Penguins vs Flyers: PHT 2018 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview

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The last time these two teams met in the Stanley Cup Playoffs it was 10 days of insanity as everybody involved with the series — from the players, to the coaches, to the fans, to the media — completely lost their minds.

Lost. Their. Minds.

Neither goalie could stop the puck. Flyers goalie Ilya Bryzgalov opened the series talking about his fear of bears in the woods. Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury was driven to a sports psychologist a year later because of playoff series like this one. Elsewhere, everybody on the ice forgot how to play defense. There were fights. There were suspensions. The Flyers got themselves banned from getting ribs from a bar-b-que place in West Virginia (yes, this in-state rivalry crosses state lines).

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When it was all said and done it even produced one of the most scorching hot takes in recent hockey media memory in a Tweet that still lives on and will never die.

We did not even get into the Jaromir Jagr playing for Philadelphia aspect of it, or the fact a missed offside call helped change the outcome of a game!

Obviously, it was quite a series, and it is sure to be referenced more than once over the next couple of weeks as the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers meet in the first-round of the Metropolitan Division playoffs.

Only eight total players (three from the Penguins, five from the Flyers) and none of the coaches remain from that series, and most of the people responsible for turning it into a gong show have moved on. So it is probably not going to be as hectic this time around. I only say probably because you never really know what these two teams are capable of. The Penguins have been prone to getting their doors blown off on any given night this season, while the Flyers … well … the Flyers are capable of winning 10 in a row or losing 10 in a row at any given time.

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Who knows which team on which side will show up when the puck drops.

While the potential for violence isn’t what it was in 2012, the potential for boatloads of goals is certainly on the table.

Six of the NHL’s top-27 point producers play for these two teams, while their goalies finished 22nd and 23rd in the league in save percentages, combining for only a .904 mark.

The two teams met four times during the regular season with the Penguins winning all four — two of them in overtime — and scoring five goals in each game.

What does that mean now? Nothing.

Here is what does matter.

Schedule

Forwards

Pittsburgh: This has always been the Penguins’ strength and they might be even better than they were the past two years, assuming Derick Brassard is healthy and ready to go. Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, and Sidney Crosby were all among the league’s top-10 scorers this season (first time since 2003-04 a team had three top-1o players) and they can still go four lines deep when they are healthy. Patric Hornqvist, one of the best net-front players in the league, is playing some of the best hockey of his career heading into the playoffs.

Philadelphia: Like the Penguins the Flyers boast three of the NHL’s top scorers in Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, and Sean Couturier, and also like the Penguins, they have one of the league’s best net-front players in Wayne Simmonds. Giroux and Voracek both had massive bounce-back seasons after down years in 2016-17, with each of them setting new career highs all over the board. Giroux topped the 100-point mark for the first time in his career, finished second in the league in total points, and led the league in assists. He should be an MVP finalist.

Advantage: Pittsburgh. Simply because they seem to have more depth. The Flyers’ top-line can match up with the Penguins’ top-line (or any top line in the league for that matter), but as noted in the pre-playoff Power Rankings the Flyers really tend to struggle when the Giroux and Couturier duo is not on the ice. The Penguins’ have won the past two years because Crosby can cancel out the other team’s top line allowing the Malkin and Kessel lines to do damage. Can the Flyers match up with that?

Defense

Pittsburgh: The good news for the Penguins is they won the Stanley Cup a year ago without Kris Letang. He is back in the lineup this year. The bad news is he really has not been himself and has been one of the most volatile players in the league, being equal parts brilliant and disastrous on a game-to-game — and sometimes even shift-to-shift — basis. From an analytics standpoint the Penguins did a lot of things well defensively during 5-on-5 play and were one of the best teams in the league when it comes to suppressing shots on goal and shot attempts at 5-on-5 play (top-10 in both). But they make a lot of glaring mistakes at times that just look bad. That, combined with some shoddy PK play and goaltending results in them entering  playoffs having given up more than three goals per game, the worst mark of any team in the playoffs.

Philadelphia: Here is a fun fact about Flyers 20-year-old defenseman Ivan Provorov — no defender in the NHL this season scored more goals than he did. With him, Shayne Gostisbehere, Travis Sanheim, and Robert Haag they have the long-term foundation of their blue line in place, and it looks like a really bright future. Like the Penguins they have strong shot-metrics during 5-on-5 play but are only a middle of the pack team in terms of goals against.

