Rabu, 11 April 2012

Flyers don't scare Pens; won't beat them, either

By Mark Madden
Special to The Beaver County Times
April 8, 2012

The first-round playoff series between the Penguins and Flyers is a mismatch on paper. The Penguins have better hockey players.

But sometimes the Flyers play better hockey.

The Flyers went 4-2 against the Penguins this season by repeatedly applying the same formula: Lots of offensive-zone time, exploitation of odd-man breaks, a razor-sharp power play and a maximum of distraction. The Penguins have difficulty getting to their game against Philadelphia.

The Flyers could win this series. But they won't.

Over seven games played consecutively, talent adds up. Matchups and game plans adjust constantly, but Dan Bylsma certainly takes no backseat to Peter Laviolette in those departments. It's hard to imagine the Flyers dealing with the Penguins' three centers over the long haul of a series.

The Penguins enjoy a massive advantage in goal, with Stanley Cup-winner Marc-Andre Fleury facing a ready-to-erupt goalie controversy.

The Flyers are playing Ilya Bryzgalov $51 million to be their No. 1 netminder. But Sergei Bobrovsky is 5-1 lifetime against the Penguins. If Bryzgalov drops Game 1, the Philly faithful will call for Bobrovsky. If you think you have two great goaltenders, you really don't have any.

The Flyers' power play is their biggest weapon. The Penguins normally hope for tight refereeing. This series, not so much.

Hopefully, mayhem gets curbed. But the Penguins don't want to trade power plays with Philadelphia. Each team's man-advantage unit converted 19.7 percent of its chances, but the Flyers led the NHL in power-play goals with 66. The Flyers' PP produces relentless pressure with quick passes and plentiful shots. The Penguins' PP indulges a bit too much.

The Penguins' offense has been insane since Crosby's return, averaging 4.8 goals per game and netting fewer than four just twice in 14 games. That's incredible, especially given how laissez-faire officiating is slowing down NHL hockey.

One disclaimer: High-octane offense doesn't win in the postseason. The Penguins have played great hockey. But are they playing playoff hockey?

Not really. But they will be. This team isn't a bunch of dummies, and Bylsma didn't just fall off the turnip truck.

When the Penguins had their early-'90s juggernauts, they definitely had an unstated philosophy: The regular-season is for stats, the playoffs are for winning. Trap if you have to. Do whatever it takes. These Penguins have 12 holdovers from their 2009 Cup winner. They understand.

The Flyers, despite zero psychology degrees, were always going to try to get inside the Penguins' heads. That's what Laviolette's histrionics a week ago and assistant coach Craig Berube's volatile quotes were about.

But all that seems to have backfired. NBC analyst Mike Milbury, Hockey Night in Canada gadfly Don Cherry and Rangers coach John Tortorella piled on, and it seems to have brought the Penguins even closer, instilling an us-against-them mentality Hines Ward would be proud of.

I've never understood the idea of angering Crosby. When is the last time that paid off?

The Penguins did not engage the Flyers' silliness in Saturday's regular-season finale, save when Joe Vitale paid for past transgressions by being forced to repeatedly bruise his knuckles on Harry Zolnierczyk's melon. Stamp that message "return to sender." The Flyers don't scare the Penguins. The Flyers may not even annoy the Penguins, not any more. There's a bigger picture. The Penguins see it.

Pittsburgh in six. It could be shorter.

Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).

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