Even as hockey leagues all over the world take a hiatus, the Last Word on Hockey team is still devoted to publishing quality content in the absence of live sports. Such begins a new series: the NHL Rivalry Breakdown.
Each article will take a look at two longtime rivals and break down how the rivalry came to be, how the teams stack up against each other currently, and how the matchup may look down the road. In the latest edition of our NHL Rivalry series: we take a look at the exciting rivalry between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers.
NHL Rivalry Breakdown: Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers
Both the Penguins and the Flyers came into the league in the NHL’s six-team expansion in 1967. Of the two, Philadelphia was the first to strike gold, winning their first two (and only two, to date) Stanley Cups in the 1974 and 75 playoffs. It’d take 16 years for Pittsburgh to tally their first Cup win, although the Penguins have managed four more since.
The rivalry wasn’t as big in the early years. For much of the teams’ beginnings, the Flyers generally had the upper hand. They had an amazing stretch, from 1974 to 1989, where they didn’t lose a single home game, in regulation, to the Penguins. It is still unfathomable how the Penguins couldn’t get a single regulation win in 42 opportunities during that stretch but it was finally changed on February 2nd, 1989.
The Penguins were able to notch their first win in Philly in 15 years that day, toppling the Flyers 5-3. That win ate at the prideful city of Philadelphia but it was nothing compared to the events that would transpire that Spring when the teams met in the Second Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
1989 Patrick Division Final
The first of many playoff matchups between the teams was finally here. The Mario Lemieux-era Penguins qualified for the first time and looked to be in top form after they swept away the New York Rangers the round prior. Philadelphia was able to dispatch the Washington Capitals in the First Round in six games, placing them in the hands of the Penguins. It was a thrilling series, as thrilling as the inevitable rivalry has become, that would be stretched to seven games.
The teams traded games back-and-forth until Game Seven itself. Neither team was able to gain any sort of traction and the team’s stars seemed evenly matched. Well, save for Lemieux, who undoubtedly had one of the best performances to come out of the series. He was questionable to play in the pivotal Game Five matchup at the Civic Arena but that didn’t stop him. He ended up scoring an incredible eight points, leading the Penguins to a 3-2 series lead over the Flyers:
He had three goals in the first seven minutes of that game which led to his eight points overall for the Penguins in that 10-7 victory. The Flyers, though, rebounded with a lopsided 6-2 victory in game six before game 7 at the Civic Arena and taking the series. The score of that game ended up being 4-1. Their goal scorers in that game were Mike Bullard, Scott Mellanby, Dave Poulin, and Brian Propp.
Despite losing this series, the Penguins, of course, went on to win back-to-back Stanley Cups in two out of the next three seasons and the Flyers went on to miss the playoffs the next five years.
Other Notable Moments
This NHL rivalry also had the epic 2000 playoff series, including the five-overtime thriller in Game Four where Keith Primeau became the hero for the Flyers:
This NHL rivalry has been featured in plenty of other big playoff series, such as in 2008 and 2009 where the Penguins won both and then in 2012 where everything broke loose and the Flyers won.
Pittsburgh: The two-headed monster still reigns
Pittsburgh will always go as their stars go and that was especially the case before the season was halted. Sidney Crosby had been struggling a bit, by his standards, but still had 16 goals and 47 points in 41 games. Evgeni Malkin was on a different level as he had 74 points in 55 games. He’s the biggest reason why the Penguins didn’t falter when Crosby went out following sports hernia surgery. Their +28 goal differential as a team ranked fourth in the east and their xGF% (expected goals-for percentage) ranked seventh overall in the league at 51.9 percent. Their projected lineup when healthy is here:
Breaking It Down
The Penguins have a loaded top six. Having Zucker and Guentzel as your top two left-wingers is not something a lot of teams can roll out on a nightly basis. Guentzel already had 20 goals in 39 games before his season was cut short due to shoulder surgery. Rust was having a breakout year next to Malkin and was most likely going to pot 30 goals as he was already at 27 in mid-March. Add in the acquisitions of Zucker and Sheary to Crosby’s line and it’s one of the best top-six groups in the league.
The bottom six is much deeper than in years past with some hard lineup choices that will be made. McCann is going to have to earn the right to keep playing. Before the hiatus, he had just one goal in his last 24 games. Nick Bjugstad should be ready, following an injury of his own, if the NHL resumes play and he could be gunning for McCann’s spot.
Hornqvist has had a marvelous season with 17 goals and 32 points. His rejuvenation wasn’t talked about enough during the season as he’s been mostly fully healthy. With Marleau, the Penguins still have a player who’s fast and can chip in scoring-wise which makes that third line dangerous.
With regards to the fourth line, head coach Mike Sullivan will likely go back to the line listed above if all are healthy. Sullivan had called that line his “energy” line many times throughout the season. All 3 players are outstanding defensively and all can chip in offensively as well. The signing of Tanev has really made this line different. His work in both zones, especially the offensive zone, was terrific and forced a lot of teams to be on their heels. If one of these players gets hurt if the season resumes, a player such as Evan Rodrigues or Dominik Simon is more than ready to step in.
