Philly this season
The chase began nearly a year ago, when Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan addressed hundreds of thousands of fans following a second Stanley Cup championship parade through choked downtown streets in as many summers.
Rather than run from the challenge of trying to become the first franchise in 35 years to win three consecutive Cups, Sullivan embraced it.
“I wonder if we can repeat, or three-peat, should I say,” Sullivan said.
Following an occasionally rocky regular season, the Penguins begin their pursuit in earnest tonight when they host cross-state rival Philadelphia Flyers to open their first-round series. Asked Tuesday if he remembers openly talking about a three-peat — last accomplished by the New York Islanders in 1983 — Sullivan just shrugged. He wasn’t so much predicting another mid-June celebration as he was stating the obvious.
“We believe that we have a group that’s capable,” Sullivan said. “And we’ve shown an ability to have success in a high-stakes environment.”
For proof, look no further than the most recent names etched on hockey’s most coveted chalice. The Penguins have won series in all kinds of ways over the last two years. They’ve dominated. They’ve rallied. Mostly, they’ve survived. And the Flyers have noticed.
“They have all the pieces,” Philadelphia center Claude Giroux said. “On paper they’re a really good team and in the playoffs they always find a way.”
The Flyers, however, present a unique challenge. Philadelphia hasn’t won a playoff series since it beat the favored Penguins in six sometimes chaotic games in 2012. The Flyers pulled off the upset thanks in part to a meltdown by Pittsburgh. The Penguins lost their composure at times, leading to a string of power plays that Philadelphia rode to victory.
While the majority of the faces that will take the ice at PPG Paints Arena are different, the history of antagonism between the two clubs remains. Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby understands things are likely to get chippy. He’d prefer they not get out of hand.
“I don’t think we’re looking to fight,” Crosby said. “It will definitely be an intense series, we know that.”
One in which the erratic Flyers, who endured a 10-game winless streak around Thanksgiving, know they are the underdogs. That’s fine. In some ways, they’ve been one all season.
“In reality, when you have to earn your way and your margin of error is pretty short all the way along, it tests you,” Philadelphia coach Dave Haksol said. “Sometimes you pass the test. Sometimes you fail the test. It tests you and pushes you to get better.”
Some things to look for as Philadelphia tries to put an abrupt end to Pittsburgh’s bid at winning a fourth Cup during the Crosby Era.
The Penguins and their star-laden power play led the league and set a franchise record by scoring 26.2 percent of the time with the man advantage. Their number this season was just a touch better than the 26.0 the 1995-96 club posted, a group that included Hall of Famers Mario Lemieux and Ron Francis and future Hall of Famer Jaromir Jagr. The Flyers understand their best chance to pull off the upset will be by staying out of the penalty box.
“They got special players that make special plays,” Giroux said. “For us it’s to make sure we minimize those chances.”
HOW SWEEP IT IS?
The Penguins took all four meetings between the teams during the regular season, scoring five goals each time. Look closer, however, and things are tighter than they seem. Both games in Pittsburgh ended with the Penguins escaping 5-4 following goals during the three-on-three overtime. There are no extra-period gimmicks in the playoffs.
“I don’t think we’ve played our best game or a full 60 minutes against Pittsburgh yet,” Flyers forward Sean Couturier said. “But I like our chances if we play some good hockey for 60 minutes, maybe even more.”
Pittsburgh’s big move at the trade deadline was to bring in Derick Brassard from Ottawa to center the third line. Brassard appeared to be hitting his stride in late March before suffering a lower-body injury. He should be good to go in Game 1, and his presence gives the Penguins perhaps the best depth down the middle of any team in the league.
“I’m just going to try and keep it simple early and go from there,” Brassard said.