Why watch: Senators-Penguins conference semifinals

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Why watch: Senators-Penguins conference semifinals

We're a good four months away from seeing any professional hockey in Philadelphia, but this year's NHL playoffs continue to roll on.

The Eastern Conference semifinal series kicks off tonight at 7:30 p.m., with the Ottawa Senators traveling to Pittsburgh to face off against the Penguins. Looking for an excuse to watch? Below, the nuts and bolts of what you need to know to enjoy this Flyers-less playoff series.

Let's play catch-up
It took the Penguins six games – and a lot more effort – to eliminate the New York Islanders in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals than anyone expected. And Pens starting goalie Marc-Andre Fleury had a fair amount of trouble, looking a lot like he did last spring against the Flyers. Fleury was eventually ousted in favor of backup Tomas Vokoun, who was in net for Games 5 and 6.  

By contrast, the Sens capitalized on goalie issues in their opening-round series against the Montreal Canadiens, in which Habs goalie Carey Price was injured and had to be replaced with backup Peter Budaj. Ottawa's goaltender, Craig Anderson, arguably kept them in the series, too. Though it took only five games for the seventh-ranked Sens to knock off the No. 2-seeded Canadiens, they were far from adept at starting games, putting the pressure on Anderson (who allowed only two first-period goals on 66 opening-stanza shots).

Storylines
The matchup might not have the cache of, say, a Flyers-Pens series or a Boston-Montreal pairing, but these two teams do have some history. They've faced each other in the playoffs three times, with the Pens emerging as victors in the two more recent meetings (2010, 2008).

Things get particularly interesting if you zero in on this year's Senators-Penguins relationship, however. First: The Penguins took all three of the games in the teams' regular-season series in 2013, outscoring the Sens 9-4 in the process. But it's the meeting between these two teams on Feb. 13 that really adds some drama to this series.

Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson, one of the best young blueliners in the league, was the victim of a scary incident in that game, in which a skate blade sliced through his left Achilles tendon, leading many to believe he'd miss the rest of the Sens' 2013 campaign. (He returned, obviously). But it was Penguins forward Matt Cooke who delivered the hit that led to Karlsson's injury, and it's safe to say neither Karlsson nor his teammates have forgotten that fact. Cooke, of course, said the play was unintentional; but that doesn't mean tensions won't be high on both sides of the red line.

Also, as it was against the Islanders, expect the Penguins to continue to avenge their 2011-12 fate of falling to the Flyers in an embarrassing fashion in the playoffs' first round. The big question for them is, then: Which goaltender will give them a better shot to compete with Anderson and the Sens? Penguins coach Dan Bylsma has so far been mum on the subject.

Players to watch


Penguins: Sidney Crosby
Sorry, Flyers fans – we know that’s probably not what you want to read right now. But Crosby was impressive during the Pens’ first-round series, netting three goals and tacking on six assists after returning from a jaw injury for Game 2. On a team all but defined by its offensive depth, Crosby continues to be one of the most exciting players to follow – but if paying attention to the Flyers’ arch rival doesn’t do it for you, keep an eye on Evgeni Malkin. The dangerous Russian leads the Pens with 11 postseason points.

Senators: Erik Karlsson
Karlsson was the recipient of last season’s Norris Trophy (awarded to the NHL’s top defenseman). He was arguably on pace for another impressive season when he suffered that aforementioned 70-percent tear of his left Achilles tendon, causing him to miss 31 games. But Karlsson, who returned just before the regular season came to an end, hasn’t lost a step. He was the best Senator on the ice through the team’s five-game series with the Canadiens.

(Consider keeping an eye on Jason Spezza, too. The Sens’ center practiced this weekend for the first time since he underwent back surgery in February. While there’s no guarantee he’ll make an appearance in the series, he changes the Sens’ landscape entirely if he does.)

Prediction
As mentioned, Pittsburgh swept the Senators this season, outscoring them 9-4 in the process. But the Pens had some trouble containing the Islanders’ young, quick forwards, and similar issues could plague them against Ottawa (especially if Spezza returns to the lineup during the series). That said, as long as the Penguins are motivated – instead of exhausted – by their emotional first-round series, this matchup is theirs for the taking. Penguins in six.

Flyers free-agent goalie fits: Jonathan Bernier

Flyers free-agent goalie fits: Jonathan Bernier

Each day this week until July 1, the day free agency begins, Tom Dougherty, Jordan Hall and Greg Paone will profile the five best goalie options for the Flyers on the open market and project their likelihood of signing.

Jonathan Bernier
Age: 28
Height: 6-0
Weight: 184
Last team: Anaheim Ducks
2016-17 cap hit: $4.15 million

Scouting report
After being drafted 11th overall in 2006, Bernier was a highly-touted goaltender coming up in the Los Angeles Kings system and performed well in a backup role for five seasons in L.A.

