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April 10, 2012
NHL Playoffs, First Round
Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Philadelphia Flyers

by Tom Awad

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Hockey fans should be thrilled that we are getting another playoff series between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Philadelphia Flyers; the only disappointment is that it is occurring so soon, in the first round. Thanks to the absurdity of guaranteeing a top-three seed to each division winner, the Florida Panthers (!) are the third seed and will have home-ice advantage against the Devils, while the vastly superior Penguins and Flyers battle it out.

None of which diminishes the intensity of what we are about to witness. These two teams are more than geographical rivals: they hate each other, with the Flyers' summer signing of Jaromir Jagr the latest jab in the constant conflict between these two teams. Pittsburgh and Philadelphia are, along with Boston and New York, the Eastern Conference's powerhouse teams, and there's a decent chance that whoever emerges victorious from this series will go as far as the Stanley Cup Final; in fact, between them, these two teams have represented the East in three of the last four Finals.

Pittsburgh's Offense, Geno and the Return of Sid

Pittsburgh Penguins Offense: +54.8 GVT (Rank: 1st in NHL)
Philadelphia Flyers Defense: +2.6 GVT (Rank: 11th in NHL)
Philadelphia Flyers Goaltending: -11.2 GVT (Rank: 23rd in NHL)

There are no two ways about it: the Penguins are the NHL's most explosive offensive team. The chemistry between Evgeni Malkin and James Neal this season was phenomenal: Malkin made a mockery of the scoring race and Neal finished eight in the league in points and fourth in goals. All of this took place even though the Penguins' best offensive defenseman, Kris Letang, missed 31 games and Sidney Crosby only suited up for 22 (of which the Penguins won 14). The Penguins scored 13 more goals than the second-best offensive team, the Bruins. As often happens when a team is firing on all cylinders, several players had career years offensively: Chris Kunitz' 26 goals, 61 points, and 12.5 GVT were all marginally better than his previous bests, and Pascal Dupuis bettered his career best by 11 points, even though both of these guys are in their thirties. As long as Crosby is still healthy, this is the NHL's strongest collection of forwards. It helps that they are also one of the NHL's elite puck possession teams: at even strength, they outshot their opponents by 359 shots, second only to Detroit.

This success was quite a contrast with the disappointment in Philadelphia. The Flyers made a big deal last summer of jettisoning Mike Richards and Jeff Carter in order to make room to sign the biggest fish in the goaltending market: Ilya Bryzgalov, who had posted three good seasons out of four in Phoenix. Needless to say, this is Philadelphia and goaltending, so Bryzgalov struggled out of the gate and criticism mounted; his backup, Sergei Bobrovsky, was even worse. Bryzgalov eventually improved: his save percentage in February, March, and April was a superb .928, more like what the Flyers were looking for when they signed him.

They will need him even more since their franchise defenseman, Chris Pronger, is out with concussion symptoms, his career in doubt. Luckily, the Flyers still have a deep defensive corps, with Matt Carle, Braydon Coburn, and Kimmo Timonen all capable of playing 21 to 23 minutes a night, and with the exception of Coburn on the power play, both special teams.

Advantage: Pittsburgh Penguins

The Flyers' breakout stars

Philadelphia Flyers Offense: +41.8 GVT (Rank: 3rd in NHL)
Pittsburgh Penguins Defense: +12.2 GVT (Rank: 6th in NHL)
Pittsburgh Penguins Goaltending: -13.1 GVT (Rank: 24th in NHL)

Amazingly, this series will feature two of the three most likely candidates for the Hart Trophy as league MVP. Malkin is an obvious choice, but another that's almost as convincing is Claude Giroux, who took the opportunity afforded by the departure of Richards and Carter to become "the man" for the Flyers. Giroux had a phenomenal year, finishing third in the NHL in points and second in assists, while playing all roles for the Flyers. He is a complete player in the mold of Pavel Datsyuk. Giroux, Scott Hartnell, and Jaromir Jagr were an excellent line, finishing 1-2-3 in Flyers scoring; they also drove the power play (more on that later). Another player who rose to prominence was Wayne Simmonds, who came from the Los Angeles Kings as part of the Richards trade. Simmonds scored 28 goals and 49 points, career bests, thanks to a regular shift on the power play. Overall, the Flyers were the league's third-best offensive team.

Pittsburgh's team defense was also quite good: they averaged only 26.9 shots against per 60 minutes at even strength, fifth in the league. The Penguins top four of Letang, Paul Martin, Brooks Orpik, and Zbynek Michalek was very solid, despite missing almost a full season (69 games) between the four of them.

The Penguins were much weaker in nets, but this was not the fault of Marc-Andre Fleury, their #1 goalie, who was quite good with a .913 save percentage and 12.9 GVT; rather, the fault lay with backups Brent Johnson and Brad Thiessen, who combined for an atrocious .876 save percentage. Tellingly, the Penguins were 42-17-4 with Fleury in nets and 9-8-2 without him.

