Flyers Vs. Penguins: Eastern Conference Quarterfinals Preview And Predictions

April 1, 2012; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; The Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers fight against each other during the third period at the CONSOL Energy Center. The Philadelphia Flyers won 6-4. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-US PRESSWIRE

The latest installment of the "Keystone Klash" gets underway Wednesday night in Pittsburgh. For the Flyers and Penguins, it should be a series for the ages.

The Philadelphia Flyers (47-26-9, 103 points, fifth in Eastern Conference) travel west to take on their Atlantic Divisions arch-rivals, the Pittsburgh Penguins (51-25-6, 108 points, fourth in East), in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, which begin Wednesday night at the CONSOL Energy Center.

Eastern Conference Quarterfinals Schedule

Game 1 Wednesday, April 11th at Pittsburgh 7:30 p.m.

Game 2 Friday, April 13th at Pittsburgh 7:30 p.m.

Game 3 Sunday, April 15th at Philadelphia 3:00 p.m.

Game 4 Wednesday, April 18th at Philadelphia 7:30 p.m.

Game 5* Friday, April 20th at Pittsburgh 7:30 p.m.

Game 6* Sunday, April 22nd at Philadelphia TBD

Game 7* Tuesday, April 24th at Pittsburgh TBD

* - If necessary

Flyers-Penguins Playoff History

Even though this is the 44th season for both clubs, there have only been five previous postseason meetings between these two organizations. The Pens were a laughing stock for most of their first nearly-20 years in the NHL, until a fateful day in 1984 when Mario Lemieux was welcomed to Pittsburgh with open arms.

1989 Flyers, 4-3 (Lemieux recorded 5 goals, 8 points in 10-7 win in Game 5, but Flyers win Games 6 & 7)

1997 Flyers, 4-1 (Lemieux "passes the torch" to Eric Lindros after the clinching game)

2000 Flyers, 4-2 (Keith Primeau scored in the 5th OT of Game 4)

2008 Pens, 4-1 (Injury-ravaged Flyers defense no match for Pens superstars)

2009 Pens, 4-2 (Tough first round series builds character for Pens on way to winning Stanley Cup)

2011-12 Season Series

The Flyers won the season series by a 4-2 game count, outscoring Pittsburgh 22-20 in the process. No game was decided by any more than two goals, and each was highly competitive and could have gone either way.

Whereas the two teams met three times in the first three weeks during the 2010-11 campaign, the rivals didn't play each other until December 8th this year. Here's a recap of how they fared against one another during this past season:

December 8th - Penguins 2 @ Flyers 3

How did it happen? Philly built a 3-0 lead midway through the second period on goals by Danny Briere, Wayne Simmonds, and Scott Hartnell, and withstood a Pens' comeback on goals by James Neal and Evgeni Malkin.

Winning Goalie - Bryzgalov Losing Goalie - Fleury Game-Winning Goal - Hartnell

February 18th - Penguins 6 @ Flyers 4

How did it happen? Two shorthanded goals late in the second period turned the tide in a game in which the Flyers appeared to have control, and led to Bryzgalov being pulled to start the third. Dustin Jeffrey and Pascal Dupuis greeted Sergei Bobrovsky with goals to break a 3-3 game open early in the frame, leading the visitors to the win.

Winning goalie - Fleury Losing Goalie - Bobrovsky Game-Winning Goal - Dupuis

December 29th - Flyers 4 @ Penguins 2

How did it happen? Two ex-Pens and newcomers to Philly came up big in their respective returns to Pittsburgh, as Jaromir Jagr and Maxime Talbot each scored goals.

Winning goalie - Bobrovsky Losing Goalie - Fleury Game-Winning Goal - Read

March 18th - Penguins 2 @ Flyers 3 (OT)

How did it happen? The Flyers were badly outplayed for the first two periods and trailed 2-0 on goals by Craig Adams and Malkin heading into the third. But Kimmo Timonen scored on the power play in the first minute of the third, and Hartnell tied it four minutes later. As time was winding down in overtime and the contest appeared headed for a shootout, Hartnell ripped home a shot from the slot with just 0.9 seconds remaining to give the Orange-and-Black the win.

