This time last year the Penguins were entering the playoffs without the services of their two biggest weapons on offense, but Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are ready to go this time around, making Pittsburgh a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.
Neither Crosby nor Malkin was able to play during Pittsburgh's seven-game loss to Tampa Bay in last spring's Eastern Conference quarterfinals. Crosby missed the 2011 postseason with a concussion that would keep him sidelined until Nov. 21 of this season, while Malkin was out with torn ligaments in his right knee.
Malkin rebounded with a Hart-caliber season in 2011-12, while Crosby seems to be back to 100 percent after playing just 22 games during the regular campaign.
Pittsburgh finished only one point behind the top-seeded New York Rangers in the East this year and that success had a lot to do with Malkin's dominant performance. The 25-year-old Russian was the only NHLer to reach the century mark in points this season, recording 109 points in 75 games. Malkin was second in the league with a career-high 50 goals and he posted five-point nights on four separate occasions throughout the season.
Of course, Malkin is no stranger to postseason success either. He was the first Russian player to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP during Pittsburgh's Stanley Cup title year of 2009, recording 14 goals and 36 points in 24 games that spring. All told, Malkin has 73 points (29 goals, 44 assists) in 62 career playoff contests.
Crosby played in just eight games from Nov. 21-Dec. 5 this season before finding himself on the shelf again with a recurrence of his concussion symptoms as well as a neck injury. Pittsburgh's captain finally returned on March 15 and played in his team's final 14 games of the regular season.
Crosby still managed to record 37 points (8g, 29a) in just 22 games this season and he has compiled an amazing 103 points (40g, 63a) in 63 contests since the start of the 2010-11 campaign.
Pittsburgh's offensive firepower is not provided only by the powerful duo of Crosby and Malkin, as the Pens claimed five players with 25 or more goals this season. James Neal's 40-goal season represented a career year for the winger, who was acquired in a trade with Dallas prior to last year's trade deadline. Chris Kunitz added 26 goals, while Pascal Dupuis and Jordan Staal each had 25 tallies.
Dupuis enters the first round of the playoffs on a tremendous hot streak, having recorded a point in each of the final 17 games of the regular season. It was the longest point streak in the NHL this season and only Crosby and Mario Lemieux and have produced longer point runs for the Penguins over the past 20 seasons.
The Penguins also boast one of the game's best offensive talents on the blue line in Kris Letang. The defenseman is often overlooked due to the presence of Crosby and Malkin, but Letang did some serious damage this season when he was healthy. Despite playing in just 51 games during an injury-plagued 2011-12, Letang still had 10 goals, 42 points and a plus-21 rating for the Pens.
Letang is particularly valuable as a steadying influence on the power play. Pittsburgh was tied with Philadelphia for fifth in the NHL this season with a success rate of 19.7 percent on the man advantage. The Penguins and Flyers also finished 1-2 in scoring this season with Pittsburgh leading the way with an average of 3.33 goals per game.
Paul Martin is paired primarily with Letang and had two goals, 25 assists and a plus-nine rating in 73 games this season. Pittsburgh head coach Dan Bylsma likes to use Brooks Orpik and Zbynek Michalek as the club's top shutdown pair, while Matt Niskanen, Deryk Engelland and Brian Strait provide depth at the back end.
Marc-Andrey Fleury was once again a workhorse in net for the Penguins this season, starting 64 of the club's 82 games while compiling a 42-17-4 record. The former No. 1 overall pick of the 2003 draft had a solid 2.36 goals-against average and .913 save percentage this season and is 41-28 with a 2.52 GAA in 69 career playoff games.
Thanks in part to the steady play of Fleury, Pittsburgh had the third-best penalty-killing unit in the NHL this season. The Pens stopped the opposition from scoring on the man advantage 87.8 percent of the time.
PHILADELPHIA FLYERS (5th seed, East)
REGULAR SEASON RECORD: 47-26-9
2011 PLAYOFFS: Defeated Buffalo 4-3 in conference quarterfinals; lost to Boston 4-0 in conference semifinals.
(Sports Network) - After getting swept by Boston in the second round of last year's postseason, Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren made big changes to his club over the summer.