Advantage: Philadelphia Flyers

Pittsburgh Power Play vs. Philadelphia Penalty Kill

Pittsburgh Power Play: +3.5 GVT (Rank: 9th in NHL)
Philadelphia Penalty Kill: -4.0 GVT (Rank: 19th in NHL)

It's always been a mystery to me why the Penguins' power play isn't better than it is. Not specifically this season, nor even last season, but for the majority of the Crosby-Malkin era the Penguins power play has oscillated from mediocre to passable; in fact, this season is the best it's been in the last four years. Yes, the Penguins converted 19.7% of their opportunities, good for fifth place, but they also allowed an abominable 10 short-handed goals against. The main drivers were—surprise, surprise—Malkin and Neal; Neal led the league with 18 power play goals, while Malkin and Neal were second and fourth, respectively, in power play points with 34 and 30. Steve Sullivan has created a late-career niche for himself as a power play specialist and was strong with 21 PP points. Letang, when healthy, was a much more effective quarterback than Martin; this was probably the only time the Penguins missed Alex Goligoski. Needless to say, the power play unit was stronger with Crosby in the lineup.

The Flyers' penalty kill was slightly below average, but don't blame the penalty killers: they only allowed an average of 41 shots per 60 minutes, the third-lowest rate in the league. In an interesting twist, the Flyers' best penalty killer was Maxime Talbot, a former Penguin signed by Philadelphia last summer. Unfortunately, the Flyers goaltenders provided them with an awful .847 penalty-killing save percentage. Hopefully that was a small sample size, as Bryzgalov never struggled on the penalty kill in Phoenix.

Advantage: Even

Philadelphia Power Play vs. Pittsburgh Penalty Kill

Philadelphia Power Play: +6.6 GVT (Rank: 4th in NHL)
Pittsburgh Penalty Kill: +18.5 GVT (Rank: 3rd in NHL)

While many see the Flyers as a bunch of bullies, they are in fact a reasonably-disciplined team, having taken 16 fewer penalties than their opponents. They still got the most power play opportunities in the league, 335, and proceeded to maximize them with a league-leading 66 power-play goals, almost half of which (32) Giroux assisted on. Giroux was the league's preeminent power play threat, with a league-leading 38 power play points. He turned Hartnell into a power play scorer; Hartnell's 16 power play goals were second only to Pittsburgh's Neal. Jagr, Timonen, and Simmonds all chipped in as well. Imagine how good the Flyers power play could have been had they gotten a full season out of Pronger.

Luckily for them, the Penguins' penalty kill was, if anything, better this season. They killed off 87.8% of their short-handed situations and even scored 11 shorthanded goals. The main contributors were Dupuis, Jordan Staal, and Zbynek Michalek, although Brooks Orpik, Craig Adams, and Matt Cooke did their share as well; and, if all else failed, Fleury did a fantastic job of stopping the shots that did get through, with a .905 save percentage at 4-on-5.

Advantage: Pittsburgh Penguins (slight)

Injuries and Intangibles

Both teams are heading into the playoffs reasonably close to full strength, although the Flyers lost two players to injury in one late season game against Pittsburgh: both Daniel Briere and Nicklas Grossman are out, although Grossman only dressed in 22 games for the Flyers this season, so they presumably know how to operate without him.

These two teams met in the playoffs in both 2008 and 2009. In both cases, the Penguins were victorious on the way to the Stanley Cup Final, which they won in 2009. While the Penguins stars are mostly the same from those two runs, the Flyers have changed several of theirs, with Giroux, Jagr, and Simmonds now providing offense up front and Bryzgalov in nets. Regardless, there is a massive amount of animosity between these two teams, which will probably lead to some unfortunate dirty hits and possible injuries, but will also lead to some spectacular hockey.

Prediction

These two teams seemed to be extremely close in the regular season: the Penguins had 108 points and the Flyers 103, and after all, they are the four and five seeds in the conference, in theory the two teams that should be most evenly matched. But there are three elements that lead me to believe that the Penguins are in fact the better team.

The first is puck possession. The Penguins' shot differential at even strength was +359, the Flyers' +153 (note that I am only counting shots here, that's why I'm not calling it Corsi or Fenwick). This means that, all else being equal, the Penguins will be more able to afford to miss a chance every once in a while, while the Flyers will have to make each one count. The Flyers have little margin for error. It also helps that the Penguins, as a team, win 50.4% of their faceoffs, while the Flyers only win 48.0%, 24th in the league.

The second is goal differential. The Penguins outscored their opponents by 55 goals, the Flyers by 35. The Flyers had to win a fair number of close games to finish with 103 points, and that's not a repeatable skill. The Boston Bruins, despite getting one less point than the Flyers, had a goal differential of +61.

The third is Crosby. The Penguins were already an excellent team, and they added the world's best hockey player. It's hard to find any parallels for this kind of roster addition, but I'll mention two. In 2002, Peter Forsberg rejoined the Colorado Avalanche for the playoffs after missing the entire regular season. The Avalanche made it all the way to the Conference Finals before losing in seven games to the Red Wings. Also, in 1991, the Penguins finished third in their conference even though their #1 center only played 26 games during the regular season. When he returned at full strength in the playoffs, the team was good enough to fight its way to Finals, where it captured the first Stanley Cup in franchise history. Crosby may not be the second coming of Mario Lemieux, but he's as close as anyone's going to get.

Prediction: Pittsburgh Penguins in six games

Tom Awad is an author of Hockey Prospectus. You can contact Tom by clicking here or click here to see Tom's other articles.

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