Players to Watch, Predictions and More for Flyers-Penguins

Let the (rivalry) games begin.

The Flyers on Wednesday open the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs at PPG Paints Arena with Game 1 of their best-of-seven first-round series against the Penguins (7 p.m./NBC Sports Philadelphia).

So, without further ado, let's get into our predictions.

Key to the series: Handling Pens' pressure

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When you break down the four regular-season games, the Penguins were opportunistic in controlling play even throughout some of the lopsided games. They were able to pounce on the Flyers at crucial stretches, capitalize on mistakes, force them into penalties and score off their power play.

Pittsburgh has found ways to win in the playoffs even when it's been heavily outshot, as was the case in Game 1 against the Predators in last year's Stanley Cup Final. The Flyers can't afford to let five or 10 minutes of poor hockey dictate the end result. 

Player to watch: Matt Murray

We all know Brian Elliott has to be a steady presence on the Flyers' side (see story), but it'll be interesting to see how Murray responds. He enters the postseason with a playoff shutout streak of 146:26 dating back to last year's Stanley Cup Final. However, Murray hasn't been the same goaltender this season. 

Since returning from injury on March 20, Murray doesn't looked comfortable in net. The Penguins' goaltender has a 3.38 GAA with an .898 save percentage over his last eight games. Only once did Murray allow fewer than three goals during that stretch.

While there may be some concern in regards to Elliott's health, Murray appears to be fighting his confidence as well.

Prediction: Flyers in seven 

Don't let the regular-season series fool you. Yes, the Flyers lost all four games, allowing five goals in each of those contests, but the playoffs are completely different. Pregame scouting, matchups and in-game coaching adjustments all take a higher priority. 

In winning back-to-back Stanley Cup championships, the Penguins have played 49 postseason games over the past two seasons. Eventually, playing into early June in consecutive seasons has to take a toll on any team.

I think we'll see Claude Giroux ramp up his game to another level and lead the Flyers to their first playoff series win since 2012. 

Key to the series: Forget line matchups 

Think about Pittsburgh and Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin come right to mind. Matchups will be significant, and with Giroux on Sean Couturier's wing, it complicates things.

Let it go. Be smart - don't let Valtteri Filppula sniff the ice against them. But the Flyers have to stay true to their own game, not play to Pittsburgh's.

Player to watch: Travis Konecny

Special players elevate their game when the stakes are higher. I suspect we'll see a heavy dosage of Ivan Provorov and he'll rise to the occasion.

Like Provorov, Konecny took an enormous leap in his sophomore season. He became a first-line player, scored 24 goals and saw a 19-point increase and did so playing just 49 seconds more per game. Konecny's feistiness and speed are made for the postseason. I expect Provorov to shine (see story), but I'm more intrigued to see Konecny.

Prediction: Flyers in six

They haven't beaten the Pens all year, and no one is giving them a chance. This Flyers team is so unpredictable it only makes sense they'll unseat the two-time defending champs.

Key to the series: Be disruptive with purpose

We all know the potency of the Penguins' power play, making discipline an obvious key (see story). But if the Flyers make Pittsburgh feel their presence (in a smart way) and not allow it to get comfortable with sustained possession, then they have more than a chance.

On the power play especially, once the Penguins are set in the opponent's zone, their versatility makes them a nightmare.

Player to watch: Wayne Simmonds

Simmonds has not looked like himself and he's more than likely playing banged up, while his ice time dropped considerably over the Flyers' final six regular-season games.

However, he has 13 career goals against Pittsburgh - his most against any team - and the Flyers are 17-3-1 this season when he scores a marker. If he's right in the middle of things, the Flyers are tough to beat.

Prediction: Penguins in six

The Flyers are good, but this matchup is not. It's tough to envision Crosby, Malkin and the Penguins bowing out in the first round when they have history on their minds.

Should be a competitive series. In the end, just an unfortunate draw for the Flyers.

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