Starkey: Flyers, Jackets or Wings?
As of early Tuesday evening, the leading candidates to open the Stanley Cup playoffs in Pittsburgh were the Detroit Red Wings, Columbus Blue Jackets and Philadelphia Flyers.
Which of those would the Penguins prefer?
They'd never tell. As Sidney Crosby put it, “I don't think I've ever given a preference (on that topic) before.”
How about the rest of us? Are we looking for the highest form of drama or the highest probability of a Penguins advancement?
If it's the latter — and for most fans, I'm guessing it would be — then the Blue Jackets are the clear and obvious choice. The Penguins are 5-0 against the Blue Jackets this season and 9-0-1 in Crosby's past 10 games against them. He lights them up like a pinball machine.
Bring in the Blue Jackets, and Penguins fans might greet them at the airport they'd be so happy.
The Flyers, on the other hand, seem to have people shivering in fear. Maybe for good reason. The numbers aren't pretty. The Flyers are 10-2-1 all-time at Consol Energy Center (including playoffs) and have beaten the Penguins three times in four tries this season.
On special teams — where the Penguins have done their best work this season — the Flyers have dominated. They are 5 for 13 on the power play and 16 for 17 on the penalty kill against the Penguins. They also irritate the Penguins like a 3 a.m. car alarm, exposing their frayed fuses like no other team can.
I get all that. But as an impartial observer, I'm looking for drama, and you won't find a purer form of it than Penguins-Flyers.
I'm not convinced it's a terrible matchup, either. When the Flyers swept a weekend series last month, the Penguins were without James Neal and Chris Kunitz in addition to their usual cast of missing characters. This might be just the series the Penguins need to gird themselves for a long playoff run.
One of these days, they're going to have to prove they can stay cool in hot situations. They might as well find out right away if they have it in them.
The word “composure” came up during the conversation with Crosby. As in, how difficult is it to keep one's composure in the crucible of playoff hockey?
“It's the playoffs, so you have to be intense,” Crosby said. “The stakes are high. You have to compete. With that being said, you have to be smart. When I think about composure, it's about not retaliating. You can't take penalties where you're retaliating because a guy hits you or maybe gets away with a cheap shot.”
The last Penguins-Red Wings matchup had some of that. The Penguins went insane for a stretch, taking a bunch of idiotic penalties. Neal almost beheaded Luke Glendening with a cross-check to the skull. Detroit fired back when David Legwand butt-ended Evgeni Malkin in a spot that really, really hurts.
This could be fun.
If I had my choice, it'd be Penguins-Red Wings. I've been waiting for a rubber match since those two epic Cup finals. I happen to believe the Hockey Gods would like to see it, too. And even if both teams are different, several core players and both head coaches remain.
Even the system remains in Detroit, where the Wings are closing in on their 23rd consecutive playoff spot.
“They still play the exact same system,” Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik said. “It seems like it's just interchangeable parts on that team. They get guys to buy into the system. ... I think it all goes back to the coaching and leadership they have.”
Any preference for a first-round opponent?
None that Orpik or any of the Penguins would admit to.
“Whoever we play,” he said, “I think it's going to be interesting.”
Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.