NBC Sports

Penguins vs Flyers: PHT 2018 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview

14 Comments

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).

Stanley Cup Playoffs streaming, schedule and more

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.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

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.

————

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.

NHL players’ favorite Stanley Cup memories as fans

2 Comments

Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues.

Not every player has photos of themselves as young fans in team-appropriate jammies like John Tavares with the Toronto Maple Leafs, so it can be fun and surprising to hear about their memories. Sometimes you’d be surprised to learn more about a players’ roots, and rooting interests.

In the fun video above, a variety of NHL players share some of their favorite Stanley Cup memories. You’ll see some expected moments, such as Brandon Dubinsky and Cam Atkinson recalling Mark Messier and the 1994 New York Rangers lifting that curse. The video also reminds us of how dominant the Colorado Avalanche were, as evidenced by a reminiscent Ryan Reaves. And, shield your eyes, Sabres fans, as a foot is, again, in the crease.

There are some other interesting touches. One mildly sad aspect is that Canadian NHL’ers P.K. Subban and Tyler Seguin point to a Doug Gilmour wraparound goal … even though it wasn’t associated with a Stanley Cup win.

You also might be intrigued to learn who mentioned Chris Pronger battling Dustin Byfuglien during the 2010 Stanley Cup Final, which player pointed to Teemu Selanne’s tearful Stanley Cup win, and some other moments. You may also notice a much younger Gary Bettman during certain moments.

It’s good stuff overall, so enjoy.

STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW
Who has the better special teams?
Who has the better forwards?
Who has the better defensemen?
X-factors
PHT Power Rankings: Conn Smythe favorites
Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Bruins’ Chara cements towering legacy with Stanley Cup Final run

1 Comment

Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues.

While Boston sports fans have been spoiled by a wave of championships across several leagues, you could make a similar argument for Boston Bruins fans when it comes to watching great defensemen.

Most obviously, they had Bobby Orr in all of his statue-worthy glory. People who were lucky enough to be alive to see his too-brief prime still often rank him as the greatest player – not just defenseman – to ever lace up the skates, and it’s not outrageous to have that debate.

Plenty of other names come to mind, with Ray Bourque enjoying a transcendent, high-scoring career in his own right.

It’s time to place Zdeno Chara‘s name in that select group.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

For such a tall player, it makes sense to consider the highest heights of his career, of which there have been many:

  • Chara has served as captain of the Bruins since 2006-07, becoming one of just three European-born captains to win a Stanley Cup when Boston won it all in 2010-11.
  • This marks the Bruins’ third trip to a Stanley Cup Final during Chara’s time, as they also came within two wins (and suffered through 17 wild seconds) of another championship when they fell to Chicago in 2012-13.
  • Chara won the 2008-09 Norris Trophy, and was a finalist on five other occasions. Personally, I believe that Chara should have won at least one other Norris during his splendid career.
  • Overall, Chara’s played in 1,485 regular season games, and an impressive 175 playoff contests.
  • While Chara probably would’ve won another Norris or two if he was a more prolific scorer, he’s a guy who’s been able to contribute offensively, too, collecting 10 seasons of 10+ goals, including 19 in 2008-09.

The numbers can get pretty mind-boggling with Chara, yet the story becomes even bigger (almost larger than life?) when you zoom out.

Sustained greatness

As tough as it’s always been to miss a 6-foot-9 fitness freak, there have been moments in his career where his brilliance was overlooked, or at least misjudged. Infamously, the New York Islanders traded away Chara before they really knew what they had, but the Ottawa Senators also let him walk in free agency, possibly choosing Wade Redden over Chara.

Betting against Chara was clearly a bad idea, but then again, it’s easy to forget just how much of an anomaly he truly is.

Alongside Jaromir Jagr and Joe Thornton, Chara’s managed astounding longevity, as he remains a key part of the Bruins even at age 42.

