Jackson's Five: Factors that will decide Flyers-Pens

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Jackson's Five: Factors that will decide Flyers-Pens

A series that somehow seemed inevitable is finally upon us. The next chapter of hockey's Battle of Pennsylvania promises to be a classic. Two up-tempo teams, full of talented players and intriguing characters with a large dose of animosity thrown into the mix. There are storylines galore. This should be fun.

There are also many important issues and factors that will help determine the eventual survivor of this Eastern Conference Quarterfinal. Here are five that come to mind:
Antagonism with discipline
There's no question that Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby pose a serious challenge to any opponents' checking scheme. They are both game changers of the highest order. However, unlike some supremely gifted performers, they do not shy away from getting involved in the behind-the-play or after-the-whistle shenanigans that sometimes develop during a game.

Malkin, in particular, has shown a tendency to take some frustration penalties when he is harassed and checked tightly. The Flyers' plan should be to try and get the Penguins' dynamic duo thinking about anything but dominating the game with their skill. Get them irked... or riled up. Be physical with them whenever possible. This could at least slow them down some. Stopping them entirely is just about impossible, but this approach could contain them some.

It comes with some risk though as there is the danger of taking penalties and giving a potentially explosive Pittsburgh power-play a chance to become a factor. Thus, the Flyers will need to agitate, but do so with a disciplined approach.

The impact of the guys in striped shirts
After watching the line brawl that erupted when these teams met in Pittsburgh a couple weeks back, you have to imagine the referees are going to try and exert their influence early on in the series to try and set a tone and prevent mayhem. This flies in the face of the usual theory that officials "let them play" come playoff time.

The question will be how long the referees stick to that plan and how it affects the series. Both clubs have good power-play units. In fact, they ended the season with the same percentage. But the Penguins had better penalty killing efficiency. A constant stream to the penalty box would thus probably not benefit the Flyers.

Lets hope the calls are not the focal point of the series and that it's the players who determine the winner, not the decisions of the officials.

Let the line-matching begin
One of the interesting aspects of a playoff series is the chess match that goes on between the coaches as they try to get favorable matchups. This particular series has some fascinating possibilities along those lines.

Can Peter Laviolette get Sean Couturier's line out consistently against Malkin's trio and how will the 19-year-old do in slowing him down? Will Dan Byslma opt for Jordan Staal's line to counteract the Flyers' potentially explosive top line? If so, are the Flyers comfortable with Danny Briere's line (provided he is good to go) against Crosby's unit? Will an under the radar line that could include Matt Read, Jake Voracek and Eric Wellwood become a factor?

So many questions and Game 1 will only serve to answer a couple of them, while in all likelihood producing several more queries for the rest of the series. It makes for great intrigue, that's for sure.
Trading places
Penguins fans love to remind cross-state Flyers fans about the three Cups their club has won since the Flyers last took the trophy home. It will have to be at least a little disconcerting though to those Pittsburgh fans that key members from each of the two eras of Cup winning greatness in the Steel City now ply their trade in orange and black.

Jaromir Jagr was an important cog in the back-to-back Penguins championships in the early '90s. Meanwhile, all Max Talbot did was score the only two goals in the seventh and deciding game of the Penguins' Stanley Cup Final conquest in 2009.

From the reception they get at the CONSOL Energy Center to the role they play in the series, many eyes will be on Jagr and Talbot beginning Wednesday night.
Bryz vs. Fleury
A recent headline in a Pittsburgh paper read "Flyers lack ace in net like Fleury." It's understandable that folks in Pittsburgh feel that way. In fact, most observers throughout North America probably agree with the sentiment. It comes with the territory when one goaltender has a Stanley Cup ring as a starter and the other, while having a ring from his days in Anaheim, is remembered more now for some uneven playoff performances with the Coyotes the last two springs.

Having said all that, it should be noted that Ilya Bryzgalov actually owns a substantially better postseason save percentage than Marc-Andre Fleury (.917 to .910). And there's no question that Bryzgalov was the hotter of the two from the beginning of March through the end of the season.

Thus, it might be a mistake to give the goaltending edge so quickly to the Penguins just yet. You might want to see how this plays out. What is certain is that if either club gets a decided edge in this comparison, that club will be in the driver's seat to advance to the second round.

