Pittsburgh Post-Gazette hockey writer Dave Molinari breaks down the first-round series between the Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers that begins tonight at Consol Energy Center:
Streaking: No one in the NHL is hotter than Penguins RW Pascal Dupuis, who finished the regular season with a 17-game scoring streak that was the longest in the league in 2011-12. Penguins C Evgeni Malkin, who won the NHL scoring title, can't match Dupuis, but did put up at least one point in each of his final eight games. Flyers RW Wayne Simmonds, a real force around the net, scored six times in his final seven games. Teammate Jaromir Jagr had a late-season streak going, too, but not one he enjoyed; Jagr went 15 games without a goal before scoring in the regular-season finale.
Special teams: Although the Penguins and Flyers finished the regular season with identical conversion rates, 19.7, on the power play, the Penguins had a decided advantage in penalty-killing success, 87.8 to 81.8. Philadelphia gave up four man-advantage goals in its final two games after allowing five in the previous 18. Both teams are threats to score while down a man. The Penguins had 11 short-handed goals, Philadelphia six.
Difference-makers: Not real hard to find those on either roster. The Penguins' list starts with C Sidney Crosby, considered by many to be the game's top player, and Malkin, the likely league MVP. Factor in the likes of Kris Letang and Jordan Staal, and it's a pretty impressive nucleus. Philadelphia counters with C Claude Girous, one of the NHL's most gifted and creative forwards, and LW Scott Hartnell, who had a breakout season with 37 goals. And then there are impact players such as RW Daniel Briere or Jagr, who remains a bull at age 40 and presumably will be highly motivated facing a team with which he spent 11 seasons. One guy whose absence could make a difference is Flyers defenseman Chris Pronger, whose season was ended by a concussion. As usual, the guys who stand to have the biggest impact on how the series plays out will be the goalies, Marc-Andre Fleury of the Penguins and Philadelphia's Ilya Bryzgalov.
Intangibles: Both clubs will be fueled by a well-founded belief that they're capable of contending for a Stanley Cup, but it is an undiluted mutual disdain that drives the NHL's most ferocious rivalry. Fortunately, the series won't be decided by which team hates the other more. If that were the case, it might not end until sometime in 2017.
Who will win: This is going to be a best-of-seven acid bath, with the outcome quite possibly determined by a variable -- an injury or a bounce or an official's call, missed or made -- that simply can't be predicted going in. Emotions will be high, sticks and elbows higher. Nothing about this series will soften the edges of hockey's most brutal rivalry, and whoever advances figures to survive the series more than win it. Penguins in seven.