The 2007/08 Eastern Conference Finals will commence Friday night at Mellon Arena as the Pittsburgh Penguins play host to the cross-state rival Philadelphia Flyers. Pittsburgh, the 2nd seed in the East, owns the home ice advantage against the 6th-seeded Flyers. The Penguins advanced to the Finals by sweeping the 7th-seeded Ottawa Senators in round 1 and beating the 5th-seeded New York Rangers in 5-games in round 2. The Flyers advanced by beating the 3rd-seeded Washington Capitals in 7-games and then knocking off the 1st-seeded Montreal Canadiens in 5-games. The Finals promise to be a wild ride between two teams that have a healthy dose of dislike for one another, and a tremendous amount of skill and momentum. So how do these two teams match up? Let’s take a look.
The Pittsburgh Penguins have been an unstoppable force on the ice so far in the playoffs having lost just 1-game through 2-rounds, a league best. The Penguins have excelled on the play of their special teams, their defense and stellar netminding. Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury has been phenomenal in net in the playoffs, leading the league with a 0.938 save percentage, a 0.889 win percentage, and 2 shutouts. He is also 3rd in goals against average at 1.76 behind Detroit’s Chris Osgood (1.52) and Dallas’ Marty Turco (1.73). The Penguins have given up the fewest goals per game at just 1.89, and own the best penalty kill of all remaining teams at 89.5% (second only to Boston who finished at 90.9%). The Penguins’ power play has been highly effective at 23.4%. The Penguins have found balanced scoring across all 4-lines with 12-of-13 forwards recording at least one goal, and 18-of-19 players scoring at least one point in 9 playoff games. The Penguins’ star players have lived up to their expectations with Sidney Crosby (2G, 12A) and Evgeni Malkin (6G, 8A) combining for 14-points each and Marian Hossa notching 10-points (5G, 5A). The only significant weakness that the Penguins have exhibited in the playoffs has been their performance in the face-off circle, where they trail the league at 46.3%. It hasn’t burned them yet, however, as they have won 8 of their 9 games and outscored their opponents convincingly 31-17.
The Philadelphia Flyers have bounced back from being the worst team in the league last season to knocking off the #1 seeded Canadiens and #3 seeded Capitals through the first 2 rounds of the playoffs this season. The Flyers offense has produced both in 5-on-5 play and on the powerplay. The tandem of Pittsburgh native R.J. Umberger (9G, 2A) and Daniel Briere (8G, 6A) have combined for 17-goals through 12-games, and the Flyers are 2nd in Goals Per Game at 3.58. Mike Richards (4G, 7A) and Vaclav Prospal (2G, 9A) are also in double-digit point territory. The Flyers powerplay is clicking at 24% effectiveness. Their penalty kill, however, has been much less effective at 77.2%. In the net, Martin Biron has been notably solid, but his numbers pale in comparison to Pittsburgh’s Fleury. Biron’s 2.72 GAA is 8th in the playoffs and his 0.914 save percentage is 3rd among the four remaining starting goalies. The Flyers have built confidence and momentum by beating two higher seeded teams in the first two rounds, to include ousting the #1 Montreal Canadiens in just 5-games. The Flyers outscored their opponents 43-34 in 12-games.
Through the regular season, the Flyers beat the Penguins in 5 of 8 matchups and outscored them 28-23. However, the Penguins 3 wins came in the last 4 meetings of the two teams in which the Penguins outscored the Flyers 15-8. Regardless, the regular season has very little relevance now that both teams have battled into the Eastern Conference Finals. It is a whole new season, and the first team to win 4-games will advance to the Stanley Cup Championship.
The key to this series is likely to be all about special teams and defensive play. If the Penguins can use their speed and tenacity to draw Philadelphia into the penalty box, the Penguins should be able to dominate the series with their exceptional offense and superior netminding. If the Penguins find themselves in penalty trouble, they will need Marc-Andre Fleury and the penalty kill to continue to shut down the opposition as they have in the first 9-games. With the uncertainty of Max Talbot’s injury status, the penalty kill could be less effective than it has been through the first two rounds, so the Penguins will need to be responsible and focused to stay out of the box. The Penguins will also need a big series out of role players Gary Roberts, Jarkko Ruutu and Georges Laraque to keep the ever-gritty Flyers in check.
In summary, I believe that the Penguins have the edge in their special teams, defensive play, and goaltending, all areas that win playoff games. The Penguins offense is also second to none, with Marian Hossa living up to his potential in the post-season and Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Sergei Gonchar, Petr Sykora and Ryan Malone all continuing to perform. I don’t believe that the Flyers defense will ultimately be able to stop the Penguins and Martin Biron’s play, though notable, won’t be enough to douse the firepower of the Penguins offensive stars. That being said, this promises to be a very chippy and entertaining series between 2-bitter rivals, and the Penguins will need to play their best hockey to avoid disappointment. Hockey fans rejoice! We are picking the Penguins to win the series in 6-games and advance to the Stanley Cup Championship series.
Let’s Go Pens!