Monday, May 05, 2008

Your Conference Finals Prognostos -- Eastern Conference Final: Penguins vs. Flyers

We’re half-way through, and that means the conference finals. First up, the east...

Pittsburgh Penguins (2) vs. Philadelphia Flyers (6)

Season series:

Nov. 7: Philadelphia 3 – at Pittsburgh 1
Nov. 10: at Philadelphia 5 – Pittsburgh 2

Dec. 11: at Philadelphia 8 – Pittsburgh 2

Jan. 24: at Philadelphia 4 – Pittsburgh 3

Feb. 10: at Pittsburgh 4 – Philadelphia 3

Mar. 16: at Pittsburgh 7 – Philadelphia 1

Apr. 2: at Pittsburgh 4 – Philadelphia 2

Apr. 6: at Philadelphia 2 – Pittsburgh 0

The subtext to this series is an accusation by Ottawa coach Brian Murray that the Penguins took a dive in their season-ending game against the Flyers so as to avoid having to play the Flyers in the first round, preferring to meet the Ottawa Senators. It wouldn’t be the first time the Penguins engaged in strategic diving (cough - Lemieux - cough), Sidney Crosby being the master of the tactical dive...must be a Penguin thing this diving.

Well now, the Penguins get the Flyers. While the AHL versions of these teams go at it in their own playoff series, the NHL clubs renew their playoff blood feud for the fourth time in their respective histories with each playing as well as they have all year. Going back to the regular season, the Penguins are 19-5-1 in their last 25 games, the Flyers are 15-5-1 in their last 21. The Penguins haven’t lost consecutive games since February 28-March 1, the Flyers are playing in a conference final when they were given up for dead after a ten-game winless streak from February 6-23.

In this year’s eight-game series, here is how the second-seeded Penguins came out:

Goals for/against: 23/28
Power play goals for/against: 9/11

Even-strength goals for/against: 13/15

Power play: 9/40 (22.5%)

Penalty killing: 35/46 (76.1%)

Record: one-goal games: 1-1-0

Record, 3+ goal games: 1-2

This is a tale of two seasons. The Flyers won the first four games by a combined 20-8 score. The Penguins won the next three by a combined 15-6 score. Then there was the “dive game” (for the record, Flyers 2 - Penguins 0). We’ll discount that one. The nature of the two seasons-in-a-season is like watching Rocky Balboa (that would be the plucky, little-thought-of Flyers) trading head shots with Apollo Creed (the media darling, super-talented Penguins).

Looking at the Penguins’ top scorers in the season series (all through eight games, unless noted):

Evgeni Malkin: 6-9-15, +1, 1 GWG
Sidney Crosby: 2-5-7, -6 (four games)

Sergei Gonchar: 3-5-8, -5

Petr Sykora: 5-4-9, +4, 1 GWG

Ryan Malone: 1-5-6, -1

What is telling about these numbers is that the dynamic duo of Malkin and Crosby are 8-14-22, but a combined -5. Why?...five of Crosby’s seven points came on the power play, five of Malkin’s. For good measure, seven of Gonchar’s points came with the man advantage. Philadelphia has been able to exploit them to a degree at even strength.

There is absolutely no secret to this series, if the season series is an indicator. Of the 23 goals scored by the Penguins in their eight games against the Flyers, either Crosby or Malkin, or both, scored or assisted on 18 of them, including 12 of the last 14.

But – and a significant “but” it is – the Penguins have spread the wealth a little more in the post season. While Crosby or Malkin have had a hand in 22 of the 31 goals so far, the goal scoring itself has been spread among 13 different skaters. 18 of 19 skaters who have dressed in the Penguin’s nine playoff games have points.

For the Penguins, the trading deadline addition of Marian Hossa is paying off. He is the third-leading scorer for the Penguins in the playoffs (5-5-10, +3) and was 1-3-4 in three games against the Flyers this year. His is the dimension – a scoring winger – that the Penguins have lacked at times this season. If he has another point-a-game or better series (he had five points in each of the first two rounds), he’ll be on the winning team.

But for all the blather about Crosby this, and Malkin that, what has driven the Penguins is goaltending and defense. Marc-Andre Fleury is third among playoff goalies in goals-against average (1.76) and leads all netminders in save percentage (.938). He is tied for the lead in shutouts with two. Since returning from injury on February 28th, Fleury is 18-3-1, 1.63, .943. He is giving every sign that he is finally that franchise goalie the Penguins thought they were drafting in 2003. As a team, only once have the Penguins surrendered more than three goals in nine games.

