SCHEDULE: Game 1 Wednesday, Game 2 Friday, Game 3 Sunday, Game 4 April 18th
Didn’t get invited to the party this year, so we’re stuck watching from across the street or hearing it from our basement. But just because we can’t have the fun doesn’t mean we can’t comment on it. It’s still going on after all. Maybe we should just enjoy the freedom of stress (that always works). So let’s start with the most anticipated of the first-rounders, Toronto fans excluded. Mostly because the last time these two teams did this, it was just about the most hilarious series we’ve seen in the Silver Age of the NHL (since they made the league logo silver and not like, orange).
Goalies: You think you’d be pretty confident with the guy who won the last two Cups in your net, and yet I doubt there’s too many Pens fans who think Matt Murray is a sure thing. Quite simply he was awful the past six weeks, when he wasn’t ouchy, and doesn’t have a consistent stretch over the whole season. He’s barely played 1oo games in the regular season, so in that sense we don’t have much idea what he actually is. But his two playoff runs are what they are, with a career SV% of .928 the past two seasons (32 games). Maybe he just “turns it on,” but for the first time I’d bet there’s an awful lot of uneasiness in Western P.A. about that this time.
The Flyers are going to turn it back over to Brian Elliot, who returned just in time to relieve them of Petr Mrazek, who has a terminal case of being Petr Mrazek. And if you’re thinking back to Elliot playoff runs in the past and kind of chuckling, it’s understandable. Yes, he was good enough to overcome the Hawks in 7 in ’16, though he was also a major reason the Hawks were able to even get it to seven after being down 3-1. He was pilfered by the Ducks last year in Calgary, and he’s always been just good enough to get you beat. But then again, isn’t that always the story with Flyers goaltending?
Defense: One day we’re going to look back at the blue line the Penguins won two Cups with, one without Kris Letang, and consider it a miracle on the level off Jules and Vincent not getting shot by that hand-cannon. Seriously, it’s not much. Dumoulin and Letang are very good, but beyond this it really isn’t much. Olli Maatta still sucks, despite the pedigree, and he has a stupid face. Justin Schultz hasn’t pushed the play in the way you’d expect and has in Pittsburgh before, and I’m sure it has nothing to do with his new contract. Jamie Oleksiak is a farm animal, and Chad Ruhwedel, much like a mountain, is just there. The Penguins don’t make it all that hard on their defense, as they’re just asked to chip and bank pucks out to the neutral zone for their forwards to race onto. But with Murray’s form iffy, they might have to limit chances like they haven’t before, especially considering the Philly forwards, and I’m not convinced.
That doesn’t mean Philadelphia has a huge advantage here. Ghost Bear and Provorov certainly piled up the points, but that doesn’t mean they carry the play. Travis Sanheim certainly does, but he’s dragging around a rotting corpse in Andrew MacDonald, who for some reason the Flyers won’t take out back and shoot. Radko Gudas will get suspended at some point in this series, and then he can finally do his Game Of Thrones cosplay full-time which he’s always been destined for. Neither of these teams looks like it’s locking the other one down… which is great for all of us who have no emotional investment here.
Forwards: The obvious strength of both teams. The Penguins have the neat feature of two 90-point scorers, and they’re both on their second line (Malkin and Kessel). Hornqvist had something of an unlucky year, but would be a good bet to be a playoff dynamo considering how many goals are scored this time of year from a distance usually referencing appendages (or a certain one). Guentzel, Sheary, Rust, and those types don’t pop off the page but have the whole “been here before” feel. This is what Derrick Brassard was brought in for, except I wouldn’t trust Brassard as far as I can throw him. But he’ll be taking third line assignments instead of first or second as both Ottawa and the Rangers asked him to, and Hagelin has been a playoff weapon before. You wouldn’t bet against them.
The Flyers are similarly stacked, just without the pedigree. Claude Giroux’s move to wing has done his career wonders, though it helps that Sean Couturier had some much more to give than just being a checking line center (and the best in the league at that when he was). He also drives Crosby nuts, so look for the Pens to avoid that at all costs. Nolan Patrick closed the season strongly with Voracek on the second line, so their top six can probably just about run with the Penguins. Meat Train and Travis Konecny as third-line wingers is a neat trick as well, though Filppula at 34 is probably not ready to go up and down with Brassard if that’s how things shake out.
Prediction: It looks like it’s going to be tons of fun, and the Penguins look just vulnerable enough that getting bounced wouldn’t be a huge surprise. And yet, this is still the Penguins, and it’s still the Flyers, and Marc-Andre Fleury isn’t here to turn this into Strawberry Fields. Murray only has to be Elliot-good, which is just about average. Penguins in 6.