Advantage: Philadelphia. Neither of these teams are really great defensively and both have big question marks that could be exploited (whoever wins the Chad Ruhwedel/Matt Hunwick lineup spot in Pittsburgh; Philadelphia still plays Andrew MacDonald 20 minutes per night), but I think the Flyers, as a group, get a slight edge because they have succeeded in not being quite as bad as the Penguins have been at times.

Goaltending

Pittsburgh: As great as their offense was the Penguins probably would not have been able to get out of the first-round of the playoffs a year ago without great goaltending. Or the second round. They have not received that same level of goaltending this season and that has to be a concern. Matt Murray has shown flashes of being that player at times, but he’s also had stretches where his play has struggled.

Philadelphia: Stop me if you have heard this one before, but the Flyers have a question mark in net. Brian Elliott seems to alternate good years and bad years (the Flyers got him on one of the down years), Michal Neuvirth has been injured off and on, and Petr Mrazek has been a disaster since coming over in a trade from Detroit.

Advantage: Pittsburgh. As mentioned above the Penguins and Flyers were both in the bottom-10 in the league in save percentage this season and had virtually identical numbers. But Pittsburgh’s potential upside at the position seems to be higher given that Murray has a pretty recent track record of excelling in the playoffs.

Special teams

Pittsburgh: The Penguins’ power play is lethal to opponents and enters the playoffs as the best unit in the NHL. You simply can not take penalties against this team. On the other side the Penguins penalty kill has, very recently, been lethal to them. They simply can not take penalties.

Philadelphia: Given the talent they have the Flyers’ power play seems like it should be better than it was during the regular season, only finishing 15th in the NHL. But that’s not the concern. The concern is that their penalty kill was 29th in the league at only 75 percent.

Advantage: Pittsburgh. Both teams have been bad on the penalty kill this season, and the Flyers have managed to actually be worse than the Penguins. Given how dominant the Penguins’ power play is that has to be a concern.

X-Factors

Pittsburgh: Bryan Rust is probably the most underrated player on this team. He can play anywhere in the lineup and on any line, he brings that speed element that the Penguins love, and he is one of those players that seems to have a knack for scoring big goals in big situations.

Philadelphia: The Flyers have some All-Star level talent at the top of their roster but what makes them so intriguing long-term is the wave of young talent that has started to hit the NHL. We already talked about their young defenders, but they have a pretty nice collection of young forwards as well. No. 2 overall pick Nolan Patrick is a big part of that, but let’s not ignore Travis Konecny. The 20-year-old finished third on the team in goals (24) this season and was one of the team’s top overall point producers.

Prediction

Penguins in six games. Both teams have similar strengths, similar weaknesses, and similar question marks. But the Penguins just seem to be a deeper team that is going to be difficult for the Flyers to match up with.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Penguins plot a way forward as Letang recovers from stroke

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PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang returned to the ice on Thursday, just three days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

The “twirl” the longtime Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman took at the club’s practice facility was approved by team doctors, a spin designed to help Letang’s mental health and nothing else. While the 35-year-old remains upbeat, it remains far too early to put a timeline on when his familiar No. 58 will return to the lineup.

Though Pittsburgh general manager Ron Hextall indicated this stroke isn’t as severe as the one Letang endured in 2014 – when a hole in the wall of his heart led to a stroke that forced him to miss two months – the six-time All-Star is continuing to undergo tests.

There are no plans for Letang to participate in any sort of hockey-specific drills anytime soon, with coach Mike Sullivan stressing the club will “err on the side of caution” when it comes to whatever rehab Letang might need.

While Letang – one of the most well-conditioned players in the NHL – essentially went through the motions by himself, his teammates were 30 minutes south at PPG Paints Arena getting ready for a visit from Vegas and trying to plot a way forward without one of the franchise cornerstones, at least in the short term.

Letang made it a point to help break the news to the rest of the Penguins following a 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina on Tuesday. Pittsburgh scratched Letang from the lineup with an unspecified illness and he spent a portion of the game watching from the press box next to Hextall.

Afterward, Letang informed a somber locker room about his condition, a revelation that came as a shock even as he did his best to reassure those around him that he was and is OK.

“It’s very serious health stuff,” defenseman Chad Ruhwedel said. “You hear about strokes and it’s never really good so we’re just glad to see he’s doing well and everything is good with him.”

Sullivan understands it would be practically impossible for any of the other defensemen on the roster to replicate what Letang brings to the ice, so he’s not going to ask any one player to try. There are few players at the position in the NHL who have Letang’s mix of speed, skill and almost bottomless energy.

The highest-scoring defenseman in franchise history is averaging a team-best 23:54 of ice time and has long been a fixture on the power play and in just about every crucial late-game situation.

