Tonight’s the night we’ve been waiting for.
Tonight, the Philadelphia Flyers face the Pittsburgh Penguins in game one of their first-round series. While there is a lot of intrigue for the first playoff matchup between the Flyers and Penguins since 2012 when the Flyers advanced in six games, the Penguins have handled the Flyers fairly easily in the regular season. At 4-0-0, the Penguins swept the Flyers this year and only gave them two points via two overtime victories.
Even with their poor record against the Penguins, the Flyers can easily put up a fight and advance to the next round. Here are five keys the Flyers need to follow to beat their cross-state rivals.
It’s no secret that the Penguins have one of, if not the, most dangerous top-to-bottom forward lineups in the league. With Sidney Crosby centering the top line, Evgeni Malkin and Patric Hornqvist playing on the second line, and Phil Kessel hanging on the third line with Derick Brassard, the Penguins’ offense is potent.
The Flyers will be tasked with trying to shut down all three of those lines. It’s well-known that Dave Hakstol is not the best at adapting with oppositional matchups on the ice, and this will probably be a nervous point from fans. However, he has been putting a lot of trust in young players like Nolan Patrick, who played on average an extra 1:43 seconds per game in the last month of the season, and Oskar Lindblom, who has played 14:35 minutes per night. Patrick has even been given minutes on the first power-play unit, and its done wonders in helping him build confidence in the crease.
No matter what, all four lines are going to play against the the Penguins’ top three lines for some time. Hakstol must be smart about when and where he puts players like Jori Lehtera and Valtteri Filppula onto the ice. That means less putting the fourth line on after the top line played a 15-second shift or for a defensive zone draw, and more using the fourth line as a checking line against the Penguins’ lower lines.
The Penguins will have the last choice for line selections during the first two games of the series. The Flyers can’t allow themselves to get into a 2-0 series hole, so avoiding mismatches as much as possible will be key.
Keep the Penguins out of the slot
Through the four games between the Flyers and Penguins this season, the Penguins scored 20 goals to the Flyers’ 11. Looking further into where the goals were scored, the Penguins scored 15 from in or around the slot.
It will be important for the Flyers to keep the Penguins to the outside and limit their offensive opportunities in these danger areas. As mentioned, the Penguins’ offense will not make it easy for the Flyers to do this, but failure to do so will result in poor times for the Flyers and lots of scoring for the Penguins.
Equally important for the Flyers will be to take more shots from the slot and danger areas. The Penguins have done exactly what the Flyers need to do: they’ve kept them to the outside. Only six of the Flyers’ 11 goals have come from the slot. In terms of high-danger corsi for, the Flyers have a mark of 45%. That’s not good enough to beat the Penguins, and the Flyers will need to improve in this area.
Limit their penalties
Some how, some way, the Flyers finished 19th in the NHL in penalty minutes with 679. That’s extremely low for a team that has always been known to get into penalty trouble, and with the 29th best penalty kill percentage at 20.7%, it’s for the best that they stayed out of the box so much.
Except, against the Penguins, they did not. And they paid for it.
The Flyers accumulated 13 minor penalties against the Penguins this season, and Pittsburgh scored five times on the power play. The Penguins have the best power play percentage in the league at 26.2, so any time you give them an opportunity with the extra man, you’re going to have a bad time.
Combining the 29th-best penalty kill, the best power play, and the top power play line of the Penguins will not work in the Flyers’ favor. In a playoff series that is bound to be emotional, it will be important for the Flyers to keep their emotions in check and show a lot of discipline and restraint.
Giroux needs to stay hot
Claude Giroux has been the juggernaut behind the Flyers’ season. We know this.
During the last 10 games of the season, Giroux scored eight goals and recorded 11 assists for 19 points to reach 102 points on the season. The Flyers went 6-1-3 during that stretch, only losing in regulation to the lowly New York Islanders in a game the Flyers would rather forget.
Giroux has been hot all season, but he has heated up to another temperature in the last few weeks. If he can keep the fire he is playing with into the first round, the Penguins will have to be on high alert for Giroux during the entire series. This will open the door for Giroux’s linemates, Sean Couturier and Michael Raffl, to get high scoring opportunities as well. If Giroux can remain deadly, the Flyers’ chances of winning will skyrocket.
On the topic of Couturier, it would be nice to see him get back to his goalscoring ways. After being just a notch below the Rocket Richard Trophy competitors in the middle of the season, Couturier has only scored twice in the last 24 games. Although the Flyers haven’t had to rely on him to score and he does so much in other areas of the game, if Couturier starts scoring in this series, it’ll bode well for the Flyers.
Elliott needs to play consistent
Brian Elliott was a rock in goal for the Flyers this season. Even during the rough 10-game losing streak, he was providing the team with many opportunities to win. At one point, he was among the league leaders in even-strength save percentage.
After he was injured, the team felt the effects of not having a comfortable answer in goal. Michal Neuvirth went down, Alex Lyon shared some time with Petr Mrazek, and it seemed like no one could really pull away and lead the Flyers.
Elliott had a bit of a shaky return on Thursday against the Carolina Hurricanes, but there is no denying his performance on Saturday gave the Flyers a reason to feel relieved with a solution in goal. Elliott saved all 17 shots he faced, and although that isn’t many shots, getting a shutout to clinch a playoff berth breeds confidence in oneself as a goaltender, and Elliott certainly will carry that over into game one.
However, will Elliott be able to stave off the dangerous Pittsburgh offense? In two games against the Penguins this season, it was a tale of two stories for him. He saved 47 of 52 shots en route to a loss in November, but saved 10 of 14 before being pulled in January.
If the Flyers want any chance of winning this series, Elliott needs to stay consistent in net.
Game One is tonight at 7pm. Bring on the Penguins.
(Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images)