Between the lines

Post-Gazette hockey writer Dave Molinari looks for edges in the Penguins' Eastern Conference final

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PENGUINS SKINNY

FORWARD Evgeni Malkin had four goals and three assists against New York and, at the midpoint of the postseason, ranks among the top performers in the league. While he has, to some degree, overshadowed Sidney Crosby, Crosby actually has matched Malkin's 14 points. And it's worth remembering that even though Crosby still is dealing with the effects of his high ankle sprain, he routinely takes his game to its highest levels against the Flyers.

The most encouraging development in Round 2 might have been the goal-scoring of right winger Marian Hossa, who got four against the Rangers. Hossa might not be a pure sniper but gets himself into scoring position and isn't shy about putting the puck on goal.

Malkin's wingers, Ryan Malone and Petr Sykora, have been reliable contributors, with Malone having an impact on virtually every aspect of the game. His willingness to take, and hand out, hits will have particular value vs. a physical opponent like the Flyers.

Gary Roberts could be a significant presence, too, because of the, uh, calming effect he can have on rambunctious opponents. And, in the unlikely event that the series deteriorates from being scrappy to a flat-out street fight, having Georges Laraque on the bench should be reassuring for his teammates.

DEFENSE Could be that this unit will have substantial flaws exposed at some point, but it didn't happen during the stretch drive or first two rounds. There is room for improvement -- Ryan Whitney, in particular, hasn't consistently performed to his considerable potential -- but, on the whole, it has been a major plus.

Don't be surprised if the Flyers try to punish the Penguins' skilled defensemen, especially Sergei Gonchar and Whitney, not only to force turnovers but to wear them down as the series progresses. Good puckhandling and decision-making by goalie Marc-Andre Fleury could go a long way toward limiting the chances Philadelphia's forecheckers will have to play the body on those two.

Brooks Orpik is averaging just less than five hits per game, and that figure should rise in this series. His physical play, and that of Hal Gill, should be particularly important against the Flyers. Edge, Penguins

IN GOAL Entering Round 2, beating a quality opponent and holding his own in a series against an elite goaltender were supposed to be the final tests to establish that Fleury's problems in high-stakes games were history. He didn't just pass the test; he aced it. He'll probably have more Flyers in and around his crease during the first period of Game 1 than he did in the previous two series combined and they had better, because he has stopped pretty much everything he has gotten a look at in these playoffs. While statistics can be misleading, it's no fluke that Fleury -- who has given up more than two goals just three times in his past 30 appearances -- leads the playoffs with a save percentage of .938. Slight edge, Penguins

PENALTY KILL Philadelphia's power play will be the best the Penguins have faced this spring, but the Flyers haven't run into penalty-killing like this, either. The Penguins' success rate is 89.5 percent (4 goals, 39 shorthanded situations). The acquisition of Gill and the addition of Orpik to the penalty-killing unit added a much-needed physical presence around the net, and the Penguins have at least six capable forwards to deploy when they're shorthanded, so being worn down isn't often an issue. Slight edge, Penguins

POWER PLAY Therrien's decision to load his top unit with his most-gifted forwards hasn't yielded the desired results with regularity -- the Penguins have scored multiple man-advantage goals just once in the past seven games, and were 4 for 19 on the power play in the second round -- but seeing the guys he can send out probably makes most penalty-killers break out in a cold sweat. And, even though they have the potential to be more productive, its conversion rate of 23.4 percent with the extra man isn't bad, by almost any measure.

COACH Therrien has plenty of critics and has made personnel and tactical decisions that open him to criticism. That doesn't seem to faze him, and he (quite properly) does not stray from his beliefs. He took a calculated risk in the second round when he stacked two defense pairings so that he could maximize the chances of containing Rangers right winger Jaromir Jagr, even though the tandems used in Round 1 against Ottawa had been quite effective. He was rewarded with four victories in five games. Everything else aside, coaching is a bottom-line business, and Therrien's has been pretty good for two-plus seasons and two rounds in these playoffs.

INTANGIBLES The Penguins haven't been anywhere near the wrong side of an elimination game, which could explain why they have been so consistently loose and upbeat. But while they've shown few, if any, signs of stress, they almost always have been able to focus on the challenge before them. There is no such thing as a team of destiny -- teams make their own destinies -- but these Penguins have been playing for weeks with a calm and confidence that belies the pressures of this stage.



