Flyers

Flyers vs. Penguins in Stanley Cup Playoffs? Predicting the series

Flyers vs. Penguins in Stanley Cup Playoffs? Predicting the series

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.

Forwards

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 

Defensemen

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. 

Edge: Flyers 

Goaltending 

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.

Edge: Flyers

Coaching

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.

Edge: Push 

The hiatus 

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.

Edge: Penguins

Series prediction 

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.

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Ice cream and a memory vs. Carey Price remind us Carter Hart is just a kid ... but ready for the moment

Ice cream and a memory vs. Carey Price remind us Carter Hart is just a kid ... but ready for the moment

When Carey Price was at his most dominant, winning the Vezina Trophy (top goalie) and Hart Memorial Trophy (MVP) in 2014-15, Carter Hart was just 16 years old. 

The precocious but innocent kid had just begun molding his game at the junior hockey level with the WHL's Silvertips in Everett, Washington.

Price was at the sport's pinnacle.

"He was my favorite goalie growing up," Hart said.

On Wednesday, the night before his 22nd birthday, Hart found himself stretching next to Price at the center-ice line in front of the scorekeepers' bench.

There was Hart, on the same NHL stage as his idol, facing him in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The NHL postseason is serious business, requiring the utmost competitiveness and focus. Hart, whose youthfulness often belies his maturity, fully understands the beast that is the Stanley Cup Playoffs. But the postseason makes for special moments and memories. NHL players all looked up to someone at some point. For Hart, he allowed himself to appreciate the storyline ahead.

"Definitely really cool," Hart said last Sunday about the upcoming best-of-seven first-round matchup with Price's Canadiens. "Just had the chance to actually meet him the other week and talk with him for the first time, so that was something pretty cool. For your first playoff series, playing against Carey Price will definitely be a lot of fun; I look forward to it."

Price, who turns 33 years old on Sunday, was unable to spoil the youngster's birthday. By midnight, Hart and the top-seeded Flyers had a 1-0 series lead after earning a hard-fought 2-1 victory over eighth-seeded Montreal. Hart is 3-0-0 with a 1.00 goals-against average and .966 save percentage through three games in the NHL's return-to-play 24-team tournament.

On the ice, the Flyers were able to celebrate around Hart after he turned away 27 of 28 shots, with 16 of those saves coming in the second period when the Flyers really needed him.

Off the ice, they made sure to celebrate Hart's birthday a little early, making the best of the circumstances in the Eastern Conference's Toronto bubble.

“I think some guys got him some ice cream yesterday after the game and just sang him happy birthday," Shayne Gostisbehere said Thursday with a smile. "He’s been pretty good.”

“Let him do his thing,” Scott Laughton chimed in about Hart.

“Yeah, let him do his thing," Gostisbehere echoed.

After a short and sweet exchange with Price, Hart did his thing in Game 1.

“Just said hello quickly in warmups, good luck and it was just time to go play," Hart said.

If Hart continues to play the way he has this season and to start the tournament, he could remember the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs for much more than a memorable matchup with Price.

But there's a kid in everyone. Then again, Hart is only 22 years old.

"He’s a special kid," Derek Grant said last week. "He’s so calm. He puts his mask on, you don’t know how old he is."

With his mask off, Hart hopefully enjoyed a little ice cream and soaked in the moment.

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Canadiens head coach Claude Julien hospitalized with chest pain

Canadiens head coach Claude Julien hospitalized with chest pain

Canadiens head coach Claude Julien has been hospitalized because of chest pain, the team announced Thursday.

Julien is not expected to return to the bench for the Canadiens' best-of-seven first-round playoff series against the Flyers. Assistant coach Kirk Muller will take over head coaching duties in the interim.

Julien was behind the bench leading Montreal in Game 1 Wednesday night at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto. The Flyers beat the Canadiens, 2-1, while the series continues Friday with Game 2 at 3 p.m. ET.

Here is a statement from Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin, via the team's official website:

Good afternoon. I'm here to inform you of the reason Claude Julien was not here this morning at practice. Claude experienced chest pain during the night. We immediately consulted our doctors and it was agreed to transfer him to the hospital by ambulance. He's presently there and he's undergoing tests to determine the exact nature of his condition. This has nothing to do with COVID.

We don't expect him to be back during this series against the Flyers. Kirk, Dominique [Ducharme] and Luke [Richardson] will share the responsibility, however, Kirk is the associate head coach and he will assume the responsibility of head coach until Claude's return.  

We understand that Kirk does not speak French, but these are exceptional circumstances and we're asking you for your understanding. Out of respect for Claude and his family, I will not answer any further questions about his medical condition.

The veteran coach led the Bruins to a Stanley Cup championship in 2011. The 60-year-old began his NHL head coaching career in Montreal and has been with the club for parts of seven seasons.

"There’s no doubt that there’s a deep bond and a deep respect because we know the jobs that we’re doing," Flyers head coach Alain Vigneault said about Julien before the series.

Vigneault, 59, also began his NHL head coaching career in Montreal. From 1981-83, Vigneault and Julien were teammates on the Central Hockey League's Salt Lake Golden Eagles.

"I didn't see him after the game," Vigneault said Thursday afternoon in a video interview following practice. "I've known Claude since I was 20, so we go way back, good friends. I'm going to reach out with him; I just found out the news, I want to say 20 minutes ago, just before jumping on the bus. I'm not aware of exactly what happened."

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