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.
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 email@example.com