2018 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview: Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Philadelphia Flyers

Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby works the puck around Philadelphia Flyers' Sean Couturier. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)

For the first time since their epic 2012 series, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers will revive the Battle of Pennsylvania to kick off Round 1 in the East. Last time these two met, they combined for 56 goals through six games, peaking with a 10-3 win for Pittsburgh in Game 4 and an 8-5 victory for Philadelphia in Game 2. Though the rosters have seen plenty of turnover in the half-decade since, both clubs enter into the reunion with similar offensive prowess.

The series features four of the top 10 scorers in the league, with Claude Giroux (102 points), Evgeni Malkin (98), Phil Kessel (92) and Sidney Crosby (89) all entering healthy and ready to contribute. Add in some notable goaltending issues on both sides—the Flyers have seen unsteady performances from all of Brian Elliott, Michal Neuvirth and Petr Mrazek and the Penguins don’t have Matt Murray rolling like he was the past two years—and there’s a fair chance some more high-scoring games are coming.

Matching Pittsburgh’s depth will be crucial if the Flyers hope to hang with Pittsburgh in this one. While Philadelphia has seen some elite performances from their top names, they’ll have to be able to keep pace with their rival’s four-line game to avoid getting buried. The Penguins are still without trade deadline acquisition Derick Brassard—who hasn’t played since Mar. 27 while dealing with a lower-body injury—which makes things a bit easier, as the absence of the third-line pivot may convince head coach Mike Sullivan to move Kessel back to the second unit with Malkin.

But if the Penguins opt to keep Crosby, Malkin, and Kessel spread among the top nine, the Flyers’ third line of Valtteri Filppula, Wayne Simmonds, and Travis Konecny will have to step their game up. The two teams’ season series suggests that might be easier said than done, however, as Pittsburgh took all four meetings with Philadelphia in 2017-18, scoring five goals in each of those games.

ADVANCED STATS
5-on-5 via Corsica.Hockey
Pittsburgh: 52.23 CF% (5th), 48.07 GF% (21st), .910 SP% (29th), 7.29 SH% (23rd), 98.33 PDO (29th)

Philadelphia: 49.79 CF% (18th), 52.33 GF% (13th), .925 SP% (13th), 7.88 SH% (13th), 100.36 PDO (14th)

POWER NUMBER
Determined by percentiles created for a variety of statistics and weighed equally to give each team a grade out of 10 for offence and defence (seven for 5-on-5 and three for special teams). These numbers are then averaged to come up with a power number to measure a team’s all-around play.

TEAM OFFENCE (rank) DEFENCE (rank) POWER NUMBER (rank)
Pittsburgh 9.12 (1st) 3.95 (19th) 6.53 (6th)
Philadelphia 5.01 (18th) 5.69 (10th) 5.35 (13th)

TEAM STATS
Pittsburgh: 26.2 PP% (1st), 80.0 PK% (17th), 270 GF (3rd), 248 GA (20th)

Philadelphia: 20.7 PP% (15th), 75.8 PK% (29th), 249 GF (12th), 236 GA (14th)

HEAD-TO-HEAD RECORD
Pittsburgh: 4-0-0

Philadelphia: 0-2-2

Pittsburgh Penguins Outlook: The back-to-back Stanley Cup champions are trying to become the first three-peat winners since the New York Islanders dynasty of the 1980s—not even the great Edmonton Oilers team that followed won three in a row. The Penguins are coming into the playoffs on a relative high note too, and their season really is a tale of two halves.

On Jan. 1, Pittsburgh was the 22nd-best team in the NHL with a 19-18-3 record and had just 68 even strength goals—the third-fewest in the league. But from then on, the Penguins slowly returned to form and have scored the most even-strength goals over the past three-plus months while posting a 26-11-3 record. The one constant team stat has been an unstoppable power play that converts on 26.2 per cent of its chances, which is the best full-season mark in the NHL since the Calgary Flames posted a 27.7 per cent in 1989-90.

A high-event team, the Penguins still have an unmatched amount of star power that is tough to match up against when Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel are spread across three lines. Not much has changed between this year’s Pens team and the ones that won the previous two Cups. In fact, if healthy, they may be more dangerous now than ever.

Philadelphia Flyers Outlook: It’s really hard to get a read on a team that’s been as streaky as the Flyers. Philadelphia is the definition of an up-and-down team this season, starting with a 10-game losing streak early on, which they immediately followed with a stretch of seven wins in eight games. They also had a stretch in which they posted 11 wins in 23 games, which included a 10-1 streak. They’re all over the place.

Muddying the waters even more is the lack of clarity in net, which is nothing new to this franchise. Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth went down to injury, forcing GM Ron Hextall to acquire Petr Mrazek at the trade deadline and, after a promising start, he’s cratered to a sub-.890 save percentage. Elliott is back for the playoffs, but he’s played just two games since Feb. 10—and ask Flames fans how he fared in last year’s playoffs (hint: it was ugly).

The fact they got this far means there are some positive things going on here. The Flyers’ young defence has helped them to the fifth-lowest shots-against average this season and their offence is the 11th-best in the league. No. 2 overall draft pick Nolan Patrick started off low in the lineup, but has worked his way up to the second unit where he plays with Jakub Voracek. Patrick has answered with 16 points in 23 games. The top line remains one of the league’s best and was made possible by Claude Giroux’s move to left wing, which has been a huge success. He’s an underrated Hart Trophy candidate who finished with a career-high 102 points after getting just 58 a year ago. In his career, Giroux has 62 points in 63 playoff games, but hasn’t seen the second round since 2012.

Penguins X-Factor: In the past two seasons the Penguins came into the playoffs with two credible No. 1 options in net between Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury—and they needed them both. Now without Fleury, there isn’t as secure a safety net behind the 23-year-old starter.

With a .907 save percentage this season, Murray had his worst of three NHL seasons and, though he’s been good at stretches, it’s the downturns that could be trouble for the Penguins. The longest streak of games Murray has had this season allowing less than three goals in a game is just three, which he achieved just once. At the end of the season he wasn’t exactly trending up either—in three of his past six starts Murray allowed at least four goals.

The Penguins will get their offence, and the power play has been incredibly good, but in the past two playoff seasons Murray’s save percentages have been .923 and .937. He needs to get back up to that level of excellence, or close to it. In last year’s run to the Cup, in which he played the final two rounds, Murray allowed three or more goals just three times in 11 games.

Flyers X-Factor: Brian Elliott returned to the net on April 5 after missing nearly two months with an abdominal injury and allowed three goals on 22 shots, then recorded a shutout on Saturday. With a .909 save percentage in 43 games, Elliott has been his usual self—up and down, with his best month coming in December (.927) and worst in January (.874).

His 2016-17 with the Flames followed a similar wave and ended in disappointment with 12 goals allowed in a four-game sweep to Anaheim. Petr Mrazek was brought in as insurance at the deadline and was even more volatile, while regular backup Michal Neuvirth got injured days after returning from a previous malady. The Flyers, as usual, will sink or swim with their goalies.

TEAM LEADERS (G-A-PTS)
Pittsburgh: Evgeni Malkin (42-56-98), Phil Kessel (34-58-92), Sidney Crosby (29-60-89)

Philadelphia: Claude Giroux (34-68-102), Jakub Voracek (20-65-85), Sean Couturier (31-45-76)

Livestream every single game of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs—blackout free—plus the Toronto Blue Jays, key Raptors & NBA Playoffs matchups and the 100th Mastercard Memorial Cup, all in one subscription.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.