This will be a big question for Pittsburgh. Letang was having a marvelous season but his play was starting to dip more and more the longer he played with Johnson. Thankfully for him, his regular partner in Dumoulin was able to return after a long layoff and it helped a lot with the breakouts. On the second pairing, there is the steady Pettersson and the emergence of Marino, who was establishing himself as a dark horse Calder Trophy candidate before he missed a few weeks. On the bottom pairing is Schultz, who’s still trying to find his old form, and Johnson, who needs to be sheltered badly.
The big question will continue to be if the defence can get back to where it was. When the unit was healthy early in the season, they were in the upper echelon in a number of stats. This includes: shot attempts against, shots against, and scoring chances against. When injuries happened to Dumoulin and Marino, it expectedly came down.
The goaltending has been a tale of two seasons. Murray struggled for much of the first half and Jarry stepped up big time. Then, Murray was able to find some of his old form back and Jarry regressed a bit. Murray’s numbers may not look good but he’s still likely the guy in net for the playoffs if they started today.
Philadelphia: Youth mixed with veterans
For the most part, the Flyers have had their top players healthy for most of this season and have had their young players produce very well. Here’s a look at their lines:
Breaking It Down
Left out of course are Nolan Patrick and Oskar Lindblom, with the former going through chronic migraine disorder and the latter with bone cancer. Lindblom is not expected to play again this season. It is unknown if the Flyers will get Patrick back if the league resumes. With that said, best wishes to both of them as they continue to make progress.
Like their NHL rivalry Penguins, the Flyers’ top six is one of the better ones in the league. Konecny was having his best season with 24 goals and 61 points in 66 games. Both of those actually end up being team leads. Couturier continues to excel both offensively and defensively. His offense, though, has really taken off the last three seasons and this one isn’t any different. He currently has 22 goals and 59 points in 69 games, good for the second-leading scorer on the team.
Moving on, you always know you’ll get steady scoring from Giroux and Voracek. The two veterans have 56 and 53 points respectively, both good for top five on the team in scoring. The signing of Hayes really made this group formidable after a lot of people questioned his contract during the offseason. He has 23 goals and 41 points in 69 games and was strong on faceoffs and in the defensive end of the ice as well. There’s also van Riemsdyk to top it off as he’ll most likely be back if the NHL resumes. He was having a stellar season with 19 goals and 40 points before he fractured his right index finger.
When it comes to depth, the Flyers have some good pieces. Laughton has been good as a bottom-six winger with 13 goals and 27 points. There’s also Farabee who has eight goals and 21 points. He was taking the place of JVR after he had his injury. Raffl is fine in a bottom-six role as well with eight goals and 20 points. There’s just a lot more production down there for the Flyers, even from the likes of Grant and Aube-Kubel. Pittsburgh likely has the edge depth-wise, but make no mistake, this is an improved bottom two lines for the Flyers.
Provorov is one of the more underrated defensemen in the league, especially with how he had 13 goals and 36 points in 69 games. He was also a menace in his own end and had a 52 percent CF%. His time as a top-pairing defenseman is just getting started. The other stud on this unit is Sanheim, who rocked a 52 percent CF% and had eight goals and 25 points. He is also just getting started. He should be a defensive stalwart in their top four for years to come.
Niskanen and Braun have both had rejuvenated years after having down years last season. They both have contributed more offense this season for Philadelphia than they did last season for their respective teams. On the third pairing, Gostisbehere needs to really start to figure this out. He has been hurt this season but even last season his numbers dipped significantly. Next to him is Hagg who is a bit of a weak spot.
In goal, Hart is the starter with a .914 save percentage in 43 games while Elliott is sub .900 as the backup.
The Future of the NHL Rivalry
For Pittsburgh, it’s as simple as riding their superstars off into the sunset. The Penguins will be trying to get as many championships as they can in this window. For that, the short-term future looks great. It’s the long-term future that everyone knows will be not-so-good for the Penguins. Eventually, Crosby and Malkin will retire and the long rebuild will begin for them.
For Philadelphia, they have their goalie in Hart set for the long haul as he’s fully ready for primetime. They still have some players who haven’t seen a lot of time in the NHL yet, such as Morgan Frost. Frost did debut this season and had two goals in seven games though. He’ll see more as roster spots potentially open up. Philadelphia has a strong prospect core along with their already established young players in the lineup to keep them a playoff contender the next few seasons, if not longer. They also will have the opportunity to bring some free agents in as Chuck Fletcher never seems to be shy about that.
All in all, Pittsburgh has the better outlook short-term but in the long-term, it goes to the Flyers. Here’s to hoping that both these teams meet in the playoffs if this season gets back on track at some point. It would surely be epic, adding spark to an already amazing NHL rivalry.