But with Jonathan Quick in Los Angeles, Bernier was blocked from getting a viable opportunity to be a No. 1 with the Kings. In June 2013, they shipped him to Toronto.

Bernier did not capitalize on his opportunity with the Maple Leafs, however. He never established himself as a high-end starting goalie in three seasons despite a strong first year.

In 2013-14, Bernier was 26-19-7 with a 2.68 goals-against average and .923 save percentage with the Leafs but that save percentage continually dropped the next two years.

Toronto decided to cut ties with Bernier after the 2015-16 season and traded him to the Anaheim Ducks for a conditional draft pick. He spent last season backing up John Gibson.

Appearing in 39 games last season for the Ducks, Bernier posted a 21-7-4 record with a 2.50 goals-against average, .915 save percentage and two shutouts.

One note about Bernier: Flyers general manager Ron Hextall was an assistant GM in Los Angeles when the Kings drafted him in 2006, so there is a connection there.

Dougherty's projection
I don’t think Bernier is the best option available for the Flyers but the most likely. Maybe I’m putting too much weight on the Hextall connection here, maybe not. We’ll see.

Bernier fits what the Flyers appear to want in a goalie going forward: a short-term veteran option who can share the net with Michal Neuvirth in a platoon situation.

Hextall isn’t looking for the Flyers’ goalie of the future this summer. He believes he has that in the system already but needs to bide time for Carter Hart and Felix Sandstrom.

But he will be looking for a goalie who he can trust playing around 40 games or more next season and give the team quality in net. In that role, Bernier would be a solid fit.

He hasn’t panned out as projected and we could use him as one example of why we don’t see many goaltenders drafted high in the first round. They’re tough to project.

With that said, Bernier has found success in the past, including last season in Anaheim, in either a platoon or backup situation. He’ll come at a reasonable price, too.

A tandem of Neuvirth-Bernier would not be the worst thing in the world for the Flyers; it wouldn’t be the best, either. I think it would give them enough in net to compete.

If I had to predict which goaltender on the market will be here next season, it is Bernier.

Hall's projection
I see Bernier as one of the least realistic options for the Flyers.
 
The 2006 11th overall pick hasn't quite lived up to the hype, but he still has some cachet, probably too much for the Flyers in this spot.
 
He turns only 29 in August and in a backup role last season, his 2.50 goals-against average and .915 save percentage still ranked in the top 15 among NHL goalies that played 39 games or more.
 
The role and price in which the Flyers will offer shouldn't attract Bernier much. From the sound of Hextall, I expect him to be judicious in adding a goalie. This sounds much more like a stopgap, temporary position than anything future oriented.
 
There's a connection with the Flyers' GM here, but that might be it when it comes to the Bernier scenario.

Paone's projection
I find Bernier to be an intriguing option for the Flyers.

First and foremost, there is plenty of familiarity with Bernier within the Flyers' organization. Hextall and current Flyers goalie coach Kim Dillabaugh were both parts of the Kings' organization when Bernier was drafted in 2006 and worked with him during his development into an NHL goaltender. They not only know the type of player and competitor they'd be getting, they also know the type of person they'd be getting and that plays a role, too.

Bernier had a very strong campaign for the Ducks last season. That certainly makes him an attractive option for the Flyers. He did his best to prove he can be a reliable option again after things soured for him in Toronto. But, hey, a lot of things went sour in Toronto during those times.

But that strong campaign with Anaheim last season will have Bernier wanting opportunity and more of it. With Neuvirth entrenched here, how much opportunity would there actually be for Bernier here? Would the Flyers present the type of opportunity he's looking for after last year's showing with the Ducks? My guess is no. He'll likely want an opportunity to take on much more of a workload.

So while the option is intriguing for many reasons and it certainly isn't out of the realm of possibility, I ultimately feel this is an option both he and the Flyers pass on.

Flyers re-sign defenseman Mark Alt to 1-year, 2-way deal

Flyers re-sign defenseman Mark Alt to 1-year, 2-way deal

One day after extending qualifying offers to seven restricted free agents (see story), the Flyers re-signed Mark Alt, who was unrestricted.

The Phantoms' defenseman agreed to a one-year, two-way deal on Tuesday that will play him $125,000 in the AHL and $650,000 in the NHL.

The 25-year-old has played four years with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms. 

He had one goal and 11 points last season in 40 AHL games.

Alt's only NHL appearance was his debut as a Flyer on March 28, 2015, at San Jose.

Alt has 68 points (12 goals) in 237 AHL games.