The playoffs are here.
The Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins will begin battle tonight in game one of a best-of-seven series. We’ve gone over the storylines from the regular season, and why Giroux deserves to win the Hart, so let’s focus on the series at hand.
Here are five storylines to watch in the Flyers’ first-round series against the Penguins.
A clean slate for the postseason
Every team enters the playoffs with a clean slate. A zero-and-zero record until their first game. It doesn’t matter how well they performed in the regular season overall or against a certain team. It’s a best-of-seven series that anyone can take home.
This is fantastic news for the Flyers, who were swept in their season series against the Penguins. They did earn two points with two overtime losses, however, but were severely outplayed in the other two games.
Pittsburgh scored five goals in each game against the Flyers this season. When the Flyers could keep up with them, it was a close overtime loss, when they couldn’t, it resulted in 5-1 and 5-2 losses.
But now the playoffs are here and anything can happen. The Flyers played well enough to keep pace with the Penguins for good portions of all four games, and even though they didn’t get a win in any of those four, they got some confidence in their final matchup with a late goal to force overtime after a stellar performance.
The Flyers can win this series if it’s played mostly at 5v5. They need to stay out of the box against one of the best power plays in the league.
We’ve seen the Flyers go into the playoffs as underdogs and make some noise. In 2010 they won a shootout to win a playoff spot, dispatched the number two seed and then came back from a 3-0 series deficit to win it in seven. This obviously isn’t the same team as that one, except for Claude Giroux, but the regular season matchups can be thrown out the window to a certain extent.
You obviously need to take the lessons learned and matchup advantages and problems throughout the season series into the playoffs, but the Flyers now have a clean slate against the Penguins. It’s a seven-game series that can be turned on a dime.
Seasoned veterans hungry for more
The Flyers are a team with a good mix of experienced veterans and young players breaking into the league. Each group has several members that have made a difference this season, and they’re going to need to continue to do that in the playoffs. The grizzled veterans will be relied upon heavily and they’re hungry for more. A handful of them have experienced the sweet taste of a playoff series win as well as the bitterness of defeat, while a few others have only had the heartbreak of first-round losses in 2014 and 2016.
Claude Giroux, Jake Voracek, Wayne Simmonds, Matt Read, and a then-18-year-old Sean Couturier all played key roles for the Flyers in their 2012 series win against the Penguins. It was Giroux’s ascent to the top of the hockey world – well, at least according to his head coach – after breaking onto the playoff scene in 2010, while Voracek and Simmonds began to show the fruits of the offseason trades. They also had two rookies contribute, with Read having what turned out to be the best season of his career, and a baby-faced Couturier shutting down Evgeni Malkin.
Scott Laughton, Michael Raffl, Radko Gudas, and most importantly Shayne Gostisbehere are also in this category with some playoff experience. Gostisbehere was a rookie when he played in the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and now he’ll be the “veteran” on defense with his partner Ivan Provorov, as well as another offensive-minded rookie in Travis Sanheim. Perhaps Gostisbehere can pass some wisdom down to Provorov and Sanheim who are in a similar spot to what he experienced two years ago.
Giroux, Voracek, Simmonds, and Couturier have grown together as the core of this team. Those four are going to be the driving force for the Flyers in these playoffs, much like they were in 2012, 2014, and 2016. They have already beaten the Penguins once in the postseason, but have those fresher memories of first-round losses to other divisional rivals in their minds.
The core four are raring to go against the Penguins and they’re going to need to come up big. Giroux, Voracek, and Couturier have all had career years, while Simmonds still managed to score 24 goals despite having a down year. Experience is key in the postseason, and the veterans are going to need to keep the ship steady for the ever-energetic young guns.
Young guns getting their first taste of playoff hockey
While the Flyers have their experienced core, they also have a group of young players that are soon to mesh into that core, if they haven’t already.
Ivan Provorov, Travis Konecny, Nolan Patrick, Oskar Lindblom, and Travis Sanheim will get their first taste of NHL playoff hockey against the Penguins. They’ve been playing a lot of minutes down the stretch for the Flyers and that should continue heading into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Provorov is a young defenseman that is ready to break onto the scene. He’s one of the Flyers’ unsung heroes as their top-pairing defenseman, which doesn’t make much sense. While the forwards and Gostisbehere get most of the praise (and for good reason), Provorov is doing just fine sitting back and playing solid hockey night in and night out. He’s an ironman with 164 games played in two seasons, while averaging 24 minutes a night.
After a bit of a rough patch to start his rookie year last season, Provorov has become a constant on the blue line. He almost seems like a veteran already based on some of his mannerisms and some of the plays he makes without missing a beat, and the experience of playoff hockey will only make him better.
