If you’re reading a website called Sports Invasion, I’m going to assume you know one of the principal rules of sports: the closer two teams play to each other, the more they hate each others guts. This is especially true for the NHL’s two Pennsylvania teams, the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Philadelphia Flyers. If you don’t believe me, watch this video from April 1st where the coaches start fighting with each other. To borrow an old Hollywood saying, if you’re gonna watch one first round playoff series, I’d recommend this one. Either of these teams has a legit shot at winning the Stanley Cup, yet one of them must be eliminated in the first round.
Penguins: Evgeni Malkin - I admit, for a while there it seemed like Malkin was always going to be in Crosby’s shadow. They won a Cup together, Malkin tears apart the NHL at every opportunity, but it was always the Crosby & Malkin show, never the other way around. Well now, with Crosby on the sidelines for most of the season, Malkin responded by posting a league-leading 109 regular season points (12 more than second place) and keeping the Penguins relevant. He’s proven to be the best forward on the ice this season.
Flyers: Claude Giroux - Malkin may sit in first place with 109 points, but nobody expected Claude Giroux to finish the season in third, with 93. Nobody expected Giroux to sit at the top with Malkin & Steven Stamkos of the Lightning. With Mike Richards & Jeff Carter getting traded in the offseason, someone needed to step up and match their production or else the Flyers would slide into obscurity. Giroux became a superstar this year, and is the new face of the Flyers now.
Most Wonderful Surprise:
Penguins: James Neal – James Neal started his career as an exciting young winger for the Dallas Stars. Unfortunately, the Dallas Stars are a mediocre hockey team that plays in Texas, so nobody really cared about this kid putting up solid (37 points in his rookie year, 55 in his sophomore) numbers. Then, in the weeks leading up to last year’s trade deadline, he was traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins with Matt Niskanen for Alex Goligoski. This season he was given the opportunity to play wing with Evgeni Malkin at center, and responded with 81 points, including 40 goals, good enough for 4th in the entire NHL. Now he’s got an extension with the Penguins and is looking for his first Stanley Cup.
Flyers – Jaromir Jagr – Even most non-hockey fans recognize the name Jagr, but I’ll give you a refresher course. Drafted by Pittsburgh in 1990, wins Stanley Cups with them in 1991 and 1992, which current teammate Sean Couturier does not watch because he isn’t alive yet. Stays with the Penguins for a decade, becoming one of their top stars. Gets traded to the Capitals and then eventually the Rangers before going to Russia. Now, two decades after lifting his last Stanley Cup, he returns to the NHL, playing for his biggest rivals in the 90s, and puts up a respectable 54 points. As a hockey fan, you just have to be glad about seeing Jagr again in the postseason.
Penguins – Eric Tangradi – Penguins fans thought this might be the year Tangradi finally makes an impact at the NHL level. Unfortunately, other wingers have outplayed him and Tangradi has spent most of the year at the Penguins AHL affiliate. However, other wingers have really stepped up, so it’s not that bad of a loss for the Pens.
Flyers – Ilya Bryzgalov – So the knock on the Flyers for many years was that they never had good goaltending. This offseason, management finally decided enough was enough, and threw a 9 year, $51-million contract at Bryzgalov, who at the time was given a fair share of credit for leading the Phoenix Coyotes to the playoffs. In order to fund this, they traded two popular players, Mike Richards and Jeff Carter (who have since reunited in Los Angeles). Bryzgalov’s first year as a Flyer has been marked by inconsistency. In October, after a 9-8 loss, he told the media “I have zero confidence in myself”. Yet he played wonderfully in March, one only has to wonder which Bryzgalov will show up for the playoffs.
Penguins – Steve Sullivan – He’s tiny (5’8) and old (37) in a sport that rewards the tall & young, yet the veteran winger is still 6th in points for the Penguins. He’s been waived, he’s came back from season-ending injuries, all the while being told he’ll never make it because he’s too short. This may be his last year to win a Cup, and he’s gonna play like a madman to make that possible.
Flyers – Maxime Talbot – This may be my favorite story heading into this series. Talbot is drafted by the Penguins, earns his role as a bottom-6 player (in hockey, the top-6 forwards tend to be the scoring superstars you give the most icetime, while the bottom-6 are there to check, kill power players, and occasionally fight) but his Penguins legacy will always be the 2009 Stanley Cup Finals, Game 7, in which Talbot scored both of the Penguins goals to win them the Cup. He immediately became a folk hero in Pittsburgh, getting commercials and acclaim, until his contract expired. And he signed with the Flyers. Now he plays his old team in the playoffs. Can’t wait.
Penguins – Crosby Crosby Crosby. Yeah, he’s healthy at the moment. But only the moment I’m typing this. By the time it takes for this to go up on the website, he may be injured again. If Crosby can be healthy over the course of the entire playoffs, it’s gonna be real tough to eliminate the Penguins.
Flyers – Chris Pronger. Pronger is a former Stanley Cup winner whose career might be over because of concussion issues. Pronger will not be in the playoffs, and possibly not in the NHL ever again.
Penguins in 7. In the end, Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury outplays Bryzgalov, and the Flyers can’t stop Crosby, Malkin, and Neal.