Somewhere up there, the legendary Gene Hart is saying "Buckle your seat belts, ladies and gentlemen!" It might be a good idea. This is likely to be a bumpy ride. With the history, the buildup, the storylines, the animosity and the usual playoff intensity in the mix, the next two weeks could produce some unforgettable moments. One state of Pennsylvania entry will have their season end far too early. Another will go on, although probably with substantial war wounds to show for their victory.

Let the latest installment of the Battle of Pennsylvania begin!

E-mail Jim Jackson at jjackson@comcastsportsnet.com

NHL Playoffs: Joe Pavelski pushes Sharks to brink of Cup Final berth

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NHL Playoffs: Joe Pavelski pushes Sharks to brink of Cup Final berth

BOX SCORE

ST. LOUIS -- All the time Joe Pavelski has spent practicing his stick work has paid off big for the San Jose Sharks.

And the Sharks captain has his team on the brink of their first trip to the Stanley Cup Final.

"You think back to some of the best scorers ever, his ability to get his stick on pucks in front of the net from different angles is as good as anybody I've ever seen," coach Peter DeBoer said. "His biggest asset is he works at it."

With the Sharks trailing by a goal, Pavelski tied the game late in the second period and then scored the go-ahead goal in the opening minute of the third period in the Sharks' 6-3 victory over the St. Louis Blues for a 3-2 lead in Western Conference final on Monday night.

"You play a good game like that, you want to ride that," Pavelski said. "Everyone's played a key role so far and it's going to have to continue."

Joel Ward also scored twice, including one of two empty-netters, in the final minute for San Jose, which can close out the series at home on Wednesday night. Joe Thornton had three assists.

"We just keep coming. We're not going to give up and they're not going to give up," Thornton said. "Both teams, we're here for a reason."

The Sharks had a strong response after losing 6-3 in Game 4 in San Jose.

"We've done it all season, all playoff run," forward Logan Couture said. "If we get down, the bench stays pretty even, pretty calm."

Pavelski leads all players in the playoffs with 12 goals and has three two-goal games, one in each series. The Sharks' captain added an assist and is tied with Couture for the postseason points lead, each with a franchise-record 21 points.

"It's good to see Sharks up there," Couture said.

Rookie Robby Fabbri scored and David Backes had an assist for St. Louis. Both were questionable coming off injuries in Game 4.

But star forward Vladimir Tarasenko was silent again. Tarasenko was minus-2 with one shot and is scoreless in the series after getting seven goals and 13 points in the first two rounds.

"He's struggled this series," coach Ken Hitchcock said. "He hasn't gotten the looks that he normally gets. But he's one shift away from breaking it open."

The Blues are just 4-6 at home in the postseason, and failed to hold leads of 2-1 and 3-2 in Game 5. They're 6-3 on the road and need another win to bring the series home for Game 7.

"We did it in Game 4," Backes said. "Now, we've got to go in there and do it again."

The Sharks are 6-2 at home in the postseason and need one more win to reach the Cup Final.

"I think we're reminding them we're not there yet," DeBoer said. "There's a lot of heavy lifting yet."

The Sharks were 2 for 3 on the power play after entering 2 for 15 in the series.

Troy Brouwer batted in a rebound from midair for St. Louis and Ward scored a similar goal for San Jose with his first of the game.

Brouwer leads St. Louis with eight goals in 19 games this postseason after totaling seven in his first 78 playoff games.

Pavelski was left alone in the slot on a power play at 18:33 of the second and beat Jake Allen to tie it at 3-3. He redirected Brent Burns' drive from the point 16 seconds into the third to put the Sharks in front to stay.

San Jose goalie Martin Jones allowed three goals on the Blues' first 13 shots, but stopped all seven shots in the third period.

"He's a great goalie," defenseman Roman Polak said. "He's mentally strong. No matter what happened in the first or second, it doesn't matter."

Blues goalie Jake Allen made 21 saves in his second straight start of the postseason. Hitchcock said he hadn't decided whether Allen or Brian Elliott would start in Game 6.

"Numbers aren't my thing," Allen said. "Never have been, never will be. Wins are all that matter right now."

