Claude Giroux and Sidney Crosby exchange punches during the 2012 playoffs. (Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images)
If you’re wondering if the Penguins are close to being playoff-ready, you’re going to find out. A proving ground is just a week away.
Saturday, March 15: Pittsburgh at Philadelphia.
Saturday, March 16: Philadelphia at Pittsburgh.
The Penguins got swept by Boston in last spring’s Eastern Conference final because they were physically weak. The year before, the Penguins got humbled by the Flyers because they were mentally weak.
This two-game home-and-home with the Penguins’ rejuvenated hated rivals will tell a tale. If the Penguins are weak in any way, there won’t be any hiding it.
It’s painful to acknowledge, but the Flyers deserve credit for bouncing back from a 4-10-1 start. They looked dead and buried with a plethora of soft spots. But the Flyers currently stand 33-24-6, second in the Metropolitan Division. They’ve won three straight, and eight of their last 10. Not a great team, but a solid one.
The Penguins lead Philadelphia by 14 points. The Flyers won’t make a run at the Metro Division title. But they could easily play the Penguins in the second round of the playoffs. Gulp. The Flyers are still club-footed on defense and average in goal. But their tenacity and their 2012 playoff win make them a definite threat to the Penguins.
The Flyers’ 2012 first-round victory shattered the Penguins’ confidence. Mentally, the Penguins haven’t been the same since. That series tagged the Penguins as a good regular-season team. That’s a nice way of saying “paper champions.”
The 2010 elimination by Montreal was seen as a fluke. The 2011 elimination by Tampa Bay was fraught by injury. But capitulating to the Flyers in 2012 was a debacle. The Penguins lost all semblance of composure and were reduced to playing undisciplined, chaotic shinny hockey. Panicked and frustrated. The Penguins often looked like they just didn’t know what to do.
That loss scarred the Penguins. Now, come playoff time, fans don’t trust them. Experts don’t trust them. They don’t trust themselves.
Last year’s playoffs had elements of 2012’s fiasco vs. Philly. Emotionally, the Penguins never went down for the third time. But they were often gasping for air.
The inexperienced Penguins of 2008 and 2009 looked much more collected than the Penguins have since. This group too often psyches itself out.
This home-and-home with the Flyers is the playoff before the playoffs. When the clock at Consol Energy Center hits three zeroes on the afternoon of March 16, we will know exactly where the Penguins stand.
The Flyers have always been better than the Penguins at seeing the big picture. They plant seeds in meaningless games, then reap benefit in big games.
The Flyers will be loaded for bear on those two afternoons. They will play Flyers hockey. Hit late. Gang up. Talk smack. Hack and whack. The Flyers will try to rattle the Penguins now with an eye toward a best-of-seven meeting later. The Penguins must maintain their self-control. That’s when the Flyers lose theirs.
If Dan Bylsma isn’t smart enough to see the importance of these games, he’s not the coach he thinks he is. The Penguins have loads more talent. Better superstars. Better defense. Better goaltending.
What they don’t have is excuses. Not in these two games against the Flyers or for playoff elimination before the Stanley Cup final.
Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin will determine the outcomes. If they take penalties behind the play, get in unnecessary skirmishes or waste time with babble, the Penguins will follow them down the primrose path. Don’t be soft, but don’t be stupid.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. on WXDX-FM (105.9).