Kukla's Korner

Puckin' Around With Spector

Looking Back on the Penguins-Flyers Series.

The Conference Quarterfinal between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers was expected to be the most entertaining of the opening round of the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs.

No one, however, expected it to become a throwback to the wild, fire-wagon style of the 1980s. Though it ended with the Flyers eliminating the Penguins in six games, the notable storylines of that series still linger.

- In an NHL in which tight-checking and strong goaltending are the norm at playoff time, the Flyers and Penguins combined for 56 goals - the Flyers with 30, the Penguins with 26.

45 of those goals came in the first four games, setting a record for the most goals in the opening four games of a seven-game series. That’s right, the 2012 Flyers and Penguins posted up numbers in those four games which broke records set back in the free-wheeling ‘80s.

-Entering this series, Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury had a reputation as a clutch playoff performer, based largely upon his backstopping the Pens to two Stanley Cup Finals, including a championship in 2009.

That reputation, however, suffered perhaps a mortal blow in this series, as Fleury, whom some observers were seriously touting as a Vezina Trophy candidate, was the epitome of a goalie who couldn’t stop a beachball.

Considered among the league’s elite netminders, Fleury finished with a playoff-worst 4.63 GAA and .834 SP.

It’s safe to assume Fleury’s critics will remember his performance in this series when the Penguins return to the playoffs, raising it as a critical factor in their post-season predictions.

Fleury is only 27 and entering his playing prime. He’ll have a number of years to overcome this poor performance. Until he does, he’ll have to deal with questions over his ability to bounce back from his horrible effort against the Flyers.

- If there was any lingering doubt Philadelphia Flyers center Claude Giroux was worthy of favorable comparison to Penguins superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, it was erased once and for all with his performance in this series.

Giroux entered this series as a proven playoff performer, dating back to his efforts two years ago in the Flyers march to the 2010 Cup Final.

With his placement this season among the league’s top scoring forwards, Giroux served notice he was now the Flyers’ top offensive forward.

Despite these facts, Giroux entered this series overshadowed by notable opponents Crosby and Malkin, who have a Cup championship, plenty of individual awards, and reputations as clutch playoff performers.

This series, however, was Giroux true “coming out party”, not just as a superstar in his own right by out-playing Crosby and Malkin, but also as the undisputed leader of the Flyers in the absence of injured captain Chris Pronger.

Giroux’s timely offense - leading all playoff scorers with 14 points in 6 games - and fiery physical leadership had some observers comparing him to legendary Flyers captain Bobby Clarke, and he is now considered the logical candidate for the captaincy if Pronger’s concussion forces him into retirement.

- This series also highlighted Evgeni Malkin’s tendency to fade into the background whenever Crosby is in the lineup.

Malkin is this season’s winner of the Art Ross trophy as the league’s top scorer, and considered a shoo-in for the Hart Trophy as league MVP for carrying the banged-up Penguins into a top-four placement in the Eastern Conference standings.

Yet, curiously, Malkin’s performance seemed to drop off when Crosby returned to the lineup, and especially in the series against the Flyers.

It didn’t help that Malkin had a fuzzy-cheeked Flyers rookie named Sean Couturier in his face for most of this series, but he seemed an undisciplined shell of the dominant player he’d been in the regular season.

A wide-open series like this should have been tailor-made for Malkin’s offensive talents. While he finished the series with 8 points in six games, all but one of those points came in three games. In Games One and Five, he was held scoreless. Half of his points came on the power-play.

More than a few observers have noted Malkin’s puzzling trait of seeming to fall into “second banana” status when Crosby’s in the lineup.

It seems he only really blossoms whenever Crosby’s sidelined or being checked to a standstill, which occurred in the 2009 Stanley Cup Final, resulting in Malkin elevating his game and winning playoff MVP honors.

Don’t be surprised if that provokes questions over his long-term future with the team, especially when he draws closer to UFA status in July 2014.