Like Provorov, Konecny struggled a bit in his rookie year and even in the beginning of this season. He wasn’t able to make the same moves that worked for him in juniors, and there wasn’t nearly as much time or space to shoot. It was affecting him in more ways than one. But then he flipped a switch. He battled through his struggles and earned his way onto the top line. He’s been thriving there ever since, and has gotten to the point where he is the main offensive threat on his own line to balance out the offense.
Konecny is a player that will chirp you, throw a hit, and then score on you. He’s so fun to watch during the regular season and that should go up a few notches in the postseason.
Then we get to the rookies.
Patrick’s play has been constantly on the incline since the beginning of the season. Slowly, but surely, he got going, and he’s really picked up the pace over the past few months and weeks of the season. He’s found his game in the NHL. He’s playing great two-way hockey and is getting on the scoresheet as well.
Lindblom has been right by his side since being called up in late February. The two have become quite the two-way duo on the second line with Voracek. They can forecheck, cycle the puck, and play well defensively too. The playoffs will be a great test for the two rookie forwards.
Last, but certainly not least, is the rookie defenseman that has gone through a lot to end up starting in the playoffs. Sanheim started the season on the roster, but in the press box. He then got into the lineup, worked his way to a comfortable position in November and into December, but then he hit a wall. Whether it be too many defensive mistakes or not being mature enough, Sanheim got sent back to the press box and then the AHL. But now he’s back and better than ever.
Sanheim has been thrust back onto the second pair and will be a key to this series. He is a defenseman that can use his speed to make plays, which is something the Flyers will need against a team like the Penguins. However, he also could get burnt defensively if he isn’t careful. Obviously that rings true for all defensemen, but Sanheim will be one to watch this series.
The veterans are hungry for more, and the young guns are just ready to get that first taste of playoff hockey. Once they get it, they too will be hungry for more.
The goalie carousel
Goaltending in Philadelphia a storyline? In the playoffs? No way!
The Flyers could take a ride on the goalie carousel in round one against the Penguins. In each of their last two playoffs (2014 and 2016), two goalies started multiple games. In 2014 it was Ray Emery then Steve Mason, who missed the first two games with concussion-like symptoms, and then in 2016 it was Mason and Michal Neuvirth, who extended the series with a great performance. And of course we all remember 2010, when the Flyers used Brian Boucher and Michael Leighton for their cup run.
2012 was the only time when the Flyers had a “stable” goalie situation, with Ilya Bryzgalov starting all 11 playoff games. I use “stable” very loosely there.
They’ve had a goalie carousel all season long this year, with four goalies starting multiple games for the first time since the 2006-07 season. Now, Brian Elliott is back healthy and ready to go for the playoffs.
Elliott looked a bit rusty in his first start back, allowing three soft goals in a 4-3 win, but closed out the season with a shutout and is heading into the playoffs with confidence. Petr Mrazek had a hot stretch to start his time in Philadelphia but then struggled, and he’ll be the backup goalie to start the series. I wouldn’t be shocked if the Flyers turned to him to spark something if down by a few goals, but that shouldn’t be expected.
Merry-go-rounds can be fun, but not when they involve goalies in the playoffs.
Play up to potential in playoffs
From carousels to rollercoasters.
The Flyers were one of the streakiest teams in the league this season, and they had trouble at times getting out of a funk. They had a few great stretches of winning hockey and then of course the 10-game losing streak early in the season and the 1-6-1 stretch in March. Sometimes they would play well and still lose, or not play particularly well but pull out the win. They’re going to need to play up to their potential in the playoffs.
We’ve seen the Flyers take down some of the best teams in the league throughout the season. They beat the Golden Knights in Vegas, they manhandled the Capitals on home ice, and they fought to the very end against the Bruins. But we’ve also seen the other side of it. Lackluster losses to Carolina and the Islanders are two that come to mind immediately, with poor performances against Detroit and Carolina that they came back from in there as well. They’ve been able to dominate teams one night, but then play sloppy the next.
If the top guys play to their ability, and the young guns keep it up, it’ll be on the depth players to make a difference. They will be the key against a very deep Pittsburgh team. Wayne Simmonds, Valtteri Filppula, Scott Laughton, Jori Lehtera, Matt Read, Andrew MacDonald, Brandon Manning, and Radko Gudas will need to limit their mistakes and play good hockey in this series.
One thing that may help the depth players is the balancing of the forward lines in the final few games of the season. Michael Raffl joined the top line, while Travis Konecny moved down to the third line. It allows the Flyers to have three lines with real offensive threats, while not giving up too much on the first line. Raffl has played there before and plays a hard-nosed game that can be effective in the playoffs. This will hopefully open up easier matchups for Konecny, who can create offense with Simmonds and Filppula.
If this team puts it all together, they can play with anyone and make some noise. If not, it could be a short series.
Photo by Heather Barry/Sons of Penn
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