The Sharks scored first on Marc-Edouard Vlasic's first goal of the postseason from the point at 3:51 of the first period.

Jaden Schwartz snapped a 13-game goal drought to tie it on a rebound at 7:04 of the first.

Flyers Stay or Go Part 2: Claude Giroux to Andrew MacDonald

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Flyers Stay or Go Part 2: Claude Giroux to Andrew MacDonald

In the second of our five-part offseason series examining the future of the Flyers, Tom Dougherty, Jordan Hall and Greg Paone give their opinions on who will be and who won't be on the roster. We go alphabetically. Here’s Part 1. Today, we begin with Claude Giroux.

Claude Giroux
2015-16 stats: 78 GP, 22 G, 45 A
Contract: Signed through 2021-22, $8.275 mm cap hit

Dougherty: Easy call here. Giroux’s the captain on a long-term contract and the team’s leading scorer. He shouldn’t go anywhere, and no, the Flyers should not strip him of the ‘C,’ either.

Verdict: STAY

Hall: Despite tallying just one point in six games of the Flyers’ first-round playoff series loss, Giroux had another productive season and was likely playing hurt through a good chunk of it. That may have been why his goals (22), assists (45) and points (67) were his lowest in a full season since 2009-10. Regardless, the 28-year-old was strong and steady. He’s under contract for quite a while and is obviously staying put.

Verdict: STAY

Paone: This is a rhetorical question about a 28-year-old who has the most points (116 G, 251 A – 367 P) in the NHL over the past five seasons, led the Flyers in points five of the last six seasons, is a four-time All-Star and one of the best players in the world, right? Um, yeah, he’s back. 

Verdict: STAY

Shayne Gostisbehere
2015-16 stats: 64 GP, 17 G, 29 A
Contract: Signed through 2016-17, $925,000 cap hit

Dougherty: Another easy one here. Gostisbehere came up to the Flyers when Mark Streit underwent pubic plate dislocation surgery and never looked back. He’s a Calder Trophy finalist, and one of the most exciting young defensemen to watch across the league. He’ll be back next season, though we should temper our expectations a bit.

Verdict: STAY

Hall: This guy wasn’t too bad in his first NHL season. I think he’s staying.

Verdict: STAY

Paone: “Ghost” took the NHL and, more specifically, Philadelphia by storm in 2015-16 with his spectacular rookie campaign. If you ask Flyers players, they’ll tell you they can’t pinpoint when this season turned around. But it’s no coincidence the picture started to brighten when the Calder Trophy finalist arrived. The question isn’t whether he’ll be back. The question is what will he do for an encore in his sophomore campaign?

Verdict: STAY

Radko Gudas
2015-16 stats: 76 GP, 5 G, 9 A
Contract: Restricted free agent

Dougherty: I’m not a huge fan of Gudas’ game, but it’s hard to ignore what he did last season once he figured out how to legally check players in the NHL. Once the discipline came, Gudas turned into an effective defenseman and was used as such. He’s a restricted free agent, but Hextall hinted at a long-term contract. He’ll be here, and he should. Plus, Gudas is a right-handed shot, which goes well with the coveted prospects.

Verdict: STAY

Hall: I’m not sure what the allure is with Gudas. Maybe it’s the physicality and thumping hits that bring fans back to the golden days. There’s no denying Gudas played better down the stretch of the regular season. He’s a restricted free agent and likely returning, but I wouldn’t mind if the Flyers let him walk to open more opportunity on the blue line and for the future.

Verdict: GO

Paone: Gudas’ season traveled from one end of the spectrum to the other. Once he calmed himself down and stopped taking dumb major penalties that hurt both opponents physically and his Flyers teammates who were forced to pick up for him on the ice after, he was one of the team’s most effective players. His ability to play a physical game can’t be underestimated, especially when he plays it smartly. And when he plays it smartly, he’s a valuable weapon who gets under the opposition’s skin with the best of them. He’s a restricted free agent who will get a raise, but he’ll be back. 