In addition to signing former Phoenix Coyotes goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov to a nine-year, $51 million deal, Holmgren also traded away two of his team's best offensive players, dealing former captain Mike Richards to Los Angeles and shipping top sniper Jeff Carter to Columbus.
Despite the loss of Carter and Richards, the Flyers were one of the NHL's best offensive teams in 2011-12, tying Boston for second in the league with 260 goals.
Rising superstar Claude Giroux was the biggest reason Philadelphia was able to offset the departure of a large chunk of its offense, but Holmgren also helped his club by landing a trio of young, highly-touted forwards (Jakub Voracek, Wayne Simmonds and Brayden Schenn) in return for Richards and Carter.
Giroux finished third in scoring this season with a career-high 93 points, placing behind only Malkin and Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos. The 28-goal, 65- assist performance was easily the best season of the 24-year-old centerman's career.
Giroux centers Philadelphia's formidable top line and is flanked on the wings by Scott Hartnell, who is also coming off a career-best season, and future Hall of Famer Jaromir Jagr.
Hartnell notched personal bests with 37 goals and 67 points while also finishing first on the team with a plus-19 rating and second with 136 penalty minutes. His 16 power-play goals were also second in the NHL to Pittsburgh's Neal, who led the league with 18 scores on the man advantage.
Jagr, meanwhile, made a successful return to the NHL this season after signing a one-year deal with the Flyers following a three-year stint playing in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League. The former Pittsburgh great recorded 19 goals and 54 points in 73 games this year and is now ranked eighth on the NHL's all-time scoring list. Jagr also burned the Penguins this season, posting four goals and an assist in six matchups against his old club.
Giroux, Hartnell and Jagr finished 1-2-3 in points for the Flyers this year and two of Philadelphia's next three leading scorers were acquired in the Richards and Carter deals.
Simmonds, who came over with Schenn from LA in the Richards' trade, set a career-best with 28 goals, tying Giroux for second on the team. Voracek had 18 goals and 31 assists to tie him with Simmonds at 49 points in his first season with Philadelphia. The Czech winger was acquired from Columbus in the Carter trade.
Also at 49 points for the Flyers this season was veteran sniper Danny Briere, who had a down year with 16 goals and 33 assists. Briere is questionable for the start of this series with a back injury suffered after absorbing a clean hit from Pittsburgh's Joe Vitale on April 1. Having Briere in the lineup will be a key for the Flyers in this series, as the diminutive forward is a proven playoff performer with 96 points in 97 career postseason games. He has been practicing and is considered questionable for Game 1.
All told, the Flyers had 11 players with 10 or more goals this year, including impressive rookies Matt Read (24g) and Sean Couturier (13g). Couturier, who is only 19 years old, was also a product of the Carter trade, as he was selected by the Flyers with the eighth overall pick of the 2011 draft, a pick that was acquired from Columbus in the Carter trade.
Veteran forward Max Talbot added a career-high 19 goals in his first season with Philadelphia. Talbot had played his first six seasons with the Penguins before signing with the Flyers in the offseason and he was the hero for Pittsburgh in Game 7 of the 2009 Stanley Cup Finals, scoring both goals to lead his team to a 2-1 win over Detroit.
The biggest obstacle Philadelphia was forced to overcome this season was the loss of top defenseman and team captain Chris Pronger to a concussion. Pronger, who was one of the best players for the Flyers during the team's run to the Cup Finals in 2010, last played on Nov. 19 and has been shut down for the entire season, including the playoffs.
Even without Pronger, the Flyers have a solid group of defensemen with steady veteran Kimmo Timonen leading the way along with Matt Carle and Braydon Coburn. Holmgren bolstered the back end by trading for Nicklas Grossmann and Pavel Kubina before the deadline and both players have brought toughness and shot-blocking ability.
