Pens-Flyers series likely to hinge on special teams
Jaromir Jagr battles Pittsburgh Penguins Sidney Crosby for loose puck
Sidney Crosby scores on Flyers' Ilya Bryzgalov
Fans celebrate a Penguin's goal in the first period against Philly.
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A lot of factors can determine how a Stanley Cup playoff game turns out.
Special teams play just does it more often than most.
The Penguins don't have to take anyone's word for that; they lived it a year ago.
Their power play scored on one of 35 opportunities -- that's a success rate so small, 2.9 percent, that it's barely visible to the naked eye -- in their first-round series against Tampa Bay, and they allowed eight goals in 27 short-handed situations, a dreadful kill rate of 70.4 percent.
Those numbers didn't improve in Round 2 because, predictably, the Penguins weren't participating.
- Matchup: Philadelphia Flyers at Penguins, 7:38 p.m. today, Consol Energy Center.
- TV/Radio: Root Sports, WXDX-FM (105.9).
- Probable goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins. Ilya Bryzgalov for Flyers.
- Penguins: Have won two playoff series in row against Philadelphia after losing previous three. ... RW James Neal had three goals, but no assists, in five regular-season games against Flyers. ... Lost four of past five home playoff games.
- Flyers: Own all-time record of 5-1 at Consol Energy Center ... C Claude Giroux had one goal, seven assists in five regular-season games against Penguins. ... Dominated opponents in second period of regular season, outscoring them, 98-71.
- Hidden stat: Team winning Game 1 in each of Penguins' past four playoff series has gone on to lose series.
And while a lot of things contributed to the Lightning's seven-game victory -- the dazzling work of Lightning goalie Dwayne Roloson is atop that list -- the impact of the Penguins having the least-productive power play in the postseason and the next-to-worst penalty-killing should not be overlooked.
Neither should the importance of getting better performances from special teams when their opening-round playoff series against Philadelphia begins tonight at Consol Energy Center.
"Special teams usually win or lose games in a playoff round and we, last year, weren't very successful at it," Penguins left winger Chris Kunitz said. "So, it's something we know we need to be better at."
Goaltending figures to be the most critical variable in the Penguins-Flyers series, as it is in most. The effectiveness of the teams' power plays and penalty-killers, though, should go a long way toward determining which club advances.
The Penguins outscored the Flyers, 198-180, at even-strength in 2011-12, but gave up 16 more goals in those situations than Philadelphia did.
With the even-strength numbers so similar, it's easy to see why special teams could be decisive. And to understand why the Penguins devoted so much of practice Tuesday to fine-tuning their power play and penalty-killing.
A year ago, the Penguins played without centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin when they faced Tampa Bay, and not having two world-class talents obviously hamstrung their power play.
"You take two of the best players off of any team, and it's going to have an effect on everything," Kunitz said.
At the same time, being without Matt Cooke, whose league-imposed suspension carried through the Lightning series, was a major blow to the penalty-killing.
All three will be in the lineup tonight, so the Penguins can focus more on execution than personnel.
The Flyers led the NHL with 66 power-play goals in 2011-12 and came by them honestly.
Defenseman Kimmo Timonen quarterbacks their No. 1 unit effectively, center Claude Giroux is skilled and creative, winger Wayne Simmonds goes to the net hard and is disruptive when he gets there and Scott Hartnell -- second in the league with 16 power-play goals -- can be lethal when he gets a chance to shoot from the slot or inside the circles.
"Simmonds does a great job, but he's got people who can get the puck to the net and Giroux can find ways of distributing it to the other players to give them a chance to do that," said Penguins assistant coach Tony Granato, who oversees the penalty-kill. "They have a lot of weapons."
That's why the Penguins figure to emphasize trying to disrupt Philadelphia's power play in the neutral zone, at least forcing the Flyers to dump in the puck into the attacking zone rather than carry it.
Granato declined to detail his plans for trying to neutralize the Philadelphia power play -- "We have our ideas," he said, smiling.
"Our penalty-killers know what they're doing" -- but said it is imperative the Penguins limit the number of chances the Flyers get with the extra man.
"You don't want to get in a match where you're trading penalties," he said. "If we can be disciplined that way and give them two or three [power-play chances] a game, we'll do well."
Philadelphia presumably won't be eager to see the Penguins with a manpower edge very often, either. James Neal scored a league-high 18 power-play goals, and Crosby, Malkin and Kris Letang can manufacture offense from situations that seem to have little promise.
The Flyers, though, can deploy capable penalty-killing forwards such as Giroux, Max Talbot, Sean Couturier and Mark Read, and back them up with reliable defensemen.
"They skate well, and their hockey sense is at a high level," said assistant coach Todd Reirden, who handles the power play. "They play an aggressive style, and their defensemen do an outstanding job, whether it's [Braydon] Coburn with the size that he has or a guy like Timonen, whose hockey sense ... and ability to break up plays is excellent."
Both teams seem fully capable of winning this series. And both have power plays and penalty-killing units that could provide the margin of victory.
Not that it is even a little unusual for one or the other -- or both -- to determine which team survives a series.
"It always does," Cooke said. "The special teams battle is usually how games are won and lost in the playoffs."
First Published April 11, 2012 11:08 pm