Sure, Chara isn’t playing almost half of every Bruins playoff game like he did during his gaudy peak, but he’s still important. It’s almost unthinkable that Chara is basically breaking even at five-on-five (via Natural Stat Trick), especially since he’s still called upon in tough situations, as he saw plenty of John Tavares and Mitch Marner during the Maple Leafs series, for example.

Tall tales

Chara isn’t just an impossibly huge defenseman who can still, somehow, keep up enough with young skaters that he remains a useful player for Boston to this day. He’s also someone who probably set expectations too high for plenty of players who’d come after him.

Would players like Tyler Myers, Rasmus Ristolainen, or even Colton Parayko have gotten the same looks in today’s NHL if Chara didn’t show teams that a huge defensemen could find ways to keep up, whether that meant leveraging an outrageous reach or the natural intimidation factor that comes with such size? In breaking the mold, Chara also set a high bar: just about any skyscraper-type prospect could be compared to Chara, especially since “The Big Z” is considered a late bloomer.

While others show that bigger guys can still play (Parayko, Dustin Byfuglien, and so on), there’s really only one Zdeno Chara.

When you think about it, in a less media-saturated age, Chara would probably inspire Paul Bunyan-like stories.

After all, this isn’t just a large dude, it’s also the player whose 108.8 mph slapshot may not be matched for years. He’s scaled mountains. Chara seems to project the typical “Aw, shucks” hockey attitude, yet it’s clear that his ambition separates himself from the rest, and elevates him to a special place among Bruins legends.

View this post on Instagram

1.Chvíľe bez slov…..sedim a užívam si krásne výhľady na prekrásne lesy, údolia a rieky.Nechávam sa stratiť v počúvaní rozmanitej prírody a jej života. 2.Som vďačný že som mohol stráviť vzácne chvíle v prírode a naučiť sa od Ekológa,Ochranára a Dokumentaristu Erika Baláža viac ako chrániť a predchádzať ničeniu a ťažbe v našich krásnych lesoch ,znečistovaní riek a potokov ,nelegálnemu odstrelu divej zveri a hubeniu hmyzu. #priroda #lesy #udolia #rieky #zver #zivot #voda #chranit#mysmeles #strazcadivociny #krasnakrajinka #erikbalaz #bezzasahovost—————————————————————- 1.Moments of silence ……just sitting and enjoying amazing views on beautiful mountains,valleys and rivers.Letting myself to get lost and listening the sounds of life in surrounding nature. 2.I am thankful to be able to spend some time with Ecologist,Conservationists and Documentarist Erik Baláž and learn more how to protect the devastation and unnecessary logging, pollution of rivers and streams,pouching Wild animals and insects extermination. #nature #wildlife #animals #forest #riverside #valley #water #protectthenature #erikbalaz

A post shared by Zdeno Chara (@zeechara33) on

While Chara can be a punishing presence, and maybe blurs the line from time to time, he doesn’t have the mean streak of another elite, gigantic defenseman like Chris Pronger. “Gentle giant” might be too much, but Chara rarely resembles the bully he easily could be. To an extent, his towering presence does the bullying for him.

***

The Bruins have enjoyed a strong run of goalies as Tim Thomas passed the torch to Tuukka Rask, but who knows how successful those goalies would have been without the combination of Chara and Patrice Bergeron?

Adding young players like Charlie McAvoy and David Pastrnak breathed new life into this Bruins’ core, but remarkably enough, Chara remains a huge part of that foundation, and not just literally.

This run cements a thought that probably already should have been present: Chara belongs on the short list of Bruins legends. Winning another Stanley Cup would only make it tougher to deny — and it would also tie Chara with a certain No. 4.

STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW
Who has the better special teams?
Who has the better forwards?
Who has the better defensemen?
X-factors
PHT Power Rankings: Conn Smythe favorites
Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Stanley Cup Final Preview: X-factors for Bruins, Blues

Leave a comment

Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues.

With all of this time off until Round 4 begins, PHT’s covering all the skirmishes of Bruins – Blues.