Grossmann impressed the Flyers so much during his 22-game stint in Philly that the club signed the former Dallas Stars defenseman to a three-year extension. The Swede sat out the last three games of the regular season with a lower-body injury, but is expected to be ready for Game 1 of this set.
Bryzgalov, meanwhile, suffered through a pitiful start to his Flyers career before finally looking like a franchise goaltender down the stretch. The 31-year-old Russian was 33-16-7 with a 2.48 GAA and .909 save percentage this year and was named the NHL's First Star of the Month for March, going 10-2-1 with a 1.43 GAA and four shutouts last month.
Philadelphia's No. 1 netminder did miss some time at the end of the season due to a chip fracture in his right foot, but he returned to crease last week and is ready for the playoffs.
Bryzgalov has posted average numbers in the playoffs during his career, going 12-13 with a 2.55 GAA in 27 games, but he did not fare well in the postseason towards the end of his tenure in Phoenix. He enters this series having lost five straight playoff starts and surrendered 23 goals over that stretch.
A sore spot for the Flyers this year has been stopping the opposition's power play, as Philadelphia was ranked 17th in the NHL in penalty killing. Head coach Peter Laviolette's troops will surely need the PK to be better in this series against a Pittsburgh team that is loaded with scoring options.
Quite simply, this series between the NHL's Pennsylvania clubs is the marquee matchup of the opening round.
The Flyers and Penguins are bitter rivals and the clubs' distaste for each other was certainly on display when the teams met on April 1 in Pittsburgh. Philadelphia posted a 6-4 win in that game, but the lasting image of that contest came in the closing minutes when Laviolette stood on top of the boards to yell across the benches at Bylsma.
Laviolette was angered by Bylsma's decision to put his fourth line out with the game out of reach. That decision further incensed Laviolette when Briere was injured by Vitale's heavy check on the ensuing shift. After the game, Laviolette called Bylsma "gutless" to add even more fuel to the fire for this series.
Philadelphia won four of six meetings with the Penguins this season and one of Pittsburgh's victories came this past Saturday, a week after the game that featured Laviolette's bench-balancing antics. That most recent contest had an exhibition feel to it since both the Pens and Flyers were already locked into the conference's fourth and fifth seeds, respectively.
That home win was also the first for Pittsburgh over the Flyers at Consol Energy Center, where Philadelphia is 5-1 since the building opened prior to the beginning of last season. Still, even with its recent struggles at home against the Flyers, Pittsburgh can't be too upset with having home-ice advantage for this best-of-seven series.
Philadelphia outscored the Pens by a slim 22-20 margin over the six encounters between the Atlantic Division rivals in 2011-12. Giroux led the Flyers with eight points (1g, 7a) in five games versus Pittsburgh, while Malkin had three goals and six assists in six tests against the Flyers. Crosby managed to post a goal and three helpers in just three games versus Philadelphia.
Bryzgalov was 2-0 with a 2.59 GAA in three games during the season series, while Fleury struggled a bit against the Flyers, going 1-3-1 with a 3.41 GAA. However, Fleury is the more proven goaltender in the playoffs and he has frustrated Philadelphia in recent postseason encounters, compiling an 8-3 mark and a 2.04 GAA in 11 career playoff meetings against the Flyers.
This marks the sixth all-time playoff series between the Flyers and Penguins. Philadelphia won the first three matchups, but Pittsburgh has taken the last two postseason encounters, both of which came in the Crosby-Malkin era. The last series was in the opening round of the 2009 playoffs and Pittsburgh claimed that series in six games en route to a Stanley Cup title.
Although Pittsburgh can claim the two-best players in this series thanks to their powerful combination of Crosby and Malkin, these two teams are evenly matched on the whole. This figures to be a physical and highly-charged battle and it shouldn't surprise anybody if this series goes the distance.
Philadelphia has relied heavily this season on rookies like Read and Couturier, while Pittsburgh is a team that is more prepared to win now. In the end, expect Crosby, Malkin and Co. to find a way to win this war of attrition.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Penguins in 7