Winning Goalie - Bryzgalov Losing Goalie - Fleury Game-Winning Goal - Hartnell

April 1st - Flyers 6 @ Penguins 4

How did it happen? The Pens jumped out to another two-goal lead -- this time on goals by Steve Sullivan and Neal within the game's first five minutes -- before the Flyers stormed back. Talbot again was a catalyst, and Jakub Voracek recorded his first two-goal game as a Flyer. The game turned ugly late when Brayden Schenn, who had just taken a late hit from Sidney Crosby, returned the favor with a shot to the back of the superstar as they were headed to their respective benches. After a hard check by Joe Vitale on Briere in the final minute, a line brawl ensued.

Winning Goalie - Bobrovsky Losing Goalie - Fleury Game-Winning Goal - Bourdon

April 7th - Flyers 2 @ Penguins 4

How did it happen? Resting Giroux and Bryzgalov, Philadelphia overcame two different Pittsburgh one-goal leads, but yielded goals to Crosby and Malkin in the last 2:06 of the second period to set the final score. Surprisingly not a lot of emotion after the week-long build up, and it looked like the team just wanted the game to be over as soon as possible to get to the real thing in the playoffs.

Winning goalie - Fleury Losing Goalie - Bobrovsky Game-Winning Goal - Crosby

The leading scorers in the regular season tilts should come as no surprise, as they were also the club's respective top scorers for the year.

Malkin led all scorers with nine points (3 G, 6 A), while Giroux held the top spot for the Flyers with eight points (1 G, 7 A). Neal also talled three times for the Pens, while Jagr led all goal-scorers with four.

By picking up 15 PIMs on a bogus boarding major and game misconduct Saturday, Rinaldo had the high number of 29 minutes in the sin bin, while Vitale topped Pittsburgh with 21.

The Flyers' power play was 6-29 (20.7%) against the Penguins, while the Philly penalty-killing was a stellar 19-22 (86.4%).

Peter Laviolette's decision to sit Bryzgalov on the last day of the regular season may have at least kept one bit of a psychological edge for the Flyers intact, as Bryzgalov was a perfect 2-0-0 against Pittsburgh. However, "Bryz" was pulled after two periods on February 18 with the score tied at 3-3 in an eventual 6-4 Pens' victory. Bryzgalov's play versus the Pens was solid, as he posted a 2.60 goals-against average and .912 save percentage. Bobrovsky went 2-2-0 with a 3.84 GAA and .885 save percentage.

Marc-Andre Fleury had a banner year for Pittsburgh, recording a 42-17-4 mark, with a 2.36 GAA and .913 save %. But he was rather ordinary against the Flyers with a 1-3-1 record, 3.41 GAA and .872 save %.

Possible Loss Of Momentum?

The Flyers' 4-2 loss in Pittsburgh in the regular season finale was a meaningless game, indeed. Both teams were locked into their respective spots in the Eastern Conference standings,

By virtue of the Penguins' victory over the Rangers and clinching fourth place Thursday night, the Flyers were locked into fifth place and will be opening in Pittsburgh Wednesday.

With the ugly way last Sunday's contest ended -- 15 penalties and 52 PIMs in a skirmish in the game's final minute -- just coming out of the contest healthy heading into the playoffs was job number one for both teams.

With Pittsburgh calling up goon winger Steve MacIntyre -- he of the two goals, four points, and 161 PIMs in 89 career NHL games -- Giroux sat out the late-afternoon, as did Bryzgalov. Giroux basically told reporters that he would have played had the contest had any bearing on anything whatsoever.

With Giroux the precautions were formed as an "upper body injury", but it was really a cold. While it would have been better termed as an "upper respiratory injury" or "upper body congestion", the intentions were entirely crystal clear. If the game was to get ugly, there was no way they were risking the health of the cog that makes the Philly offensive engine perform.

