The 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs will get underway tonight in Pittsburgh, as the Penguins host the rival Philadelphia Flyers at Consol Energy Center for Game 1 of the best-of-seven Eastern Conference quarterfinals.
The Flyers and Penguins play in the Atlantic Division and the cross-state foes are both coming off 100-point seasons. With 108 points, Pittsburgh finished just one back of the New York Rangers for first place in the division as well as the top seed in the Eastern Conference. Philadelphia was five points behind the Penguins, but the Flyers did get the better of Pittsburgh during the regular season, winning four of the six encounters between the clubs.
Although, the fourth-seeded Penguins have home-ice advantage at the start of this series, Pittsburgh has not fared well against the Flyers at home since opening Consol Energy Center, going 1-5 against Philly since the building replaced Mellon Arena at the start of the 2010-11 season. The first two games of this series, including Friday's second meeting, will take place in Pittsburgh.
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 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 and was the only NHLer to reach the century mark in points this season, recording 109 points on a career-high 50 goals and 59 assists.
Meanwhile, Crosby seems to be back to 100 percent after playing just 22 games during the regular campaign. 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 (8 goals, 29 assists) 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.
The Penguins back end is led by the dazzling skill of top defenseman Kris Letang and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury is no stranger to playoff success, having backstopped Pittsburgh to a title in '09. Fleury is 41-28 with a 2.52 GAA in 69 career playoff games.
The Flyers are built a bit differently than they were last season, when they swept out of the second round of the playoffs by Boston. In addition to signing former Phoenix Coyotes goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov to a nine-year, $51 million deal over the summer, the Flyers 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.
Yet, despite dealing away two of its top scoring threats, the Flyers still finished tied with Boston for second in the league in offense. Only Pittsburgh scored more goals (273) during the 2011-12 regular season.
Rising superstar Claude Giroux was the biggest reason Philadelphia was able to offset the departure of a large chunk of its offense, but Flyers GM Paul Holmgren also helped his club by landing a trio of 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.
Jagr 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. The 40-year-old Czech has 181 points (77 g, 104a) in 169 career playoff games.
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.
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.
The Flyers hope proven playoff performer Danny Briere is ready to play tonight after missing the final three games of the regular season. Briere, who has 96 points in 97 career playoff games, suffered a back contusion as a result of a clean hit by Pittsburgh's Joe Vitale on April 1 and is questionable for tonight.
Philadelphia defenseman Nicklas Grossmann is expected to play after also sitting out the final three games of the regular season with an injured right knee.
This series marks the sixth all-time playoff meeting 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.