Turning to the Flyers and their top scorers and their records in this series (all in eight games, unless noted):

Mike Richards: 1-7-8, +2
Daniel Briere: 1-6-7, +1 (seven games)

Mike Knuble: 5-2-7, even, 1 GWG

Jeff Carter: 2-4-6, +3, 1 GWG

R.J. Umberger: 6-5-11, +4, 1 GWG

Another of the subplots in this series revolves around Umberger, the Pittsburgh native. Umberger has worn out the Penguins this year, and his nine-point effort in the Montreal series has allowed him to climb to tenth in post-season scoring and second in goals. He is perhaps as god a symbol of the Flyers in the post-season as anyone – an unheralded player with exquisite timing, playing perhaps the best and most surprising stretch of hockey in his NHL career. For all the press that has been and will continue to be churned out about the Penguins’ firepower, the Flyers are averaging more goals per game thus far in the playoffs (3.58 to 3.44). While it is true that the Flyers have played: a) a green defensive team (Washington), and b) one with a rookie goalie (Montreal), they have found offense in a lot of different places – eight players have at least three goals; four players have at least 11 points.

The Flyers’ marketing scheme at the moment is built upon the theme, “Vengeance Now.” Well, if the phrase has meaning, it has it with respect to this opponent. The Penguins treated the Flyers rudely last season, winning all eight games by a combined 40-21 (not including shootout goals). The Flyers exacted a measure of vengeance in the first four games this year, but Pittsburgh turned the tables in the second half of the season series. But what is likely to be key for the Flyers are a pair of players who were not in Philadelphia for most of that unpleasantness with the Penguins last year.

The first is Daniel Briere. He is tied for second in playoff scoring, but after having a fine series against Washington in the opening round (6-5-11, +2), he tailed a bit in the second round (2-1-3, -1). He will have to have a performance more like that of the first round if the Flyers are to advance.

The second player is Martin Biron. Having had no playoff experience coming into this post-season, Biron has been steady and, at times, spectacular in goal. His statistics do not jump off the page – eighth in GAA (2.72), sixth in save percentage (.914) – but he has been there when the Flyers have needed him. His season stats against the Penguins are equally unremarkable (2.58, .898), but he has five wins in eight games and a shutout (ok, it was the dive game). And, while the Flyers played that green defense and rookie goalie in the first two rounds, they also played against two of the more accomplished offensive teams in the league. Neither Biron nor the Flyers will be intimidated by the Penguins.

Why Pittsburgh will win…

The word, “juggernaut,” comes from the Hindi (“lord of the world”) and refers to an inexorable force. That is what the Penguins have been thus far in the playoffs. They have not exploded for goals (they have not scored more than five in a game), but they have been consistent (only twice with fewer than three). They are getting scoring from the guys they should be getting scoring from; they are getting goaltending from the guy who has to give it to them. This is a team without an obvious weakness (ok, they are last among the 16 playoff teams in faceoff winning percentage). They are top-four in just about every statistical measure. Here is your surprising stat...they lead all playoff teams in fewest goals allowed-per-game. They are playing like a well-oiled machine. The word to describe them so far is just that...”juggernaut.”

Why Philadelphia will win…

Because they shouldn’t. This is the contrarian team. They should not have won game seven, on the road, in Washington in the opening round. They had no business dispatching the Canadiens in five games. And, they can abuse the Penguins in ways neither Ottawa nor the Rangers could. The one statistical measure that could have relevance to the Flyers is this – they’ve been the better five-on-five team in the playoffs. They held their own at even-strength against the Penguins this year. If they can keep the sides even, they have a chance. And, the Flyers can play with a chip on their shoulder – this is, remember, the team the Penguins (allegedly) wanted to avoid in the first round. And, the Flyers have never lost to the Penguins in the playoffs (3-0).

In the end…

Pittsburgh has more talent and they are playing very well in all three zones. They haven’t been extended, winning two series by 4-0 and 4-1 margins. In only two of eight wins was the margin of victory a single goal. Philly can make this interesting, but it’s hard to see a clear – or even a muddy - path to a Flyer series win.

Pittsburgh in six.