Verdict: STAY

Scott Laughton
2015-16 stats: 71 GP, 7 G, 14 A
Contract: Signed through 2016-17, $863,333 cap hit

Dougherty: The Flyers aren’t going to give up on Laughton after one full NHL season. It’s just not going to happen and it’s not how the business works. Laughton’s first season up didn’t go well and quite frankly, if he wants to be an everyday NHLer, he’ll have to come into training camp with a metaphorical boulder on his shoulder. Why’s that? Because I’m not sure he’ll earn a spot on the roster in camp. The one thing we’ve learned with Hextall is young players have to earn their way. If we consider the Flyers will add a winger or two from outside the organization and Travis Konecny will be pushing for a spot come September, Laughton will have to show another level he hasn’t displayed yet. I could very well see him starting the season with Lehigh Valley.

Verdict: GO

Hall: Remember, Laughton is going to turn just 22 years old in a week. This past season was his first full one in the NHL and he saw just 10:26 of ice time per game. Give him some time. Laughton said his goal is to be a top-six forward. He’s shown flashes, and I think added opportunity will give him a better chance at NHL success.

Verdict: STAY

Paone: Perhaps no Flyer had more of an up-and-down season than Laughton. And it ended in ugly fashion with that frightening collision into the boards in Game 4 against the Capitals that left him motionless on the ice for several minutes. The former first-round pick found himself a healthy scratch as the Flyers made their playoff push at the end of the season. I do believe he has plenty more to offer. But two things have to happen for his situation to be more conducive to success. Whether at center or at wing, he needs a defined position and, once he gets that, he needs to show his abilities on a more consistent basis. He’ll be back, but he needs to make that consistent impact when he gets his chances. The leash could be short, though.

Verdict: STAY

Andrew MacDonald
2015-16 stats: 28 GP, 1 G, 7 A
Contract: Signed through 2019-20, $5 mm cap hit

Dougherty: MacDonald’s contract hurts looking at it. To his credit, MacDonald handled everything with class last season, spending the majority of the year in the AHL. He came up because of injury and played better than expected … but that’s because the expectations were so low. It’ll be a minor miracle if Hextall is able to move MacDonald’s contract this summer, but it’s very hard to see a Flyers roster come opening night with MacDonald on it. He figures to be on the Phantoms again at the start of the season, unless Hextall chooses to buy him out.

Verdict: GO

Hall: It’s hard to blame MacDonald for accepting what was offered to him, that being his contract. It’s the reason why he’ll be staying in the Flyers’ organization. The 29-year-old defenseman is under contract through the 2019-20 season and brings with him a cap hit of $5 million, according to Spotrac.com. MacDonald is a classy and well-respected player that did actually perform in his 28 regular-season games. Because of his deal, he’ll be here, whether it’s the AHL or NHL.

Verdict: STAY

Paone: Let’s get this straight: MacDonald is not a bad hockey player. He’s a fine No. 4, 5, 6-type defenseman, and he and Gostisbehere had some nice chemistry together as a pairing toward the end of the season. But that contract is a figurative anvil tied to his skates. Would the Flyers prefer to move the money on MacDonald’s contract? Probably. And if we’ve learned anything about Hextall over the past couple of seasons, it’s that nothing is impossible when it comes to him working the phones (see: Lecavalier, Vincent). Could a buyout starting with a $2.02 million cap hit next season be an option? Sure, anything is an option. But would it really be worth it? Defense is at a premium in today’s NHL and MacDonald is a really good depth guy. Add in the hefty contract and my gut says he’s back with the Flyers next season with more easily moveable veterans out the door.

Verdict: STAY

NHL Playoffs: Lightning put Penguins on the ropes with Game 5 OT win

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NHL Playoffs: Lightning put Penguins on the ropes with Game 5 OT win

BOX SCORE

PITTSBURGH -- Tyler Johnson turned toward the net, wary of taking another shot to his already battered face.

The puck off Jason Garrison's stick found him anyway, and this time he didn't even feel it. He was too busy celebrating lifting the Tampa Bay Lightning to within one win away from a return trip to the Stanley Cup Finals.

Garrison's wrister smacked off Johnson's back and into the Pittsburgh Penguins net 53 seconds into overtime on Sunday night, giving the Lightning a 4-3 victory and a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series. A year after falling to the Chicago Blackhawks in the Cup finals, Tampa Bay can head back to the championship round with a win in Game 6 at home on Tuesday.

