Stanley Cup Playoffs: Flyers vs. Penguins preview

Stanley Cup Playoffs: Flyers vs. Penguins

The deal: First round, best-of-seven series

Game 1, Wednesday, 7:30 p.m. (CSN)

Game 2, Friday, 7:30 p.m. (CSN)

Players to watch

Leave the stars and the goalies out of it. Here are some key players that could — or might have to — have a major impact in this hate-filled, best-of-seven series:

For the Flyers …

» Sean Couturier: Not only has he seldom acted or played like a rookie, he’s become the consummate two-way player. Now with the stakes at their highest Peter Laviolette will call on Couturier to shadow Sidney Crosby and/or Evgeni Malkin, while serving as one of his chief penalty-killers. How well he fares could well determine the Flyers’ fate. And if he can provide a little offense, even better.

» Nicklas Grossmann: The big defenseman was a revelation once the Flyers acquired him from Dallas. In fact, Grossmann so impressed management with his shot blocking and willingness to clear enemy forwards away from the net that they’ve already locked in the would-be free agent to a four-year deal. The Flyers need to make the Pens’ big guns consider the consequences of setting up shop in front of Ilya Bryzgalov. A healthy Grossmann, who missed the last week of the regular season with a sore knee, will make them do that.

» Wayne Simmonds: Surely no one expected 28 goals from a player who had scored just 39 combined in his first three years. But the gritty Simmonds quickly established himself as someone who’ll do whatever it takes, even using his face to score a goal. Now he could be the player who breaks through with the Pens focusing most of their energy on the Giroux line.

For the Penguins …

» James Neal: It’s hard to slip under the radar when you score 40 goals. But on a team with Malkin (109 points) and Crosby (37 in just 22 games), Neal has. Eighteen of his goals have come on the power play, which makes the Pens formidable when they get the man advantage.

» Kris Letang: As much as the Penguins missed Sidney Crosby for 60 games this year, some will argue they really suffered not having this all-star defenseman for 31 more. Letang’s return last month not only solidified the blue-line, but provided another offensive weapon.

» Matt Cooke: He’s transformed from a “goon” into a reliable two-way player scoring 19 goals. But considering all the nastiness between the teams, it wouldn’t surprise anybody if he reverts back to his old ways in the playoffs. When he sticks to playing hockey, though, Cooke can be a huge factor.

Burning questions

1. Will Bryz be in the woods?

» Which Ilya Bryzgalov will be manning goal for the Flyers? Will it be the one who surrendered goals in bunches, particularly from bad angles and on deflections? Or the one who set a franchise record with 249 scoreless minutes and played like a Vezina winner in the last 20 games? The Penguins will fire early and often, trying to shake his confidence and mess with his psyche.

2. Is there a home-ice disadvantage?

» Both teams have made a habit of winning on the road, with the Flyers posting 25 wins on enemy ice, including two big ones at Consol Energy Center. The Penguins have 22 road wins, with one at the Wells Fargo Center. The likelihood is you’ll have to win at least once on the road to advance.

3. Will the Kids Ever Act Their Age?

» For all the Giroux-Jagr-Hartnell line has done, the Flyers wouldn’t be here if not for the success of their rookies. With Matt Read (24 goals), Sean Couturier (13) and Brayden Schenn (12) leading the way, the kids amassed 64 goals and 128 points. And they’re hardly one-dimensional. Couturier is one of their best penalty-killers and Marc-Andre Bourdon is a reliable defenseman. Peter Laviolette is fond of saying they’ve played like veterans rather than rookies all season. Don’t expect that to change now.

4. When do the walking wounded return?

» While Chris Pronger definitely won’t be playing, the Flyers hope reinforcements are on the way. They pretty much know that James van Riemsdyk (broken foot) and Andrej Meszaros (back surgery) won’t be ready for the Penguins. But Nicklas Grossman (knee) seems healthy and Danny Briere (back spasms) could return soon — possibly for Game 1. Stating the obvious here, but the sooner they are back, the better the Flyers will be — especially in the later rounds.

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