Season series: Flyers win, 4-2
Dec. 8:Penguins 2 at Flyers 3Dec. 29:Flyers 4 at Penguins 2Feb. 18:Penguins 6 at Flyers 4Mar. 18:Penguins 2 at Flyers 3 (OT)April 1:Flyers 6 at Penguins 4April 7:Flyers 2 at Penguins 4
Key injuries:Philadelphia -- D Chris Pronger (concussion, indefinite), D Andrej Meszaros (back, out for series), LW James van Riemsdyk (foot, out for series), C Daniel Briere (back, day to day), D Nicklas Grossman (lower body, expected to play). Pittsburgh -- None
Snapshot: Anyone who loves old-time hockey is salivating at the thought of these unstately state rivals renewing hostilities in the playoffs. It could well be the Penguins' toughest test of the postseason, and the Flyers will push them toothless grin and nail. And forget about home-ice advantage: Philadelphia has actually won all five meetings in Pittsburgh between the two teams since the Penguins moved into their new building. The rivalry even has the coaches on edge. You recall Peter Laviolette up on the lip of his bench just a couple of weeks ago as Pittsburgh's Aaron Asham and Joe Vitale were torpedoing his players. "If that's a sign of what's to come," says Pens captain Sidney Crosby, "then we're going to be in for a pretty tough playoff series."
The Flyers match up well with the Penguins, with an 8-2-1 mark against them over the past two seasons. If the Pens can survive and lick their wounds after this series, they may be impossible to beat, but getting that far will not be easy.
Nobody has Pittsburgh's center trifecta of Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal, and with all three healthy, there is no way Philadelphia can match up adequately with each of them. And that doesn't even take into account the fact that at times this season James Neal has been the team's hottest scorer. In recent days, it's been Pascal Dupuis.
Still, it isn't as though the Flyers can't score. Claude Giroux (28 goals, 93 points) has been as consistent an offensive threat as the league has seen all season, and likely linemate Jaromir Jagr (19 goals, 54 points) would love to stick it to his old team. The more the series becomes a physical showdown, the more a player such as gritty Flyers forward Scott Hartnell, a 37-goal scorer, can shine, because Pittsburgh's go-to forwards are not nearly as comfortable in the trenches. Yes, the Pens have some physical players, but the more ice time they receive, the less there will be for their stars who can truly light up the scoreboard. While the Flyers' 264 goals this season ranked second in the league, they still didn't equal the Penguins' league-leading 282. The more the games turn into a track meet, the cozier it will be for Pittsburgh.
Spotlight's on: Danny Briere. Crosby is healthy. Defenseman Kris Letang is healthy, and the Penguins' other forwards are healthy. The dinged-up player who needs to play at his best in this series is actually Briere, the pint-sized Flyer forward who traditionally shows a lot of heart in playoff wars. The 34-year-old forward has scored a robust 96 points in 97 career playoff games and 12 game-winners. He didn't play the last three games of the season after getting thumped by a clean, but nasty, open-ice hit delivered by the Pens' Joe Vitale. Though he isn't known for his backchecking, Briere has the speed to match the top Penguin forwards if he has to stay with them stride-for-stride. The Flyers desperately need him to match-up skill-for-skill in order to stay in the series.
X-factor for the Penguins: Sidney Crosby. Does he dive? Will the Flyers target him? Will the refs protect him? Will his teammates get thrown off their game while trying to protect him? Will the line of questioning about his yapping start to wear on him? Will one good thump knock him out of the series? For a man who could well be the Conn Smythe-winner on a championship team, there are more questions and insults surrounding Crosby than any other player in the series, thanks to all the controversy about his alleged preferential treatment. It isn't just a matter of how he will handle all this, but how the players on both teams react. That will help dictate the tone of the series.
X-Factor for the Flyers: Ilya Bryzgalov. It's okay if the spacey netminder spots faraway orbs that nobody else can see, just as long as he stops the black identified objects that are heading for his net. Bryzgalov's play has been up and down this season. His mental state can be easily frazzled under the microscope of a playoff series, especially as reporters remind him about the strength of opposition he is facing and Penguin forwards chirp at him after they storm his crease. Philly's horrendous goaltending last spring caused GM Paul Holmgren to shake up his roster to make cap space for a world-class goalie. Bryzgalov at his best can be that guy, but if he's anything less, the Flyers will have no chance.
The Pick: Penguins in 7