After squaring off in last spring's most memorable playoff series, the Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins will renew their heated rivalry Saturday in the City of Brotherly Love.
Philadelphia ousted the Penguins in six games during the opening round of the 2012 Eastern Conference playoffs. The series was marked by an incredible display of offense, or, if you prefer, a terrible display of defense, and also featured too many physical altercations to recall.
Game 3, which ended as an 8-4 win for Philadelphia, was particularly chippy and resulted in the suspensions of Pittsburgh's Arron Asham, Craig Adams and James Neal. Asham signed with the New York Rangers in the offseason, but still has one game remaining on his suspension.
In the end, the Flyers scored 30 goals over the six games and Pittsburgh notched 26. The 45 goals tallied through the first four games of the series set an NHL record for the most total goals in Games 1-4.
With all the bad blood and offensive excitement on display in last year's postseason meeting it's no coincidence these cross-state rivals are playing each other on the first day of action in this lockout-shortened season.
"It's a big game," said Pens head coach Dan Bylsma. "It's the start of the season and it's a divisional game vs. Philly. I think every player, new or guys that have been on this team for a while, know that rivalry, and are going to experience it come Saturday."
The Pens, of course, are out for a measure of revenge in Philadelphia on Saturday and having their superstar captain Sidney Crosby healthy at the start of the season is a good sign. Crosby, who was limited to only 63 regular- season games over the past two seasons due to concussion and neck issues, didn't make his season debut until late November in 2011-12.
Crosby torched Philadelphia for three goals and five assists in last year's playoff series. The 25-year-old has compiled an amazing 27 goals and 66 points in 39 regular-season games against the Flyers during his standout career.
The Pens not only have something to prove to the Flyers but also to the rest of the league. Since winning a Stanley Cup title in 2009, Pittsburgh has failed to make it past the second round of the playoffs and the club has suffered opening-round losses in each of the past two years. Despite those recent postseason flameouts, Pittsburgh still is one of the favorites to win the Stanley Cup this season, just like in 2011-12 before it was upset by the Flyers.
In light of his club's recent playoff struggles, Pens GM Ray Shero decided to shake things up with a blockbuster trade at the last draft. Pittsburgh swapped centermen with Carolina, sending Jordan Staal to the Hurricanes for Brandon Sutter, who is expected to take over the Pens' No. 3 centerman spot behind Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The Pens also received defensive prospect Brian Dumoulin and the eighth overall pick (Derrick Pouliot) from Carolina for Staal.
While the Flyers shocked many folks by upsetting Pittsburgh in the conference quarterfinals, Philadelphia was ousted in the next round by New Jersey. The Flyers scored 11 goals over the five games against the Devils, who clearly were better equipped to handle Philly's offense than Pittsburgh.
Philadelphia head coach Peter Laviolette will have a new captain this season as Claude Giroux takes over the "C" from Chris Pronger. While Pronger is still under contract with the Flyers, he hasn't played a game since Nov. 19 of last season due to post-concussion syndrome and it seems likely that the former Hart and Norris Trophy winner's career is over.
Giroux, 25, is the 19th captain in Flyers' history and is coming off a career- best 93 points in 2011-12.
While Giroux's new responsibility gives him added pressure, no Flyer will be under the microscope more than goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov this year. Bryzgalov had an up-and-down first season as Philadelphia's No. 1 goaltender in 2011-12, and the Flyers will expect a more consistent effort from the eccentric netminder in 2012-13. Bryzgalov received a nine-year, $51 million contract from the Flyers prior to the 2011-12 campaign and he has some serious work to do to prove he was worth that price tag.
"The unknown is our goaltending and injuries," Flyers GM Paul Holmgren said recently. "Ilya (Bryzgalov) has had a good camp. He's looked tremendous. I expect him to carry that on."
Philadelphia won't have forward Danny Briere on Saturday as the diminutive sniper is sidelined with a hairline fracture in his wrist. Briere suffered the injury while playing in Germany during the lockout and it's unclear when he'll be able to return. He's also expected to miss Philadelphia's game Sunday in Buffalo.
Before meeting in the playoffs last season, the Flyers won four of the six regular-season meetings against Pittsburgh in 2011-12. Not counting the postseason, Philadelphia has claimed seven of the last 10 contests in this series but the Penguins have won eight of the previous 11 encounters on the road.