“I just think Tanger is not an easy guy to replace,” Sullivan said. “I don’t think from a tactical standpoint things change drastically. It’s just personnel based. But as you know, personnel can mean a lot in those types of situations.”

It’s more than that, however. This isn’t a routine injury. There’s an emotional component and an unknown element to Letang’s status even as the Penguins insist they don’t believe his condition is career-threatening.

“This is a whole different circumstance than an ankle injury or a shoulder injury,” Sullivan said. “This is a very different circumstance.”

Letang’s on-ice presence is just one aspect of his importance to a team that has never missed the playoffs since he made his debut in 2007. He’s become a mentor to younger teammates like 23-year-old defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph, who like Letang is French-Canadian and who, like Letang, plays with a graceful fluidity.

Joseph, who declined to get into specifics about Letang’s message to the team on Tuesday night, believes the best thing the Penguins can do during Letang’s absence is attack the game with the same passion he’s shown for 17 seasons and counting.

“The way he plays for the team every single night and the way he puts his heart and soul into the game on the ice, it’s the least we can do is have our thoughts of him whenever we get on the ice,” Joseph said.

Sullivan shuffled the lineup on Tuesday, elevating veteran Jeff Petry and Brian Dumoulin to the top defensive pair. Petry possesses a skillset that’s not too far removed from Letang’s, but it’s also his first year in Pittsburgh. Asking him to provide the leadership that’s innate to Letang is unfair. It’s one of the reasons Sullivan is insistent that it will take a group effort to fill in for a singular presence.

“We have some diversity on our blue line right now,” Sullivan said. “We feel like we have guys capable of stepping in and getting the job done for us and we’re going to try and do that.”

LA Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers

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LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers, a surprising move for a player once considered the successor in net to two-time Stanley Cup winner Jonathan Quick.

Petersen, 28, went on waivers the day after allowing four goals on 16 shots in relief of Quick during a 9-8 overtime loss to the Seattle Kraken. Quick was pulled after giving up five goals on 14 shots.

Only one NHL goalie has a save percentage lower than Petersen’s .868 this season, Elvis Merzlikins of the Columbus Blue Jackets with .864. Petersen is 5-3-2 in 10 games with a 3.75 goals-against average in his third full season with the Kings and fifth overall.

L.A. signed Petersen to a three-year, $15 million contract in September 2021, and he figured to take the starting job from Quick, who turns 37 in January and is set to be a free agent after the season. Petersen has two years left on that deal after this one at an annual salary cap hit of $5 million.

Penguins’ Kris Letang out indefinitely after 2nd stroke

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PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang plays hockey with a grace and inexhaustible fluidity seemingly impervious to the rigors of spending nearly half his life in the NHL.

For the second time in less than a decade, however, a major health scare has brought Letang’s career to a halt.

The 35-year-old Letang is out indefinitely after suffering a stroke for a second time. Letang reported feeling ill and was taken to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

While general manager Ron Hextall said Wednesday this stroke doesn’t appear to be as serious as the one Letang sustained in 2014, the Penguins will have to find a way forward at least in the short term without one of their franchise pillars.

“I am fortunate to know my body well enough to recognize when something isn’t right,” Letang said in a release. “While it is difficult to navigate this issue publicly, I am hopeful it can raise awareness. … I am optimistic that I will be back on the ice soon.”

The three-time Stanley Cup champion missed more than two months in 2014 after a stroke, which doctors determined was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. He spent Monday feeling off and told team trainers he was dealing with what Hextall described as a migraine headache.

Penguins team physician Dr. Dhamesh Vyas recommended Letang go to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

“He didn’t know (he had a stroke),” Hextall said. “He just knew something wasn’t right.”

Letang is continuing to undergo tests but felt well enough on Tuesday to be at the arena for Pittsburgh’s 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina. He spent the second period chatting with Hextall then addressed his teammates in the locker room afterward in an effort to help allay their concerns.

“I think it was important for Kris to be there because his teammates got to see him in good spirits and that he’s doing well,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said.

Sullivan added initial test results on Letang have been “very encouraging.” Letang will continue to undergo testing throughout the week, though he felt good enough in the aftermath to ask Sullivan and Hextall if he could skate, an activity that is off the table for now.

Hextall said he “couldn’t even guess” how long the Penguins may be without the married father of two, adding hockey is low on the team’s list of concerns about a player who, along with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, has helped the franchise to three Stanley Cups during his 17-year career.

