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.”