Tonight, the Stanley Cup Playoffs begin.
Tonight, the real NHL season kicks off.
Tonight, the Penguins collide with the Flyers. A battle for Pennslyvania. And probably the most intense matchup in the entirety of the first round, East or West.
Looking at the stat sheets, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia are practically identical. Records, points, goals for and against, you name it. They’re basically copies of each other, if you look at them from a pure statistical viewpoint.
But as Pens and Flyers fans know, it ain’t all that.
By a long shot.
Flyers fans will argue their case for a series win this year, after last year’s Conference Finals that saw the Flyers implode. This time around, Timmonen and Coburn are healthy, Briere is in top form, and Gagne is back and rolling.
So what about consistency?
Um, yeah. Go ahead and sidestep that one, Philly people.
Yet, you can’t argue away the stumbling steps this Flyers team had toward the end of the season. In their final game – in Philly – against the Rangers, with home ice hanging so close, the Flyers collapsed in the third period. They only needed a point, and their last five-minute surge wasn’t enough to tip the balance. So the series begins in Pittsburgh.
Penguins fans will argue that this year’s team is equal to last year’s task. And they’re mostly right. Crosby and Malkin are in top form, with Malkin walking away with the scoring title. While the traitor Hossa isn’t along for this year’s ride in the Steel City, GM Ray Shero pulled off some trade deadline magic by snagging Chris Kunitz and Bill Guerin (and dumping the flagging Whitney); two players who have more than shined when paired up with the Penguins’ potent offense. With Michel Therrien out and rookie Dan Bylsma in, the Pens are on a second-half streak that saw them rocket from tenth in the Conference to fourth.
Not an easy feat in the East these days.
So what’s the tipping point?
Honestly? Whichever goalie catches on fire in the net.
Philly’s Biron and Pittsburgh’s Fleury are solid goaltenders, but both also tend to let in a softie now and then. And too often, those softies end up being the difference. In this series, with things so evenly matched down the line, it’s going to be up to the netminders to really figure this series out.
Yes, I’m biased, but I still think Fleury’s got better stones than Biron and that will make the difference.
Regardless, this series will be brutal, physical, emotional, inspirational and a whole lot of fun to watch. Penguins in seven. A hard, rough, bumpy seven, no doubt. But in the end, the Penguins will move on, and the Flyers will most likely burn their city to the ground. Which would probably happen even if the Flyers won…