Of course, the danger in drilling deep into the numbers and potential matchups is that you might obsess over “on paper” and forget certain human factors that might swing things as much as a hot power play or a shutdown defensive performance.

Let’s consider some of the X-Factors of this series, and no, mutant superheroes are not involved … although Patrice Bergeron might have Wolverine’s healing powers.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The inevitable rest vs. rust question

Most of the time, I’d roll my eyes and make other dismissive gestures about rest vs. rust.

In many cases, rust is merely used as an easy way to explain a defeat that has more complex, existential explanations. After all, it’s easier to cope with thinking “Ah, if only we were on the top of our game” rather than considering the possibility that the other team just mopped the floor with your team.

The Bruins’ 11-day rest does kind of push the envelope, though.

Chiefly, will Tuukka Rask cool off after not tracking pucks in a playoff situation for almost two weeks? He was absolutely on fire, and all the scrimmages in the world can only do so much to prepare you for a Blues team that’s looked like a buzzsaw at times during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

All that tape

Maybe rest vs. rust should morph into three r’s, as you can add another factor: research.

While the Bruins didn’t know if they’d face the Blues or Sharks until Tuesday, May 21, Bruce Cassidy and his crew have had all that extra time to scout for weaknesses and tendencies regarding their opponents. If their video staff is really on point, you’d think that Boston may enjoy some subtle schematic advantage from getting extra opportunities to break down tape.

Interestingly, while rust might be a challenge for Bruins goalie Rask, that additional research could present a hurdle for rookie Blues netminder Jordan Binnington.

Rookies face challenges in adapting to the NHL, yet the reverse is worth noting: opponents haven’t had as many reps to expose weaknesses. That’s especially true in the exhausting grind of the postseason. If Binnington has some flaws to his game, the Bruins have had the rare luxury of gaining more opportunities to find those issues. For all we know, a few quirks could equal a tide-turning goal or two; maybe the Bruins can score on a wraparound where Jamie Benn and Roope Hintz barely didn’t in Game 7 of Round 2?

Health

All things considered, the Bruins and Blues seem as healthy as anyone can reasonably expect after three rugged rounds of playoff hockey.

Still, the best reasonable expectation for playing at this level into June is that you’re basically wearing so many ice packs it looks like you’re in a full suit of armor.

Frankly, teams aren’t particularly eager to divulge injury information, so we can only speculate about how healthy Zdeno Chara really will be if he can play in Game 1, and so on. So, yes, it’s interesting to see a sparse list of injuries beyond, say, Vince Dunn, but we really don’t know who’s playing at a level far below full-strength.

And, yes, 11 days provides a lot of time to heal — relatively speaking. Plenty of injuries suffered this time of year require longer than that, however, if they don’t demand surgery altogether. For two physical teams, the behind the scenes work of training staffs could be pivotal, even if they do everything they can to keep the rest of us oblivious about such ups and downs.

Bruins’ power play

Click here for a full breakdown of special teams, but it needed to be said: Boston’s power play is so powerful, it could swing the entire series.

Shenanigans

One thing that could bleed into the special teams discussion is if/when the teams get under each others’ skin.

Will Brad Marchand bait the Blues into taking foolish penalties, or might he shoot himself in the foot in trying to do just that? Does David Backes have some zingers regarding the team he once captained?

It seems like the Blues’ power play has gotten back on track, with at least one power-play goal in three straight games, and four during that span. So while Boston’s man advantage is the most dangerous, St. Louis could also make the Bruins pay if Marchand’s antics become a double-edged sword.

***

Ultimately, the 2019 Stanley Cup Final will come down to which players deliver, and if the coaches can put those players in the right situations to succeed. Rask and Binnington both have the capability to turn the series on its head with great play, too.

Don’t be surprised if the above X-factors make an impact, too, though. I mean, what’s really even the point if there are no shenanigans?

STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW
Who has the better special teams?
Who has the better forwards?
Who has the better defensemen?
PHT Power Rankings: Conn Smythe favorites
Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Stanley Cup Final Preview: Who has better goaltending?

