - Tyler Kennedy unit isn't getting the attention of the Malkin and Crosby lines, but they've played a big part in Pittsburgh's league-leading 1.89 GAA (that's nearly a full goal better than Philly's 2.83 mark). Watch for this group to play a decisive role in the series.

On paper, it looks like a gross mismatch -- the speed, creativity and talent of Crosby, Malkin, Hossa, Petr Sykora, Ryan Malone and the rest of the gang against the slow-footed redwoods of the Philadelphia blueline. But along with Derian Hatcher and Jason Smith, the Flyers also employ some skill and speed of their own in Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Coburn. It's a nicely balanced group that is as strong positionally as it is physically. The key will be their ability to assert their will on the game. Can they wear down the Pens' forwards with a continuous pounding, or will they take root as Crosby and the boys work their brand of firewagon hockey?

The 6-3, 200-pound center will draw the challenge of slowing down Malkin, arguably the best player in the world these days. He's not only tearing it up in the playoffs (14 points in nine games), but he killed the Flyers in the regular season, averaging nearly two points per game. Simply slowing him down won't be enough if the Flyers hope to advance. Carter and his line will have to outscore the Malkin unit.

The tattoo-covered winger is averaging a point per game in the playoffs -- a couple ticks better than his regular season pace -- but he had just one goal against the Rangers despite a number of excellent chances giftwrapped his way by Malkin. Malone's ability to fight through checks and get to the hard scoring areas -- and then cash in on his opportunities -- will be critical to that line's impact on this series.

Scott Wraight's Western Conference Final breakdown

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