-Flyers veterans Giroux, Daniel Briere, Jaromir Jagr,and Scott Hartnell were, as expected, among their club’s best forwards in this series, but what was equally notable was how their young forwards rose to the occasion.

19-year-old rookie Sean Couturier did a tremendous job checking Penguins superstar Evgeni Malkin. 25-year-old rookie forward Matt Read had four points in six games. 22-year-old winger Jakub Voracek, playing in his first post-season in four years, had seven points. Oft-injured 20-year-old rookie center Brayden Schenn netted six points. 23-year-old right wing Wayne Simmonds, playing in his third post-season, potted four points in six games.

If these young forwards continue this pace going forward into this post-season, it’ll provide a substantial boost to the Flyers hopes for a Stanley Cup run.

-What was most surprising in this series was how easily the Flyers got under the collective skin of the Penguins.

One would expect the Penguins, with most of their core players having won a Stanley Cup together, understood maintaining their poise was a key factor to playoff success. That was supposed to provide them an advantage against a team whose captain was sidelined by concussion, not to mention underwent a significant roster shift last summer.

But it was the Flyers who played with the poise of a champion, goading the Penguins into losing their cool, undisciplined play and costly penalties.

Not even the Penguins leadership was immune. Crosby, Malkin and Kris Letang were guilty of chippy play, cheap shots and brawling, sullying their reputations in the process.

-The Flyers had the sixth-best power-play during the regular season, while the Penguins countered with the third-best penalty kill. It was natural to assume, therefore, that as good as the Flyers were with the man-advantage, they would find power-play goals difficult to come by against the Penguins.

Instead, the Penguins vaunted penalty-kill quickly fell apart, as the Flyers lit them up for 12 power-play goals on 23 attempts, and at one point in the series were an incredible 11 for 17 with the man advantage. The Penguins finished the series with the worst penalty-kill (a woeful 47.8%) among the sixteen playoff teams.

The Penguins did pot nine PP markers of their own, going 31 percent with the man-advantage, but they also gave up three shorthanded goals to the Flyers.

Clearly, their special teams, especially their PK, wasn’t that special.

- Though this was a huge victory for the Flyers over their long-time rival, it doesn’t disguise the fact their defense and goaltending was only marginally better than the Penguins.

Starting goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, who faced almost ceaseless questions about his performance during the season, did little to silence them throughout this series.

Though he “came through when it mattered” with a strong effort in the series-clinching sixth game, Bryzgalov’s performance in the previous five games (3.89 GAA and .871 SP) was nearly as bad as Fleury’s.

And while the Flyers scored 30 goals in those six games, they still gave up 26, including ten in an ugly Game Four loss.

Bryzgalov could be faulted for some of those, but he also received little support from his sieve-like defense.

While the Penguins penalty kill was atrocious, the Flyers weren’t much better, sitting 13th among the 16 playoff teams in that department.

Bryzgalov’s steady performance in Game Six, combined with the improved play of his defense in a 4-1 series-clinching victory could be a heartening sign of significant improvement going forward.

It better be, or else the Flyers could find their Cup dreams dashed nearly as quickly as those of their first round opponent.

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Comments

DocF's avatar

I started to write that this series was won by the team whose goalie played better.  That is not right, though.  This series was won by the team whose goalie was less incompetent.  Unless the Philadelphia goalies can manage to look like at least ECHL level players, the team will depart early on in the next round.  They will not catch an opponent whose goalies and defensemen are so totally asleep.

Doc

Posted by DocF from Now: Lynn Haven, FL; was Reidsville, NC on 04/25/12 at 11:51 AM ET

Avatar

Whar Evilpens?

Posted by Sneplive on 04/25/12 at 01:06 PM ET

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About Puckin' Around With Spector

I’m Lyle Richardson. You might know me from my website, Spector’s Hockey, my thrice-weekly rumor column at THN.com, my weekly column at Eishockey News (if you read German), and my former gig as a contributing writer to Foxsports.com.

I’ll be writing a once-weekly blog here with my take on all things NHL. Who knows, I might actually find time to debunk a trade rumor or two.