Leave a comment

Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues.

Heading into the Stanley Cup Final, it’s pretty clear that the goaltenders on both sides are the front runners for the Conn Smythe Trophy. Both Tuukka Rask and Jordan Binnington have been terrific in the postseason, so don’t be surprised if goals are hard to come by for the Bruins and Blues.

But as good as both goalies have been, one of the two has to have an advantage. So let’s take a deeper look.

Boston Bruins: 

It’s nice to see Rask have so much success in the playoffs because the fans in Boston haven’t been easy on him this season or throughout his career. Yes, following Tim Thomas was never going to be easy, but Rask hasn’t been as bad as a lot of Bruins fans make him out to be. Whenever the Bruins have needed him most, he usually comes through. Now, he hasn’t delivered a Stanley Cup title but that’s not all on the goalie. And during this year’s playoffs, he’s been amazing.

In Game 6 against Toronto, he was outstanding. His team was facing elimination on the road and he managed to turn in such a strong performance to shut the Leafs down. That really set the tone for their Game 7 victory on home ice. After they went down 2-1 to the Columbus Blue Jackets in the second round, Rask became virtually unbeatable. He clearly got into the Blue Jackets shooters’ heads and the Columbus power play which was so good in the first round against Tampa, went ice cold because they couldn’t figure out how to beat Rask.

Since Game 5 of the first-round series against the Leafs, Rask has held the opposition to two goals or fewer in 11 of 13 games. That’s incredible. So if Boston scores two or three goals, they pretty much win 85 percent of the time.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The 32-year-old has a 12-5 record with a 1.84 goals-against-average and a .942 save percentage during the playoffs. He won’t be easy to beat for the Blues.

And something else we have to consider is goaltending depth. If something were to happen to Rask, the Bruins can turn to Jaroslav Halak, who had a terrific season and who’s gone on a long playoff run of his own. A one-two punch of Rask and Halak probably can’t be beat.

St. Louis Blues:

It’s amazing to think that Binnington spent a portion of last season with the Bruins’ farm team in Providence. It’s also incredible to think that he wasn’t even in the NHL at the start of this season. But Binnington is one of the major reasons why the Blues were able to go from last place on Jan. 2 to the Stanley Cup Final almost five months later.

The Blues have had terrific teams before, but goaltending has always been an issue for them. Roman Turek, Chris Osgood, Jake Allen and many others have all failed in an attempt to get the Blues their first championship. Binnington is a different story. Whether they win this series or not, general manager Doug Armstrong can confidently say that he’s finally found a goaltender that’s capable of carrying his team on long playoff runs. Yes, it’s a really small sample size, but it’s tough to imagine Binnington completely falling on his face in this series or even next season.

After the controversial ending to Game 3 of the Western Conference Final against San Jose, Binnington held the Sharks to two goals over the final three games of the series. That’s impressive against any team but even more so against a team with that kind of firepower.

The 25-year-old has 12-7-0 record with a 2.36 goals-against-average and a .914 save percentage this postseason. The Bruins may just be the biggest challenge he’s faced, but he’s already knocked out a great Jets team, a hungry Stars team and a talented Sharks team.

Again, for the purpose of this article, we have to check out the depth at the Blues’ disposal. Jake Allen has been a starter in the NHL, but he always seems to fall apart at the wrong time. In my mind, it’s impossible to give Allen the advantage over Halak.

Advantage: Boston Bruins

If both starting goalies were unavailable for this series, you’d have to give the edge to Boston. But if we put that aside, I still think Rask has to have a slight edge on Binnington. He’s been more dominant and he has the advantage of having Stanley Cup Final experience. There isn’t a big gap between the two players right now, but it’s impossible to overlook what Rask has done.

What do you think?

STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW
Who has the better forwards?
Who has the better defensemen?
Who has the better special teams?
X-factors for Bruins, Blues

PHT Power Rankings: Conn Smythe favorites
Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.