"I was just battling in front," Johnson said. "I saw Garry starting to shoot it, thought he was going for my head again, so I turned around."

Just in time for his seventh -- and most important -- goal of the playoffs. The Lightning are 12-1 in the last 13 postseason games in which Johnson has scored, his fortunate bounce Sunday coming two days after he received stitches and lost some teeth after a puck smashed into his face during warmups before Game 4. He didn't miss a shift that night. He didn't miss the net in overtime 48 hours later, even if he wasn't technically aiming for it.

"He's a winner, that's what winners do," Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said of Johnson. "They don't back down."

Even on the road. Even down a pair of goals. Even trailing by one heading into the third period against a team that began the night 46-0 on the season when leading after two. Yet Tampa Bay survived by consistently and expertly counterpunching every time the Penguins provided an opportunity.

Nikita Kucherov scored twice to boost his postseason total to an NHL-best 11 -- including a wraparound that beat Marc-Andre Fleury and tied it at 3 with just 3:16 left in regulation. Alex Killorn picked up his fifth of the playoffs as the Lightning handed the Penguins consecutive losses for the first time since January. Andrei Vasilevskiy stopped 31 shots to outplay Fleury, who returned to the lineup for the first time in more than seven weeks.

Fleury finished with 21 saves, but couldn't protect leads of 2-0 and 3-2.

"It wasn't the best I have felt in a game," Fleury said. "Still, I have been practicing a lot, so I should have been better."

Brian Dumoulin, Chris Kunitz and Patric Hornqvist scored for the Penguins, who appeared to be in firm control at certain points only to find themselves on the brink of elimination.

"This is the first time we've been in this position," coach Mike Sullivan said. "I know our guys will respond the right way. They have for four months, five months now."

If the Penguins want to play at least one more game in Pittsburgh this season, they don't really have a choice. While the Penguins have peppered Vasilevskiy for the better part of five games, the Lightning keep finding ways to create quality chances around the Pittsburgh net, though Garrison's flick toward Johnson might not exactly qualify.

"No shot's a bad shot in overtime," Garrison said with a laugh.

Back in his customary starting spot for the first time in 52 days after dealing with a concussion that coincided with the rise of rookie Matt Murray, Fleury appeared to be plenty fresh. He sprinted in full gear onto the Consol Energy Center ice for his 100th career playoff appearance and looked fine while making a split save on Johnson in the second period that few of his brethren can pull off. He was helped by teammates more than willing to get on their bellies. The Penguins blocked 22 shots before they even made it to the goal crease and continued their series-long dominance in creating pressure at the other end.

Dumoulin's first goal in 17 months in the final second of the first period put Pittsburgh in front. Hornqvist's tap-in off Carl Hagelin's feed made it 2-0 just 90 seconds into the second.

The Lightning hardly panicked.

Killorn drew Tampa Bay within a goal 13:15 into the second on a wrist shot from the left circle that went in and out of the goal so quickly play continued for a few seconds before referees pointed to the red goal light. Kucherov tied it 70 seconds later on an easy one-timer. Kunitz's rebound with 1:30 left in the second gave the Penguins another late-period boost.

For the first time all year, it didn't hold up. Ryan Callahan saw a shot ring off the far post and along the goal line -- but not across it -- with 3:50 remaining in what appeared to be Tampa Bay's last best chance. Barely 30 seconds later, Kucherov was flying behind the Pittsburgh net to tie it up and set the stage for Johnson, who is putting off dental surgery until after the season -- calling it an easy decision to make.

Notes
Former professional wrestler Shawn Michaels (nicknamed "The Heartbreak Kid") watched from the fourth row next to former Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel. Michaels came at the behest of the Penguins, who have dubbed the highly effective line of Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel the "HBK" line. Michaels ate an "HBK" sandwich before the game and wore a black Penguins jersey adorned with the No. 156, the combined sum of Hagelin (62), Kessel (81) and Bonino's (13) numbers. ... Pittsburgh forward Beau Bennett made his postseason debut, replacing Conor Sheary on a line with Crosby and Hornqvist. ... Both teams were 0 for 3 on the power play.

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