Who knows what the NHL season will look like when it comes back — or if it even comes back at all.
Commissioner Gary Bettman has stated several times that his goal is to have a resolution to the regular season before moving to the playoffs. Whether or not that’s possible remains to be seen.
Regular season or not, the Flyers’ most likely playoff opponent appears to be their cross-state rival, the Pittsburgh Penguins.
So what would a Flyers-Penguins playoff series look like? Let’s break down some of the positions and key factors.
It wasn’t that long ago that an evaluation between the Flyers and Penguins forwards would have been over quickly. The 1-2 punch up the middle of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin has been the envy of the NHL for well over a decade. But times change.
Crosby and Malkin remain capable of dominating for stretches but are not quite the irresistible force they once were. Prior to the league suspending play, Crosby was struggling to play to his lofty standards as he continued to search for his rhythm following sports hernia surgery in November.
Meanwhile, the Flyers boast four balanced lines, all of which can provide scoring without sacrificing in their own zone. Most importantly, the Flyers possess the top-tier center depth, with Sean Couturier and Kevin Hayes, to make Crosby and Malkin have to play the game from goal line to goal line.
Nevertheless, it’s tough to go against Crosby.
Slight edge: Penguins
It’s clear that the Penguins have the best forward in this potential series. But that’s not the case on defense.
Even though Pittsburgh has the biggest name in Kris Letang, Ivan Provorov would be the best blueliner in this series. By a wide margin.
You might recall the last time these two teams met in the playoffs, Provorov committed a costly turnover that led to a Jake Guentzel goal in the series-sealing Game 6 loss. The 23-year-old doesn’t need extra motivation to be great. But I’d imagine he’d have something to prove if these teams meet again in the playoffs.
Matt Niskanen brings championship experience to the Flyers’ back line and the knowledge of how to walk the slim line of establishing a physical presence without taking unnecessary penalties. Look for him to play a big role if this series comes to pass.
On the other side, injuries and poor performance have left the Pens searching for consistency. Health might not be a factor when play resumes. But Jack Johnson and Marcus Pettersson will both remain vulnerable to good forecheck play. Meanwhile, Letang plays to extremes. He's a dynamic, offensive creator at his best and a turnover machine at his worst, with little in between.
At this moment, only one of these teams knows which goalie would start Game 1 of a playoff series, and it’s not the club with the two-time Stanley Cup winner on its roster.
Carter Hart, barring injury, would undoubtedly get the call between the pipes for the Flyers when the playoffs begin. You never know exactly how a young netminder will perform in the pressure-cooker that is playoff hockey. But Hart has been groomed for this moment, experiencing the anxiety that comes with being Canada’s goalie at the World Junior Championship. Also, the likelihood that there will be no fans attending these games could lessen some of those first-time nerves.
Thanks to his championship pedigree, Matt Murray will likely be Mike Sullivan’s choice in net for a Game 1. But Murray’s goaltending partner in Pittsburgh, Tristan Jarry, had a better year than Murray prior to the suspension of the season. Murray is capable of stealing important games. He has two oversized rings as evidence of that. But he also has failed to show much of that title-winning form in the last year and a half or so.
Flyers head coach Alain Vigneault and Pens bench boss Mike Sullivan are both top-echelon coaches. Both men have led teams to the Cup Final on multiple occasions. Sullivan has lifted the Cup in each of his two trips to the Final, while A.V. has been on the wrong end of the handshake line twice. That said, it’s tough to imagine either side being out-coached in this series.
These teams were moving in opposite directions prior to this extended halt of play. The Flyers were rolling, winning nine of their last 10 games. Conversely, the Penguins had dropped eight of their last 11 contests. But this break alters the entire dynamic. Its impact is uncertain, but it certainly would not have helped the Flyers.
If nothing else, the delay helps the Penguins on the injury front. An April series would likely not have included Guentzel. The Pens’ top goal-scoring threat has been sidelined since the start of the calendar year with a shoulder injury. However, his return for the playoffs is now possible. Pittsburgh is a different team with Guentzel on Crosby’s wing.
Also, the home-ice edge the Flyers likely would have had in this series will no longer be a factor as these games could be played at a neutral site and almost definitely won’t have fans.
All of this is a study in the unknown. We just have no way of knowing how any NHL team will come out of this hiatus.
Will a battle-tested team of veterans like the Penguins be more suited to handle this unique situation? Or will younger legs allow the Flyers to more quickly regain their form?
When in doubt, go with youth. Flyers in seven.
Click here to download the MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Flyers, Sixers and Phillies games easily on your device.