Penguins-Flyers Preview

The NHL lockout only seemed to drag on such an interminable
length that last season was a distant memory.

The reality is, April was only nine months ago, not so long that
it’s too hard to remember who won the first-round playoff series
between the Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins.

The Penguins-Flyers is a rivalry so big, it’s kicking off NBC’s
season coverage Saturday in Philadelphia. It’s an opener worthy of
the spot.

But the commercial, while highlighting stars Sidney Crosby and
Claude Giroux, missed one key part of the showdown: Philadelphia’s
six-game win over the Penguins in the first round of the Eastern
Conference playoffs.

“Claude Giroux and the Flyers have their sights set on revenge
for last season’s playoff loss to Pitt!” the voiceover said.

Ah, not so fast. Yes, the Flyers ended yet another season
without hoisting the Stanley Cup, extending a championship drought
that dates to 1975. But they did knock off the Penguins before they
were eliminated the next round in five games by the eventual
conference-champion New Jersey Devils.

They’ll likely have to get by the Penguins and Devils again –
and the Rangers, for that matter – if they want to reach the finals
for the first time in three years. Led by Giroux, named team
captain this week, and a roster that returns mostly intact, the
Flyers (47-26-9) believe they have the talent to make another deep
run in the postseason.

In fact, when owner Ed Snider was asked this week if he had any
area of concern entering this season, he was firm in his
assessment: “No.”

Even die-hard fans may not agree with the founder, though.

With Chris Pronger unlikely to ever play again following
multiple concussions and Matt Carle gone via free agency, the
Flyers’ blue line took a big hit. Andrej Meszaros (right Achilles’
tendon) isn’t ready to go and there’s no telling if the 37-year-old
Kimmo Timonen, coming off back surgery, can hold up in a short
season.

Snider is counting on the defense to support goalie Ilya
Bryzgalov.

“I really believe that we’ll tighten up a little bit to help him
out,” he said. “I think he’s a darn good goalie.”

Bryzgalov was all over the map, with his play and personality,
in his first season with the Flyers. He never quite warmed to
hockey-mad Philadelphia, and even his own teammates were often left
wondering what the Russian was really all about.

In the postseason, Bryzgalov had a 3.46 goals-against average,
partially because of the wild, high-scoring series against the
Penguins.

The Flyers turned every period into a defense-optional shootout,
one that exploited Pittsburgh’s inability to commit itself at the
end of the ice where goalie Marc-Andre Fleury works.

Philadelphia had a 30-26 scoring edge over the six games,
numbers more fitting of the local rec league than the sometimes
brutal two-month slog to the Stanley Cup.

The Penguins know that for all the firepower the game’s most
explosive lineup provides, if they don’t shore things up on defense
they’ll be home well before the calendar hits June.

“You have to learn from that stuff,” forward Pascal Dupuis said.
“We’ll try to take the positives from (Philadelphia) and try to
build off it.”

Given all of a week to put a roster together, don’t expect coach
Dan Bylsma to make drastic changes on a team that finished a
middling 17th in goals allowed last season. On most nights, a
lineup that features reigning league MVP Evgeni Malkin and a
finally healthy Crosby doesn’t need to play lights-out defense to
win.

Just a little, though, could go a long way to helping the
Penguins earn an easier road through the playoffs. Pittsburgh
(51-25-6) narrowly missed out on winning the Atlantic Division
title, the difference between being the top seed in the postseason
or dropping to fourth and facing its archrivals.

The Penguins did little to address the defense with personnel
during the offseason outside of trading Zbynek Michalek back to
Phoenix. Pittsburgh also traded for goaltender Tomas Vokoun to help
take some of the burden off Fleury to carry the team through the
99-day, 48-game regular season.

The issue, the Penguins insist, is execution, not a lack of
talent. Kris Letang is considered a Norris Trophy candidate and
Brooks Orpik provides steady leadership from the blue line. They
still believe Paul Martin is worth his hefty $5 million
contract.

Having two of the best players on the planet healthy and in
their prime helps, too. Malkin is coming off a career year in which
he led the NHL with 109 points while Crosby is nearly a year
removed from his latest bout with concussion-like symptoms. The
25-year-old superstar also has the peace of mind that comes from
signing a 12-year contract extension that will keep him in
Pittsburgh until he’s nearly middle age.

Yet that sense of security doesn’t mean there’s also a lack of
urgency. He spent the better part of two years away from the game.
It’s time to get going.

“We’ve got high expectations,” Crosby said. “That’s the way it’s
always going to be with our team and that’s the way we want it to
be.”

This matchup seems like the perfect way to get things
started.

“It’s going to be real easy to get up for that game,” Giroux
said. “Just thinking about it gets me excited.”