If you told me two months ago that the Penguins would be tied in points with the Flyers heading into the final two games of the regular season, I would've laughed you out of the room. It would've been pretty similar to the way the Penguins laughed us all out of the playoffs last May, winning 6-0 in Game Six of the Eastern Conference Finals.
But the Penguins are here. They're right on the Flyers doorstep and they deserve to be here. I mentioned yesterday that the Carolina Hurricanes have been the hottest team in hockey since the trade deadline. Not far behind them, however, are the Penguins, who have lost just two games in regulation since the beginning of March. 13-2-3 during that stretch. Holy hell.
Like the Hurricanes, a lot of the credit has to go to a new head coach. Since taking over on February 15th, Dan Bylsma and the Penguins have three losses. They're looking a lot like the team that made a run to the Stanley Cup Finals last season.
But for a while there, things were dim. The Penguins were in 10th place in the East, floundering near irrelevancy. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were performing well but the rest of the team was not. The offense was stagnant and the goaltending was inconsistent. Now ex-coach Michel Therrien preached a defense-first system that simply didn't bode well with a team built around offensive talent. Add that to that fact that the teams' best defenseman, Sergei Gonchar, had missed the entire season thus far, and you had the formula for a team that was prepped for early tee times.
And then in comes Bylsma. He changes the system, working to his teams strengths. It's not exactly a free-flowing offensive system, but it's definitely not the tight, almost Ken Hitchcockian style that Therrien instilled.
As a result, Pittsburgh's scoring is up almost a goal per game. Players who weren't scoring before now are. Ruslan Fedotenko has nine points in his six games alone. Jordan Staal's scoring is up. And Malkin and Crosby are still having great seasons.
On deadline day, general manager Fred Shero went out and got what Crosby was desperately in need of,
a pacifier a winger to feed him pucks. Bill Guerin came over from the Islanders and has tallied 11 points in his 19 games with the Pens, playing on Crosby's line.
On defense, a major reason for the Pens recent success has been the addition of Sergei Gonchar back into the lineup. He is to that defense what a guy like Kimmo Timonen is to the Flyers defense -- not that they do the same thing per se, but that they are both a calming presence on the blueline.
It's amazing how two teams, Pittsburgh and Carolina, have so much in common. They have had almost identical situations since the trade deadline and are scaring a lot of teams in the process. But there's the question of whether or not they can keep it up. The Pens, more so than the Hurricanes in recent games, have shown signs of faltering. They barely hung on to beat a terrible Tampa club on Tuesday and prior to that they lost two straight games -- one to Florida and one to Carolina.
A win against the Islanders in game number 81 doesn't really count since, well, it's the Islanders. They have one game left on Saturday against the Canadiens and that could be a better barometer of how they will play come playoff time. But, if I had to put my money down, I'd say that the Penguins are going to be formidable come next week.
They picked up a ton of experience last year on their way to the Cup finals and they have a very similiar team to the one they had last year. There are still questions about how much they miss guys like Ryan Malone and Colby Armstrong, but if they can score like they have since Bylsma took over, the Penguins are going to be dangerous.
Where the Flyers catch a break against Pittsburgh is that defense. The Philly attack is obviously the strong point of this club, and Pittsburgh's defense may not be ready to handle the absolute three-line barrage the Flyers can bring.
There's also the rivalry factor. The Penguins suck.
Overall, I'm confident the Flyers can beat the Pens in a seven game series. After all, the Penguins have two regulation losses since the 1st of March, but one of those came against the orange and black. It would be a grueling up-and-down, fast-paced, bloody seven games though, and that would not be ideal for whichever team moves on to the next round.
For more on the Penguins, head over to Pensburgh, an SBN site. Frank D and the boys have all you need to know about our hated rivals. I think you need a skirt to enter though, so watch out for that. Coming tomorrow in Broad Street Hockey's Postseason Preview, we'll take a look at the third and final team the Flyers could see in the first round. It's another Atlantic Division rival, those pesky New Jersey Devils.