This is hockey, baby. These are the playoffs.
The Flyers are back in the postseason and face a familiar foe in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals: the Pittsburgh Penguins, the in-state rivals with whom the Flyers have shared some fantastic playoff series in recent memory.
There was 2008, when the Penguins vanquished a dogged fight from the undermanned Flyers in the Eastern Conference Finals. A year later there was that fateful Max Talbot/Daniel Carrillo fight, but we won’t elaborate too much there. Then there was 2012, a series for the ages that had just about everything: Hall of Famers, drama, hat tricks, Hulkamania, and much more. The Flyers know that playoff run should have ended with a Cup, too, but they flamed out after exhausted their energy in a back-and-forth series with these same Penguins.
Claude Giroux knows, that’s for sure.
Fast forward eight years, Giroux just capped the best season of his NHL career with 101 points. However, the Flyers have won just two playoff series since that memorable Cup Finals run and have missed the playoffs in three of the last six years altogether.
Now 30, Giroux has willed his Flyers to the playoffs once again, notching a hat trick in a playoff-clinching win over the Rangers when his team absolutely needed to have it. In 11 games down the stretch, Giroux piled up 19 points (8G, 11A) to help the Flyers stave off the red-hot Panthers for a postseason berth.
Back in the playoffs, the now-veteran Flyers captain leads his club against the arch rival Penguins and Sidney Crosby. Sure there’s Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and Kris Letang, but the Flyers and Penguins have almost always been about the duel between the teams’ two biggest starts in No. 28 and No. 87 since that wild playoff series back in 2012. Giroux set the tone all series, culminating with a thunderous hit on Crosby to start game six before scoring the games first goal moments later.
In the 2018 edition, Giroux will need to set the tone again as the Flyers look to upend the Penguins and dethrone the back-to-back Stanley Cup champions.
The good news for Giroux is that he’ll have a ton of help again, but while the likes of Sean Couturier, Jake Voracek, and Wayne Simmonds remain; fresh faces like Nolan Patrick, Oskar Lindblom, Shayne Gostisbehere and Ivan Provorov will have to impact the series if the Flyers are to top the Penguins this time around.
Young, fresh legs should help the Flyers try to contain one of the faster teams in the league. The Penguins are quick in transition, get scoring from all four lines and can trot out a third line featuring Derick Brassard. At their best the Flyers are top heavy with Giroux on the wing of Couturier and some combination of Travis Konency, Voracek or Simmonds. But Patrick has been strong since the turn of the calendar to 2018 and has developed great chemistry with Lindblom to give the Flyers a viable second scoring line.
After that there’s a drop off that is concerning in terms of a long series. Valtteri Filppula’s play has dropped off a cliff as Patrick’s has risen, and the Flyers just hope for passable defensive play from their third and fourth lines as opposed to depth scoring like the Penguins get. Any offense the Flyers get outside of their top six and from their blue line is few and far between and obviously a huge boon.
The biggest key perhaps for the Flyers is to stay disciplined, as the Penguins owned the NHL’s best power play during the regular season while the Flyers’ had the 29th-ranked penalty kill. But if the last time these two teams hooked up in the playoffs was any indication, there will be penalties aplenty to go around for both clubs.
In goal the Penguins feature Matt Murray, who has led the team to a pair of Stanley Cups, but had an injury-plagued regular season that contributed to his inconsistencies (.907 save percentage, 2.92 goals-against average). Despite a rocky year, the 23-year-old is 22-9 with a .928 save percentage and a 1.95 goals-against average to go with three shutouts in 32 career playoff games.
Returning just in time for the end of the regular season for the Flyers was Brian Elliott, of course. The veteran didn’t do much in the season finale, but has plenty of Stanley Cup playoff experience. In 41 postseason games, he’s 15-22 with a .908 save percentage and a 2.60 goals-against average.
Though the Penguins swept the Flyers this season, the regular season is over and a new season has begun. With that said, here are some keys to game one in what hopefully is a long, competitive series between the two.
Three keys for game one:
Manage the puck
The Flyers have some guys with playoff experience, but also have some very green youngsters getting their first taste of postseason action. Guys like Nolan Patrick, Ivan Provorov, and Travis Konecny are getting their first taste of playoff hockey and will be tested early playing key roles for coach Dave Hakstol.
Pittsburgh is a fast team that can roll speed with all four lines. When the Flyers have lines optimized they can match speed with maybe three lines if you’re being slightly generous. That means that Hakstol has to manage the matchups as they evolve early. The players also need to manage the puck well, avoid costly turnovers that lead to odd-man rushes that the Penguins have just burned the Flyers on in recent seasons.
Make no mistake, the Flyers need to score to have any chance in game one and this series, but poor puck management will have them chasing the faster and more skilled club. While veterans should be able to be counted on to be smart with the puck, the Flyers have some rogue agents that make things interesting from time to time. If they manage the puck well in all three zones, they’ll put themselves in position to steal game one. If not, we’ll be seeing a bunch of odd-man rushes in on Brian Elliott.
Get pucks on net
As said above, Matt Murray did not have a great year and didn’t exactly settle in down the stretch either. The Flyers have enjoyed some success against Murray in his young career and should try and get both bodies and pucks at the netminder early and often. He’s a guy that can go on a pretty dominant run as evidenced by the last couple playoff runs, so not allowing him to settle in and get confident early is going to be huge.
The Flyers are at their best offensively when they get both pucks and bodies to the net, with the defense finishing second in the entire NHL in terms of goals scored. Sometimes the Flyers can get too passive and pass on good but not great shots in search of the pretty or perfect play. Playoff hockey is usually far from pretty, and mucking things up in front of Murray proved to net good results for the Flyers the last time they saw him.
Of course, the other half of getting pucks to the net is to get them on net. Those lazy wrist shots from the blue line with no screens in front won’t be good enough. The Flyers need to make a concerted effort to find shooting lanes to test Murray early and not let him get comfortable. Michael Raffl, Simmonds, and Patrick have proven to be great net-front presences and they should park in front of Murray and let the shooting gallery begin for the other guys.
There will be blood, there will be penalties; that’s just playoff hockey. The Flyers need to —as always— avoid the selfish, unnecessary penalties that give the Penguins additional chances that they sure don’t need to score. Just ask Jake Voracek how that went last time around.
It’s beating a dead horse with this team, but this is one area that will most definitely carry over from the regular season to the playoffs. The Flyers’ penalty kill is just bad, they try to block shots when they should let them through, they stink at clearances and have marking issues all over the ice. The Penguins’ power play is deadly, and can make a mockery of even the good penalty kill units around the league.
The easiest way to combat the Flyers’ glaring weakness and the Penguins’ obvious strength is to just play as disciplined hockey as you can. Playoff power play chances generally even out as officials try to stay out of the way as much as possible. Obvious calls are made, but it’s the extra ones like a cheap high-stick here or a frustration play are the ones that prove to be killers.
If the Flyers can kick some of the undisciplined penalties, they can absolutely make a game and a series of this thing. But if they’re off running around taking dumb penalties they’re going to be fishing a ton of pucks out of the back of their own net in game one.
Flyers projected lineup
Giroux - Couturier - Konecny
Lindblom - Patrick - Voracek
Raffl - Filppula - Simmonds
Lehtera - Laughton - Read
Provorov - Gostisbehere
Sanheim - MacDonald
Manning - Gudas