Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Pens-Flyers Preview

When the seeding was finalized and I knew the Pens were going to play the Flyers in the first round, I had a prediction: Pens in six.  My reasoning?  Just because.  That's it.  That's all I had.  I thought about it some more and read some analysis online, but I'm still not completely sure.

Here's why I'm confident:

The Penguins have three solid scoring lines and they're probably the best team up the middle across all four lines in the NHL.  They finished the season first in scoring.  They were fourth on the power play and third in the penalty kill.  They had 50 wins for only the second time in franchise history.  They finished with 100 points for only the seventh time in franchise history, the fourth time in the last five seasons.  That means all those great Lemieux and Jagr teams only had three seasons with 100 points.  I'm not here to say that the New Era Pens are better than the Old Era Pens, I'm just saying that it's impressive.

They have a ton of talent, a ton of playoff experience, and a proven postseason goaltender in Marc-Andre Fleury.  Dan Bylsma is a pretty good coach.

They have two of the best players in the world and the best first line in the NHL.  One of the things they were missing last postseason is that one line that strikes fear in the heart of their opponents.  This year, they have that line.  They also have Sidney Crosby playing on the second line.  Jordan Staal has been up and down anchoring the third line, but I he has the kind of potential (I'm still prepared to bank on potential, at least for another year) to be a game changer.

They also play great defense when everyone's healthy.  Kris Letang has been outstanding when he's been in the lineup.  Everyone focuses on the offensive side of things, but the offense tends to overshadow the fact that, for the most part, the Pens are a solid defensive team.  They have defensemen that can get back on an odd man rush and they have defensemen that can score.  They finished second in the league in goal differential and that speaks to the fact that they can keep the score down as well as put up points.

Everything points to a deep playoff run, which makes me nervous.

Here's why I'm nervous:

Hate to admit it, but the Flyers have themselves a great team.  They finished with 103 points, only five behind the Pens.  They were second in goals scored, sixth in the power play, and 17th in the penalty kill.  Not quite as impressive as the numbers the Penguins put up, but still very nice.  In addition, Philly has done a great job of converting on the power play against the Pens and they've been solid on the penalty kill as well.  That means you can throw the numbers right out the window and focus on individual match-ups and determination when the puck drops for real.

Philadelphia scares me more than any other team in the Eastern bracket.  I was hoping the Pens would win their division and the number one seed so that someone else would draw the Flyers in the first round.  The best way to beat the Penguins is to slow them down, beat them up, and make them play the game your way.  Not many teams have been able to do that this season, but Philly does it better than anyone.  They're not intimidated by the big names and high-powered offense that the Pens bring to the table.  They've played a lot of tight games against the Pens this season and won most of them.  Come playoff time, all games are tight.  If the Flyers manage to pull out a few squeakers, the season is over.

This makes me nervous and this makes me nervous.  Ten out of 12 ESPN analysts picked the Pens to win the series and ten out of 16 NHL analysts picked them to win it all.  There's a lot of leadership in the dressing room, including Bylsma, that's trying to ensure that this team isn't satisfied with popular opinion.  But, it's possible that the Penguins could enter this series overconfident and that could be their undoing.  The Flyers are too good and too dangerous to be overlooked.

On the other hand, this team wants to bring the Cup back to Pittsburgh and Philly is in the way.  They aren't satisfied and they are motivated.  If they make it past the Flyers in this round, they can make a very deep run. Will they make it past Philly?

I think that comes down to two things: Special teams and goaltending.  For me, The Flower is a constant.  He's a known quantity and a proven performer.  If he takes a step back or Ilya Bryzgalov takes a step up, Philly can win this series.  I don't think that either will happen, but it's possible.

Special teams means NO FIVE FORWARDS ON THE POWER PLAY and means that the Flyers draw a lot of minor penalties.  Since it's the playoffs, the refs will call the games looser, which means the Penguins cannot retaliate.  It also means that the Pens need to convert when they get the opportunity.  I think that they can.  If they convert at a higher rate than the regular season, this series could end early.  If it's a wash and goaltending remains constant, Pens win.  If the Flyers are able to win on special teams, regardless of how Fleury plays, they'll take the series.

I think the Pens make the plays they need to make.  Why?  Just... because.

Pens in Six

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