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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.

Stars’ Stephen Johns activated after missing almost 22 months

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ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The Dallas Stars activated Stephen Johns before their game Saturday night in Minnesota, clearing the way for the defenseman’s first game in almost 22 months.

Forward Radek Faksa was placed on injured reserve to make room for Johns on the active roster.

Johns has been out since late in the 2017-18 season because of post-traumatic headaches. The Stars have said the condition isn’t related to concussions.

The 27-year-old Johns hasn’t played since March 29, 2018, at the Wild. It was the last of a career-high 75 games in his third NHL season. Johns missed the last five games that year before sitting out all of last season as headaches persisted.

He played two games on a conditioning assignment with the Texas Stars of the AHL before rejoining Dallas on Thursday.

The return of Johns could coincide with the Stars’ first game without defenseman Miro Heiskanen. The 20-year-old standout left Thursday’s loss to Buffalo with an upper-body injury.

Johns made his debut for Dallas late in the 2014-15 season and played in all 13 of the team’s playoff games as a rookie. He has 13 goals, 15 assists and 306 blocked shots in 150 career regular-season games.

Panthers down another goalie, injured Driedger to miss weeks

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SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) — Florida goalie Chris Driedger will miss several weeks with what’s believed to be a groin injury, the latest health issue at that position for the Panthers.

The Panthers announced the diagnosis Saturday, calling it a lower-body injury.

Driedger was hurt midway through the first period of the Panthers’ 4-3 win over the Los Angeles Kings on Thursday. He is 5-2-0 in nine appearances for Florida this season, with a 2.48 GAA.

The Panthers have also been without goalie Sergei Bobrovsky for much of January while he recovers from an upper-body injury.

Florida begins a stretch of six consecutive road games Saturday in Detroit. That six-game run also includes the All-Star break and the Panthers’ bye week.

The Buzzer: Cirelli, Lightning cruise past Jets; Crosby tallies OT winner

Anthony Cirelli #71 of the Tampa Bay Lightning
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Three Stars

1) Anthony Cirelli, Tampa Bay Lightning

Cirelli recorded his first NHL hat trick as the Lightning steamrolled the Winnipeg Jets Friday evening. The 22-year-old scored twice in the opening period as the Bolts jumped out to a 3-0 lead and never looked back. Cirelli hammered a feed from Ondrej Palat 9:27 into the game and then converted a nifty forehand-backhand maneuver to close out the first 20 minutes. Cirelli would complete the hat trick midway through the third period.

2) Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins

Malkin recorded two power-play assists to set up Pittsburgh’s two goals in its 2-1 win against the Detroit Red Wings. Sidney Crosby has received a lot of attention since returning from a 28-game absence earlier this week and added the game-winning goal Friday. However, it was Malkin who looked off the defender and delivered a perfect pass to set up the Penguins captain. Malkin has recorded 10 points in the previous six games.

3) Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning

The 26-year-old winger scored twice in Tampa Bay’s 7-1 win. Cirelli and Kucherov alternated goals as Tampa Bay jumped out to a 4-0 lead, including three in the opening period. Kucherov buried two tap-in opportunities to record goals 21 and 22 on the season. The Russian winger has five goals in his previous three games and the Lightning improved to 12-2-0 in the previous 14 games.

Highlights of the Night

Crosby extended his goal-scoring streak to three games when he buried a pretty feed from Malkin to propel the Penguins in overtime.

Sam Steel fired the OT winner after Andrei Svechnikov‘s costly turnover.

Stats of the Night

Scores

Pittsburgh Penguins 2, Detroit Red Wings 1 (OT)

Anaheim Ducks 2, Carolina Hurricanes 1 (OT)

Tampa Bay Lightning 7, Winnipeg Jets 1

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• NHL Skills Competition to feature women’s 3-on-3, pucks shot from stands

Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.

Predators’ Arvidsson fined $2,000 under NHL diving policy

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NEW YORK (AP) — Nashville Predators forward Viktor Arvidsson has been fined $2,000 by the NHL under the league’s rules regarding diving and embellishment.

NHL Rule 64 was designed to penalize players who repeatedly dive and embellish in an attempt to draw penalties. A player gets a warning for a first citation and a $2,000 fine for the second citation.

League officials said Arvidsson received a warning following an incident Dec. 27 against Pittsburgh. His second citation occurred during an incident in the first period of a Jan. 7 game with Boston that resulted in coincidental minor penalties on Arvidsson and Bruins forward Brad Marchand.

Fine proceeds go to the players’ emergency assistance fund.