The NHL schedule maker was not too kind to the Flyers, or at least that's how it seemed with the way things fell to play out in the season-ending scenario.

There could possibly be some possible ramifications to the regular season finale at CONSOL Energy Center:

Perhaps the biggest danger Philly faces is if they end up losing their mystique over the Pens at CONSOL, especially with opening the first round in the Steel City. The Civic / Mellon Arena had been nothing short of a house of horrors for the Orange-and-Black since the Crosby-era in Pittsburgh.

But beginning with a triumph over the home team in the inaugural game last year and a 5-0-0 record for the Flyers in Pittsburgh's new digs since opening, the psychological edge is certainly in jeopardy with the Pens' victory Saturday.

To give a clearer example, look no further than Tuesday's Flyers meeting at Wells Fargo Center with another hated rival, the New York Rangers. Already having lost their first five times against the Broadway Blueshirts, Philadelphia had the chance to make a statement by taking the final matchup. Sort of a postseason memo.

While the Flyers failed to get the point across they can feel confident in taking a best-of-seven series in a 5-3 loss, Pittsburgh was able to prove they can beat Philly in their new barn.

A bit of a mental boost for a team that could go on to represent the East in the Stanley Cup Finals?

You bet.

Even though the game meant nothing Saturday evening, the way the schedule worked out, it may have taken away some of the momentum the Flyers had built with last Sunday's hard-fought triumph.

The first two games of the series should tell the tale.

Home Ice Advantage?

Every team battles for the right to play the first two games in their own building, but it can work against a team if they cannot hold serve in the series' initial pair. If you lose the opener, the pressure to win the second is magnified a thousand times stronger.

It may work to Philly's advantage to open on the road and in a building they've had some great success. Even with Saturday's loss, the Flyers still finished with their second consecutive season of 25 road victories -- which ties the franchise record. Even though Philadelphia closed out their home portion of the season stronger down the stretch to post a 22-13-6 record at home, they finished with an NHL-best 25-13-3 mark on the road.

The Pens were 29-10-2 at CONSOL.

Injury Woes

There is no doubt that both the Flyers and Penguins were two of the teams hit the hardest by the injury bug all year long. Pittsburgh has gotten two of their most integral pieces back in Crosby and all-everything defenseman Kris Letang back at the perfect time.

Philadelphia

Forwards

James van Riemsdyk (broken foot) - Best-case scenario is he can return for mid-first round.

Briere (upper back contusion) - Hoping to be back Wednesday night in Game 1.

Tom Sestito (groin) - Several weeks away from any kind of possible return.

Defensemen

Nicklas Grossmann (knee) - Hoping to be back Wedensday night in Game one.

Andrej Meszaros (lower back surgery) - Best-case scenario is mid-second round -- if Flyers are still in the playoff hunt.

Pittsburgh

With just part-time defenseman Ben Lovejoy (arthroscopic knee surgery) definitely out for the series opener, the Penguins are probably at their healthiest point of the year -- and at the perfect time of the year, too.

While Neal and Sullivan (both lower body) and Matt Niskanen (upper body) are all on Pittsburgh's injured list, they are all listed as "probable" for Wednesday's opener.

What To Expect

Crosby was outspoken over the last week when the Penguins organization was criticized by several Flyers and assistant coach Craig Berube, then hearing more of the same from Rangers' head coach John Tortorella. A common complaint was regarding the amount of "whining" Pittsburgh star players were doing in the direction of officials in order to get favorable calls in the future, as well as the blind eye being turned toward both Crosby and Malkin, allowing them to get away with numerous infractions of their own.

"Sid the Kid" says the allegations are unwarranted and "garbage".

One would expect much more of the mud slinging as this series progresses. There's no doubt the eyes of the entire hockey world will be focused squarely on these teams in the first round, as it's about as even of a matchup as there is in round one. The finger pointing to show wrong doing by the other side will likely be prevelant, and it's all with the purpose of attempting to have the officiating take a more scrutinizing look at the opponent in hopes of drawing additional power plays.

