The Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers seem poised for a first-round playoff matchup, but Sunday’s game (12:30 pm ET, NBC) is more than just a preview of what’s to come. Only three points separate the Penguins and Flyers and they’re scheduled to play each other twice in their final four games. Ultimately, they’re fighting for home ice advantage in the first round, which is a big deal considering that both teams have been dominant while playing at home.
Philadelphia has been one of the most offensively gifted teams in the league this season. Claude Giroux has not only proven that his 2010-11 breakout campaign wasn’t a fluke, he’s managed to set new career-highs in goals, assists and points. Meanwhile, Scott Hartnell is having one of the best seasons of his career and has been one of the league’s top all-around forwards this season — no one else has at least 35 goals, 100 penalty minutes, and 100 hits.
Beyond their top two scorers, Philly has a terrific supporting cast led by Jaromir Jagr, who has proven he still has what it takes to play in the NHL after spending three seasons in the KHL.
Still, for as many offensive weapons as the Flyers have, the Penguins outdo them in that department. Sidney Crosby is a huge threat now that he’s healthy, but he just represents the tip of the iceberg. The Penguins have five players with at least 20 goals, including two of the top-four leading goal scorers in Evgeni Malkin and James Neal. In fact, starting with their game against Boston on March 11, Pittsburgh has found the back of the net at least three times in 10 of their last 11 games. The one exception was on March 18 when the Penguins ran into the only goaltender that has been able to stand up to them lately: Philadelphia’s Ilya Bryzgalov.
The problem is that Bryzgalov has a chip fracture in his foot, so he’ll either be playing through the pain on Sunday or, more likely, sitting out of the contest. In either scenario, the Flyers defenders will need to do their part if they want to beat the Penguins and give themselves a legitimate shot at the fourth seed.