The NHL is considering neutral site games to finish the 2019-20 season paused due to the coronavirus pandemic. It’s one of several proposals before the league and being discussed by teams and fans alike. Timelines will determine if and how the season resumes. Still, if the NHL restarts the season directly into the playoffs, the Pittsburgh Penguins will open as the third seed against the hated Philadelphia Flyers.
It suddenly seems OK to look ahead to the possibility.
How do the Penguins matchup against Philadelphia? Or, more specifically, how does Philadelphia matchup against the Penguins?
Philadelphia surged after an early-season slump. They weren’t in the playoff picture for the first half of the season and certainly weren’t an impressive team. However, an 18-5-1 run before the coronavirus pause launched them into second place, three points ahead of the Penguins.
But the Penguins won’t be the same team which limped to the pause, fighting to keep their head above water. If and when the NHL season resumes, the Pittsburgh Penguins will likely have a healthy Jake Guentzel, who suffered what would have been a season-ending shoulder injury in late December. With Guentzel and newly acquired Jason Zucker in the lineup, with a rested and ready core with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the Penguins are a dangerous team.
The Penguins spent a lot of energy, and a few players filled in above their paygrade while injuries decimated the lineup. That will not be the case if the season resumes in June or July.
The Penguins won two of three regular-season games against Philadephia. The Penguins won an overtime game, 4-3 on Jan 31, and a 7-1 beatdown on Oct. 29. They have historically struggled against the Flyers in playoff matchups, however, a neutral site will eliminate the wild Philadelphia crowd.
The Flyers surge rests on their second line with the broad-shouldered Kevin Hayes in the middle and Travis Konecny on the right. Konecny has 50 points, including 20 goals in the Flyers 41 wins, but only nine points in Philadelphia’s 18 losses.
Konecny is a small but aggressive winger. At 5-foot-10, 175 pounds, his tape fits more with the Penguins wingers than the Philadelphia stereotype. Hayes, however, is every bit the historical Philadelphia center. At 6-foot-5, Hayes is big and plays big.
The Flyers top line is as its been for a few years—all-round center Sean Couturier, with Claude Giroux on the left and Jakub Voracek on the right. The trio puts up big numbers, and according to Corsica Hockey, the top Philadelphia line is statistically the second-best in the league. Couturier (59 points) with Giroux (53) and Voracek (56) are a dominant force.
The Philadelphia Bottom six, however, is not deep nor fearsome. At the NHL trade deadline, Philadelphia acquired former (and briefly) Penguins center, Derek Grant, from Anaheim. Grant now pivots the Flyers third line. Grinder Nate Thompson is the fourth line center.
The Flyers’ second line makes them infinitely better than last season when they missed the playoffs and were eliminated by late March. And it is this line which will present the toughest matchup for the Penguins.
Pittsburgh Penguins matchups
We’ll find out what Mike Sullivan was planning for Guentzel upon a return to play. Was Sullivan going to leave Guentzel on Malkin’s left side, or return him to his home with Crosby? Sullivan knew the answer but would only tease reporters that he knew and wasn’t sharing.
Whether Guentzel or Zucker on the top line, the Penguins top line will have a large task to neutralize or supersede the Philadelphia top line. Fortunately for the Penguins, this season, they have done just that.
The Philadelphia top line has only a couple of points. Giroux has one assist against the Penguins in three games. Couturier had two apples, and Voracek had a pair of goals.
The second line hasn’t fared any better. Konecny, who is Philadelphia’s leading scorer, has just one assist in three games, too.
Conversely, Crosby has six points in three games (2g, 4a) against Philadelphia, and Malkin has three points (1g, 2a).
With Derek Grant and Nate Thompson as the down line centers, the Penguins figure to have a significant advantage. The Penguins Teddy Blueger line with Zach Aston-Reese and Brandon Tanev, if they’re not defending the Couturier line, should have the Flyers lines for lunch.
Big Advantage: Penguins
When the Pittsburgh Penguins are not on their game or over-commit, they are apt to leave space for trailing defensemen. Philadelphia has the talent to make the Penguins pay for such mistakes.
Ivan Provorov and Matt Niskanen are the Philadelphia top pair. Provorov has 36 points (13g, 23a), and Niskanen has 33 points (8g, 25a). Niskanen saw significant ice time against Crosby when Niskanen was a Washington Capital. He can move well enough to defend, though Crosby’s stats against Philadelphia this season bode well for the black and gold.
The Penguins top pair with Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin are a formidable top pair, and at worst, the Penguins are equal, if not well ahead.
The remainder of each team’s blue line is appropriately fitted to their roles. From John Marino and Justin Schultz as the Penguins right-side defenseman against Philadelphia Justin Braun and Robert Hagg, the Penguins have the better right siders. Still, Philadelphia has Travis Sanheim and Shayne Gostisbehere on the left. They have more upside than the Penguins Marcus Pettersson and Jack Johnson.
Matt Murray vs. Carter Hart. Murray is a big money goalie who generally performs at his best in the most significant situations. Hart is a sophomore goalie who hasn’t yet had a taste of the NHL postseason. Typically, one would automatically give the advantage to the experienced goalie, but it wasn’t so long ago that Murray was a newbie who ran the table.
Murray had a hot start, a Nov.-Dec. swoon then has slightly outplayed challenger Tristan Jarry in 2020. It’s been a roller coaster, but Murray stole two points against Washington on Jan. 30 in a glimpse of what he is capable.
Hart has been solid this season. He hovered at an unspectacular .909 save percentage for much of the season, but rode the Flyers surge and helped to power it, too. Hart finished the pre-pandemic season with a .914 save percentage.
Murray’s history is figures well for the Penguins, but it’s no guarantee. Hart is a young and improving goalie. We’ll find out how he responds to the bright lights.
Given the long pause, goaltending will be a question mark for every team. How long will it take for goalies to be sharp?
Mike Sullivan vs. Alain Vigneault. A pair of premier coaches in the NHL. Sullivan has a couple of Stanley Cup rings, and Vigneault has guided the New York Rangers and Vancouver Canucks to the Stanley Cup Final.
Sullivan’s attacking style vs. Vigneault’s patient, absorbing, frustration inducing 1-3-1 counter-attack.
There is no advantage here—two good coaches who know how to win.
The Pittsburgh Penguins depth should carry them past Philadelphia. The top lines are competitive, but the advantages of the remainder of the forward lines tilt heavily towards the Penguins. Malkin, McCann/Bjugstad, and Blueger are significantly better.
The Penguins trap will be the literal 1-3-1 neutral zone trap. If the Penguins remain calm and patient, their superior speed and talent could make this a short series. If they get ensnared in the trap, anything could happen.
Last season, the New York Islanders swept the Penguins out of the playoffs, and those memories will re-emerge, probably as fuel. Philadelphia is a nice story, but it would likely end quickly if the NHL drops them into a series against the Penguins.
Current prediction: Penguins in 5.