FLYERS SKINNY

FORWARD R.J. Umberger has gotten a lot of attention, and understandably so. It's tough to ignore a guy who scores eight of his team's 20 goals, the way he did in Round 2 against Montreal.

His rampage, though, should not obscure the reality that Philadelphia has a deep and diversified offense. No consistent game-breaker, perhaps, but three lines that are capable of generating a goal.

Fact is, Umberger was viewed as primarily a depth guy going into these playoffs, if only because they have so many other proven contributors. Daniel Briere has 14 points, and is in a five-way tie for second in the playoff scoring race. Mike Richards, who plays between Umberger and Joffrey Lupul, is a captain-in-waiting and a force all over the ice. Mike Knuble seems to specialize in blue-collar goals, but his grit is complemented by some pretty fair skills.

Vaclav Prospal, acquired from Tampa Bay at the trade deadline to give Philadelphia another offensive element, has three goals so far, but is always dangerous (33 goals during the regular season). Center Jeff Carter has scored four times in these playoffs, and his left winger, Scottie Upshall, has three.

Any of three units could be the Flyers' best in a given game; the Penguins' mandate is to prevent them all from being too good.

DEFENSE Losing Kimmo Timonen because of a blood clot in his left ankle is a major blow. Timonen is extremely versatile, and a key component in just about everything the Flyers do. He would have been matched against whichever line coach John Stevens deemed to be the Penguins' most dangerous.

Flyers defensemen, like their Penguins counterparts, have no qualms about throwing themselves in front of shots. Each of Philadelphia's top six blocked at least 15 in the first two rounds, led by Jason Smith's 37. Smith can play a physical game, while Crosby learned long ago what the Penguins can expect from Derian Hatcher. As did Crosby's dentist.

IN GOAL Martin Biron had a playoff-history issue this spring, too -- basically, that he had no such history, at least at this level. He, like Fleury, has responded to the challenges and has been a significant contributor to Philadelphia's victories vs. Washington and Montreal.

Biron can run hot and cold, and his performance in the series-clinching, 5-4 victory in Montreal isn't going to take up much space on his personal highlights tape, but he certainly has been at or near the top of his game for much of these playoffs.

Biron has the highest goals-against average (2.72) and lowest save percentage (.914) of any of the No. 1 goalies competing in either of the conference finals.

PENALTY KILL Philadelphia's shorthanded stats -- a kill rate of 77.2 percent (13 goals, 57 times short) -- clearly suffer by comparison to those of the Penguins, but there are mitigating factors that shouldn't be ignored. The most significant is that the Flyers have faced better power plays than the Penguins. Still, the most effective approach to penalty-killing in this round probably will be holding down the number of times they have to do it. That can be difficult for a team that plays a physical, aggressive game, but giving the Penguins too many chances with the extra man is extremely risky, at best.

POWER PLAY It seemed to go largely overlooked that Philadelphia owned the second-most efficient power play in the league during the regular season (21.8 percent). Well, the Flyers are giving people another chance to notice because they converted 24 percent of their opportunities in the first two rounds. Briere has emerged as the finisher -- he has five power-play goals, while Lupul is the only other Flyer with more than one -- and does most of his damage near the net, converting rebounds and cross-crease passes.

COACH Stevens, like Therrien, insists there are no hard feelings between the two stemming other from their time together in the NHL or the two series their teams played while they were working in the AHL. There don't seem to be many people who believe that, on either count, but Stevens has something more important in common with Therrien: He has gotten his team into the Eastern final -- and he did it after the Flyers seemed in danger of unraveling with a few weeks left in the regular season. Their surge during the stretch drive and playoffs says a lot about their personnel, to be sure, but it reflects well on the coach.

INTANGIBLES They seem to have been well-served by cultivating an everyone-doubts-us mind-set. Presumably, they recognize the absurdity of believing the Penguins so feared a series against them that they intentionally lost the regular-season finale to avoid that matchup. If not, the Flyers have created a problem for themselves. That the Flyers despise the Penguins is a given. That the feeling is mutual is one, too. Whichever team can channel that emotion, and others, likely will have a leg up.

Molinari's Pick: Penguins in 6



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