“First and foremost this is about the person and I told Tanger about that last night,” Hextall said. “This is Kris Letang, the father and family guy, the Pittsburgh Penguins, that’s second.”

Letang, a six-time All-Star, has been one of the most durable players in the NHL. His 662 career points (145 goals, 517 assists) are a franchise record for a defenseman. He’s averaged well over 24 minutes of playing time over the course of his career, a number that’s ticked above 25 minutes per game seven times in eight-plus seasons since he returned from the initial stroke.

The Penguins felt so confident in Letang’s durability that they signed him to a six-year contract over the summer rather than let him test free agency for the first time.

“The level of hockey he’s played for as long as he’s played is absolutely incredible,” Hextall said. “The level he’s continued to play at at his age, the type of shape he’s in … he’s a warrior.”

Letang has one goal and 11 assists in 21 games so far this season for Pittsburgh, which hosts Vegas on Thursday night. The Penguins are pretty deep along the blue line, but Sullivan knows he can’t try to replace Letang with any one player.

“It’s not anything we haven’t been faced with in the past and the reality is we have what we have, and we’ll figure it out,” Sullivan said, adding “it’ll be by committee, as it usually is when you replace a player of that stature.”

Ovechkin tops Gretzky for most road goals, Capitals beat Canucks

Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
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VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Alex Ovechkin scored twice, passing Wayne Gretzky for the most road goals in NHL history, and the Washington Capitals beat the Vancouver Canucks 5-1 on Tuesday night.

Ovechkin has scored 403 of his 793 career goals away from home. Gretzky holds the overall record with 894.

“It’s always nice when you beat the Great One,” Ovechkin said. “It doesn’t matter what kind of milestone it is. It’s history.”

Anthony Mantha added a goal and an assist for the Capitals (10-11-3). John Carlson and Martin Fehervary also scored, and Darcy Kuemper stopped 31 shots.

Nils Hoglander scored for the Canucks (9-11-3), who had won three in a row. Spencer Martin made 23 saves.

“Spencer’s been great for us. He’s probably a bit like the other players tonight. They weren’t ready to play and it showed on the scoreboard,” Vancouver coach Bruce Boudreau said.

The 37-year-old Ovechkin nearly netted a hat trick when Vancouver pulled Martin for an extra skater with just over six minutes left, but his rocket of a shot skimmed the outside of the post.

“I think he has 13 goals this year and I want to say like eight or nine have been like a new record. So it’s been cool,” Washington center Dylan Strome said. “Any time you pass Wayne Gretzky in anything, it deserves a standing ovation, which he got.”

Fehervary was the one who sealed it, flipping the puck high into the Canucks zone and into the empty net at 15:57 of the third period.

Ovechkin topped Gretzky 11:52 into the first, firing a one-timer from the left circle past Martin to give the Capitals a 2-0 lead with his 13th goal of the season.

“On his second goal, it looks like, `Oh, maybe (Martin) should have had it.’ But I’ve seen (Ovechkin) score 100 goals like that,” said Boudreau, who coached the Capitals from 2007-11. “He’s got a shot that finds its way in.”

The star forward from Russia got his first of the night 5:35 in, taking the puck off the stick of Vancouver defenseman Quinn Hughes near the net and batting in a quick shot.

“It could have been 6-1 after the first period, quite frankly, with the amount of chances (Washington) had,” Boudreau said.

It was Ovechkin’s 135th game-opening goal, tying Jaromir Jagr for the most in NHL history.

“(Ovechkin) was really good in the first and I thought we were really good in the first so it was nice to get out and get a jump like that,” Capitals coach Peter Laviolette said. “He certainly led. We knew we needed to have a good first period, have a good game, and you need your best players to do that.”

Carlson scored the lone goal of the second, chipping in a loose puck from the low hash marks at 18:47 to give Washington a 4-1 cushion.

“It’s frustrating. Because when you lose games, it should never be about your compete level and battle level,” Canucks center J.T. Miller said. “It’s frustrating because they didn’t out-skill us today, they didn’t out-system us. They literally just outbattled us and created their own chances.”

NOTES: Washington’s Lars Eller got his 200th career assist. … Miller had an assist, extending his point streak to nine games (four goals, seven assists). … The Capitals swept the two-game season series. … Vancouver assigned winger Vasily Podkolzin and defenseman Jack Rathbone to the Abbotsford Canucks on Monday, then recalled forward Phillip Di Giuseppe from the American Hockey League club on Tuesday.

UP NEXT

Washington: At Seattle on Thursday in the second of a five-game trip.

Vancouver: Host Florida on Thursday in the second of a four-game homestand.