Expect the Pens to come out flying Wednesday in an attempt to keep the good mojo going in their barn. This could lead to an early Flyers' deficit, but the good news for Philly fans is that wouldn't be anything different from what they've had to deal with for some time. Philadelphia did not have a lead after 10 minutes were played in 51 of the last 55 regular season contests, which is remarkable when considering the team had an excellent record (30-19-6) over that span.

Even if they do fall behind, the ability of the Flyers to overcome deficits has to be in the back of the Penguins' collective minds. Philly came back in two contests they were down 2-0 over the last three weeks of the season.

Keys To The Series

Crosby And Malkin And Neal, Oh My!

The Penguins have a star-studded lineup and quite an impressive arsenal, and their tremendous amount of depth -- along with the coaching of Dan Bylsma -- was likely what got the Pens through their horrific run of man games lost to injuries to key skaters. Crosby (60 games missed), Letang (31), and Jordan Staal (20) were among the most important casualties for much of Pittsburgh's regular season.

The NHL's scoring leader, Malkin is most likely to be named the League's MVP after the production he had this season. The Russian centerman notched his first career 50-goal year, and led the NHL with 109 points. When Pittsburgh was decimated by injuries to their forward ranks, "Geno" shouldered the brunt of the offensive load and kept the team afloat.

Neal sat out the last two games of the schedule with what is being called a "lower body injury" -- against the Rangers and Flyers, coincidentally -- but it's likely he was just being rested. The winger was a fantastic acquisition during the 2010-11 campaign, and ended up with 40 goals and 81 points this year. Neal is listed as "probable" for Game 1.

Crosby is in his second round of a comeback from post-concussion syndrome. He played eight games in a late-November stretch -- posting 12 points -- but suffered a recurrence of concussion-like symptoms. He didn't return again until March 15, playing in the season's last 15 contests. Crosby posted 25 points during that time, including 12 in his last five outings.

To say the trio is red-hot is a tremendous understatement, and the Flyers' ability / inability to contain them may just be the key to the entire series.

From a Flyers' standpoint, the obvious component would be the production of the top line of Hartnell-Giroux-Jagr. But the contributions of the newcomers this year -- summer trades, UFA signings, and rookies -- may have been one of the most integral and crucial keys to Philly's success in the just-completed campaign.

The players appearing in their first-year with the team made gigantic contributions -- Jagr-19-35-54, Voracek 18-31-49, Simmonds 28-21-49, and even Talbot, who has been a defense specialist and PK extraordinaire throughout his career, recorded new offensive highs with 19-15-34.

As far as freshmen are concerned, Paul Holmgren couldn't have hoped for any more than what he received from his rookies. Led by Matt Read's 24-23-47 and Couturier's 13-14-27, Philadelphia first-year players chipped in an amazing 64 goals (more than 24% of Philly's goals) and 129 points to the Flyers' cause this season. Many times when the club's veterans were slumping, the rookies came to the rescue with important contributions of their own.

They've proven they can handle the grind of the NHL. The question is, how will they react to the additional pressure of the postseason? The answer may just be one of the biggest pieces of the Philly playoff puzzle.

Prediction

Hartnell said the series would be a "bloodbath", and he may not be far off in his prediction.

One thing is for certain. Whichever club comes out of the latest installmant of the "Keystone Klash" will more than likely stumble through, undoubtedly hobbled as they move on for the Eastern Conference Semifinals. It will not be one for the faint of heart.

Laviolette needs Couturier's line to be able to keep the Malkin line in check. If they run rampant, it could be a short series.

Philly was very good in posting a 4-2 record against Pittsburgh this year, but it's hard to imagine the team being able to beat a healthy Penguins' lineup four-out-of-seven games. This will be a close series, and one that could very well go the distance -- one the Flyers could very well pull off.

While the youthful exuberance of the Flyers' roster will be evident, it's usually playoff experience and savvy that comes through in the end. For that reason, the pick has to be the one with the Stanley Cup to their credit within the last three seasons -- by the slightest of margins.

Penguins in overtime of Game 7.

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