It took all 82 games but the Pittsburgh Penguins won their final game to clinch second place in the Metropolitan Division, while the Philadelphia Flyers won theirs to clinch third place.
The Flyers’ reward for their best season since a third-place finish in 2013-14 is a first round series with the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins.
The Penguins swept and dominated the season series. They won all four games and scored five goals in each, including a 52-shot barrage against the Flyers on Nov. 27.
The most recent game, March 25, was a 5-4 Penguins win in OT which provided plenty of potential insights into the upcoming series.
The Penguins’ forwards are deeper and more talented than the Flyers’. The Penguins will be happy to let this be a series decided by top-six players. The Flyers are no longer the physical crew which drew the Penguins into a wild affair in 2012. Not even close.
The Flyers have been reconstructed by GM Ron Hextall to incorporate speed, scoring, and talent. They will likely roll with at least two rookies in their top two lines: Second overall pick Nolan Patrick and Swedish sensation Oskar Lindblom. The pair has talent but it will be their first run in the playoffs. Especially against a veteran team like the Penguins, the Flyers may be outmatched.
Big advantage to the Penguins.
Crosby vs. Giroux-Couturier
This season, Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol flipped Claude Giroux to left wing. The Giroux-Sean Couturier duo led to a Hart Trophy worthy season for Giroux, who posted 102 points (34g, 68a). Couturier has traditionally given the Penguins fits. His gritty defensive work frustrated the Penguins stars.
This season, the dynamic changed. In the most recent matchup, Crosby had more than 50 percent of the shots and notched the only goal.
For the Flyers to win, Giroux will have to bold the scoring sheet often. The same is not true of Crosby.
Hagelin-Malkin-Hornqvist vs. Lindblom-Patrick-Voracek
The 2018 Stanley Cup could be decided by the Evgeni Malkin line. Patrick will anchor the Flyers’ second line. On March 25, Hakstol quickly altered the matchups to get Patrick away from Malkin but also to slow the Penguins third line, which that night was Conor Sheary, Derick Brassard, and Phil Kessel.
The Malkin line has been extraordinary in 2018. The right wing has changed, from Kessel to Patric Hornqvist, Bryan Rust and back to Hornqvist. Carl Hagelin has been the puck retrieval winger and applied the aggressive forecheck. The line has created turnovers, offensive pressure, and goals.
It’s hard to imagine the Flyers holding this line in check.
X’s and O’s Strategery
The Flyers have a dynamic defense corps which are able to play the puck and join the rush. On March 25, the Flyers used the defense to the fullest.
Branding Manning and Travis Sanheim both lit the lamp by coming late on the play. The Penguins’ forwards didn’t hold their positions and didn’t cover the defensemen who had open looks at Matt Murray from the high slot and circle.
The Penguins’ defensive-zone coverage and attention to detail have been a problem this season. The Flyers took full advantage but the Penguins have turned a corner over the past couple weeks, in preparation for the second season.
Crashing defenseman will be a Flyers advantage. Pinching defensemen will be the Penguins advantage.
The Penguins have activated their defense in recent weeks. Justin Schultz has been especially good at sealing the wall to keep the play alive. Unlike earlier in the season, the Penguins forwards have covered their defensemen, which has bred trust and more pinches.
The Penguins have played forward with aggressive forechecks and active defensemen. The series will be a battle of offensive possession. If the Penguins’ forwards pay attention to detail, they will be able to mitigate the Flyers’ trailing-defenseman strategy.
The series’ great wild card will be goaltending.
Will Murray show his playoff form which earned him two Stanley Cups before his rookie status expired? Will Brian Elliott be the goaltender who seized the net from Jake Allen in St. Louis in the 2015-16 playoffs? Or will Elliott be the inconsistent, blitzed goalie from Calgary?
How soon could Hakstol go to Petr Mrazek?
Likely advantage: Penguins.
Prediction: Penguins in 5
Several Flyers will get their first taste of the playoffs. That’s not a good formula to face a team which excels in the playoffs. The Penguins will teach the Flyers a few lessons like the 2007 Ottawa Senators taught them.
The Flyers are a good team with talent but they must rely on the top of their lineup. If Crosby and company can neutralize the Flyers top line, the Malkin line and third line could run over the Flyers.
Sheary will be a key component on the Penguins third line with either Brassard or Riley Sheahan in the middle. Sheary’s resurgence has made the third line dynamic. Kessel’s presence adds a 92-point player.
Goaltending could swing the series but that is the Flyers’ biggest hope. Otherwise, the Penguins may have another short first-round series, like each of the past two years.