Friday, April 06, 2012

Flyers prepared, confident, focused heading into postseason clash with Penguins

by Bob Herpen
Phanatic Hockey Editor

So, it's all settled. Some time next week, the Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins will renew hostilities in the postseason for the third time in the last five seasons, and for the second straight time in the opening round.

With one game remaining in the regular season, the crystal ball got a lot clearer, as the seeding was also finalized.

Thanks to a 2-1 win over Buffalo on Thursday, then a 5-2 win by the Pens over the Rangers, the Orange and Black are locked into the five seed and the Steel City skaters have home-ice advantage.

But first, the final of six meetings between these cross-state rivals has to occur, on Saturday afternoon at CONSOL Energy Center, a new building of steel and glass which has hosted the Flyers five times since its October 2010 opening and saw the visitors win each time.

Given the bad blood left over from Sunday's emotional 6-4 win -- a victory which came at a price in more ways than one thanks to injuries to Danny Briere and Nicklas Grossmann along with a $10,000 fine to head coach Peter Laviolette for engaging the opposing bench following a line brawl with 63 seconds remaining in that contest -- plus the fact there's nothing at stake for Game 82, one might think it's time to relax.

“While there’ll be no juggling in the standings, given the choice to beat the Penguins or lose to the Penguins, we want to win,” said head coach Peter Laviolette. “The objective remains the same.”

If the Flyers do end up on the correct side of the ledger, they'd finish 5-1-0 against the flightless fowl, which would be the most decisive season-series victory since they went 6-1-1 in 2005-06, Sidney Crosby's rookie campaign, against a reconfigured Pittsburgh roster.

And, if that last road win comes to fruition it will mark the second consecutive road sweep in Western Pennsylvania. That will be six wins in a row by the banks of the Allegheny and Monongahela, a first in franchise history. Philly also won five straight from March of 1983 through the end of the 1983-84 season, dismal pre-Lemieux times for the Black and Yellow.

Still, stats are stats, and just emphasize the enormity of the moment. Do the players realize that? Of course not. Nonetheless, it doesn't take away from the anticipation of what lies ahead less than 48 hours from now and then what's about to begin more than a week from now.

"It's gonna be great. It's gonna be a battle, and it's gonna be weird to play them in the afternoon with nothing on the line," said Scott Hartnell. "But we're gonna play hard we want a chance to end the year on a winning note and take it in a place where we're gonna start the series."

The same goes for Claude Giroux, who is about to experience this rivalry as a main player on the level of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The 23-year-old was a bit player, a rookie battling for a permanent spot on the roster (and starting to earn it) back in 2009 when these teams last met.

Now, he's very much conspicuous thanks to career highs in goals (28), assists (65) and points (93), ranking ahead of the oft-injured Crosby in all categories while topping Malkin, the NHL's shoo-in for the Art Ross Trophy, in total helpers by seven.

"I love it. I think the guys are gonna be really excited. It won't be too hard to get ready for these kind of games. We want to go out there and be confident about it. It'll be a tough series and that's what hockey's all about," added Giroux.

Indeed. Hockey is all about rivalries, blood, sweat, tears, and ready-made cliches intent on choking fans with all of its immediacy and importance. Still, the upcoming playoffs feature one key twist in that both sides know each other well due to player swapping.

"It's going to be unbelievable," said Arron Asham, who played for the Flyers when the Penguins beat them on their way to winning the Cup three years ago.

Advantage: Philadelphia, though. Game 7 hero Max Talbot and Pittsburgh's new Public Enemy #1 Jaromir Jagr have come East, with a better working knowledge of what makes the other side tick. Just don't tell Jagr he has some unfinished business with the team that made him famous.

"I'm not going to think about it too much. I came back from Russia to have a chance to play in the playoffs and go far," said Jagr last night. "Eventually you're going to have to play a great team. We just have to beat them."
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