Alex Lyon #49 of the Philadelphia Flyers makes a save against Patric Hornqvist #72 of the Pittsburgh Penguins at PPG Paints Arena on March 25, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images)
If the Penguins could have chosen a foe from among all Eastern Conference playoff qualifiers, it would have been the Philadelphia Flyers.
The Penguins went 4-0 against the Flyers in the regular season. It's hard to imagine the Penguins not winning their first-round series vs. the old enemy.
But what if they don't?
That's the worry when you're favored to beat your big rival: living with the aftermath of an upset.
But the Penguins will defeat the Flyers. Five games seems a likely length, though four is more probable than six.
The Penguins are a rotten matchup for the Flyers. The Flyers can score, but the Penguins score more. The Flyers have star power, but Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek don't remotely compare to Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The Penguins' defensive corps lacks depth, but the Flyers defensive corps lacks, period. The Flyers' No. 1 goaltender, Brian Elliott, isn't really a No. 1 goalie. A journeyman, more like. Matt Murray has two Stanley Cups.
The Flyers are offense-first. They approach hockey with calculated risk. They play a lot like the Penguins, only worse.
The Flyers faithful will refute much (maybe all) of the above, but that's a fan base quite adept at fooling itself.
Giroux is an intriguing figure.
Peter Laviolette, the Flyers' coach in 2012, insanely called Giroux hockey's best player then. An orange-and-black pompom-waving Philadelphia scribe described that year's playoff series as Crosby “passing the baton” to Giroux.
It didn't work out that way. (Connor McDavid is now attempting to pry the baton loose, but not making the playoffs is no solvent for Super Glue.)
Giroux hasn't spent one day of his life as hockey's best player but was the NHL's No. 2 scorer this season with 102 points. He should legit be in the discussion for MVP, but it instead seems like Giroux is flying under the radar.
So are the Flyers.
The Flyers won 42 games and lost 40, making the playoffs by virtue of 14 loser points. The Florida Panthers won 44 games but missed the postseason.
But the Flyers collected just two fewer points than the Penguins, so the possibility of them making a battle of this series can't be cavalierly dismissed.
Some draw a connection between now and that 2012 series between the teams that saw the Penguins disintegrate mentally because of the Flyers' lowbrow shenanigans, bowing in six games.
But the Penguins have just three players left from that team: Crosby, Kris Letang and Malkin, who have handled pressure pretty well since.
Anyway, the Penguins lost in 2012 mostly because goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury played his worst ever — posting a 4.63 goals-against average and a .834 save percentage in that series — and because then-coach Dan Bylsma was rotten at damage control, trying to put out fires with gasoline. (Bylsma always insisted his Penguins try to out-hit Philadelphia and the Boston Bruins by way of proving their manhood. Exactly the wrong approach and no Plan B.)
The Flyers will try to stir the excrement at some point. Despite a more skilled approach now, it's in their DNA.
But it won't work. These aren't those Penguins.
For example, those Penguins didn't have Patric Hornqvist.
Hornqvist is the kind of player needed when you're in a series with the Flyers. If you stand in the Penguins' crease, Hornqvist stands in your crease. If you bump Murray, Hornqvist bumps your goalie. If you irritate the Penguins, Hornqvist irritates your team just as bad. Maybe twice as bad.
It's not retaliation. It's organic. It's what Hornqvist does. He scores, too. Hornqvist will be a particularly valuable component in this series.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays at WXDX-FM (105.9).