When was my last hockey post? It’s been a while. Winter Classic? Not sure if I have a valid reason for my Flyers neglect, or if I even can still claim die-hard status, but when the hockey playoff season comes around, everyone starts paying attention. No other sport experiences the jump in intensity and drama that hockey enjoys during the playoffs. Playoff hockey is one of the few sporting events I know that can draw in a random person flipping through the channels. In Philadelphia, the playoffs have become an expectation, but so too has the unfortunate result that has followed for the last 3-plus decades. The great thing about the hockey playoffs, though, is just about any team can get hot and make a run. So, as the games start on Wednesday, we’ll belly up to the bar and see what happens.
Part of my Flyers cold shoulder, at least in terms of blog posts, has come from the strange circumstances of this season. Last summer the Flyers blew up their team. They shipped the faces of the franchise (Captain Mike Richards and Jeff Carter) out of town to clear the way for younger players and clear cap space for a franchise goalie. The goalie came in the person of Ilya Bryzgalov, who was given a franchise contract even if he didn’t have clear-cut credentials. It was a fresh start, though, and one that I embraced. I just wasn’t sure how quickly the team could come together. I didn’t know what to do with my expectations for the season.
As it turned out, the moves, with the exception of Bryz, couldn’t have worked out better. Given the role of lead dog, Claude Giroux emerged as an MVP candidate. Riding his coattails was Scott Hartnell with a career season. Rookies Matt Read and Sean Couturier have been excellent. Wayne Simmonds, who was part of the deal for Richards, surprised with 28 goals and brought a toughness and edge that immediately made him a fan favorite. The Flyers started the season scoring goals in vast numbers, and not a single fan I know laments the departure of Carts and Richie.
There was that goalie issue, though. At times Bryz was streaky, at times he was awful. His play and the loss of Chris Pronger sent the defense into a tailspin. The Flyers were exciting, but they couldn’t stop anyone. More importantly, they weren’t playing a brand of hockey that has success in the playoffs. The mid-season swoon, highlighted by bigger goalie questions than ever put a governor on expectations. Did the Flyers even have the chance to get hot and make a run?
Coupled with the goalie trouble is the presence of multiple stumbling blocks in the Eastern Conference. Early in the year, the Bruins looked destined to defend their Cup. More troubling has been NY’s season-long domination of the Flyers, led by Henrik Lundqvist, who the Flyers couldn’t solve in six losses this season. Throw in the Flyers’ first round opponent, Pittsburgh, and the road to the Stanley Cup Finals looks to be too tough a task to ask of this particular Flyers team. But, the final third of the season provided hope, a look at a team that was playing better, looking more solid on defense and in the net, the Flyers did enough as the season came to an end to make you think that maybe they did have a shot, maybe Bryz could steal a series. They’re certainly not favorites, not even to get out of their first series, but their play warrants a full fan investment.
Flyers vs. Penguins–Round One.
The Subplot: These teams hate each other. More than usual. This rivalry has exploded in recent years thanks to playoff matchups and honestly the presence of Sidney Crosby who is probably the most hated hockey player in Philadelphia. The boiling point this year was a game about ten days ago where a hit on Danny Briere late in the game set off a wild brawl that included Flyers coach Peter Laviolette nearly climbing into Pittsburgh’s bench. Along with the on-ice issues, there has been plenty of yapping. The Penguins have called the Flyers “scared,” Flyers coach Craig Berube called Malkin and Crosby “the two dirtiest players in the league,” and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. If you want soundbites and drama, this is the series for you.
Heath Issues: For the first time in a long time, the Penguins are healthy. The return of Sidney Crosby has made them one of the Stanley Cup favorites. In his absence, Evgeni Malkin turned into the biggest offensive force in the league. The Penguins are certainly healthier than the Flyers. Chris Pronger has been out so long, you almost forget he was part of this team. James van Riemsdyk, who emerged in the playoffs last year is still out of the lineup. More immediate concerns are the health of Danny Briere and Nicklas Grossmann (who has been a stabilizing force on defense). Both are considered likely to play, but we don’t know how close they’ll be to 100%.
Goalies: Ilya Bryzgalov is the wild-card in this series. He looked mentally checked out mid-season, but was perhaps the best goalie in the NHL during March. He’s just come back from a foot injury, but contrary to earlier in the season Bryz looks capable of handling the playoff pressure in Philly. For Pittsburgh, Marc-Andre Fleury has been solid, but he’s not a goalie that has especially frustrated the Flyers this season.
Pittsburgh’s Biggest Strength: Top-end talent. As good as Claude Giroux has been this year, the Penguins will still have the two best players in this series in Malkin and Crosby. Containing their dynamic potential and limiting the chances for Pittsburgh’s dangerous power play is going to be key for the Flyers. The Penguins probably also have an advantage on the blue line.
Philly’s Biggest Strength: Scoring depth. Giroux was 3rd in the league in scoring, which is rarefied air for a Flyer, but when it comes to putting the puck in the net, the Flyers have great depth. The numbers might not be there for every player, but from Giroux to Hartnell to Jagr to Simmonds and down through Read, Schenn and Voracek the Flyers have three lines worth of forwards who can score in bursts and flip a game with a few strong shifts. Also working in the Flyers’ favor is their repeated success in Pittsburgh’s building.
Prediction: This never felt like the Flyers’ year for me. Maybe that’s a good thing? We’ll see. The team came together better than I thought they would offensively, but there’s still a lot of questions on defense and in net. I think this is a team built for the long-term, and this year might end up being one where the rookies and Bryz got their feet wet. Also, Pittsburgh is very formidable opponent. Penguins in 7.
Flyers Kitten’s Prediction: Flyers in 3.