April 9, 2018 | 9:40pm ET
By Anthony Di Marco, The Fourth Period



Ivan Provorov, defenceman


MONTREAL, QC -- It was about as good a script that could’ve been written from the NHL’s point of view. In a year where Claude Giroux seemingly silenced the critics by shattering his previous career highs in points and goals, the Philadelphia Flyers managed to finish inside the top three of the Metropolitan Division. In doing so, they drew arguably the toughest first-round opponent.

In a rivalry that never seems to get old, the Flyers and Penguins will show down in Round One of the 2018 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs, starting with Game One on Wednesday in Pittsburgh at 7pm ET.

It’s hard to believe it was six years ago that the Flyers and Penguins last collided in the Battle of Pennsylvania in the post-season. As many will recall, that series was one of the most entertaining in recent memory, filled with high scoring games, horrid goaltending (by Marc-Andre Fleury and Ilya Bryzgalov) and tons of fights. The underlying storylines fueled the series, highlighted by the infamous words of then-Flyers Head Coach Peter Laviolette, when he dubbed Giroux the “best player in the world.”

Although it seems not too long ago, much has changed since the last time the two teams collided in the playoffs. The Flyers, who have not advanced past the first round of the playoffs since beating the Penguins in 2012, have gone through a major facelift as an organization since the epic series. The Flyers have only five players left on its roster since that series (Giroux, Wayne Simmonds, Jakub Voracek, Sean Couturier and Matt Read), while the goaltenders, defence and coaching staff as a whole have been completely revamped.

So when the puck drops Wednesday night to kick off the latest chapter in the Penn State rivalry, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin will have a new-look match up looking to shut them down.

As appose to the last time these teams met, when the Flyers relied on a then-37 year old (Kimmo Timonen), the task of shutting down the aforementioned two mega-stars will be given to two guys who have a combined six games of playoff experience.

Shayne Gostisbehere (24) and Ivan Provorov (21) have anchored the Flyers’ defensive corps for the better part of two seasons. The pair averages 21:27 and 24:09 TOI per game, respectively, while the latter averages about 29 shifts per game. Flyers bench boss Dave Hakstol and his coaching staff have relied heavily on the young duo in all scenarios throughout the season.

The Flyers’ powerplay has been operated with a four-forward set up (on both units) for the entirety of the season, with Gostisbehere and Provorov working on the first and second unit respectively. The defensive powerplay minutes were almost exclusively owned by the duo. On the season, 39 powerplay points came from Flyers’ defencemen. Of those 39, all but one point (an assist from Brandon Manning) came from the Gostisbehere and Provorov.

Since Provorov and Gostisbehere became a pair back in early January, their minutes tended to spike heavily in tight games. While both regularly played over 20 minutes, there were many nights in which their minutes much surpassed their season average, especially Provorov.

Unlike Gostisbehere, Provorov is a consistent penalty killer. This is the main reason as to why there is a significant gap in between the duo’s ice time. Provorov’s minutes in particular will spike in tight games, as Hakstol tends to double shift him with Radko Gudas while defending leads or killing penalties. Over the last the last 10 games, Provorov saw his TOI surpass 25 minutes three times, as every point mattered to the Flyers down the stretch. Provorov’s offensive output (17 goals, 24 assists) took many by surprise, as he tallied seven points over the final six games.

Gostisbehere had a remarkable bounce back year, as he won the Barry Ashbee Memorial Trophy as the Flyers’ best defenceman. After a sophomore season that saw him as a healthy scratch several times, Gostisbehere’s minutes increased by over a minute and a half per game, while improving from a -21 to a +10. Gostisbehere finished the year with an eye-popping 66 points, despite recording over half of his points on the man advantage (33). While always being an offensive threat, Gostisbehere’s defensive zone improvement this season resulted in the coaching staff trusting him with regular shifts as a top pairing defenseman.

With the Provorov and Gostisbehere being so heavily relied on in regular season games, it’s clear that their responsibilities will increase in the playoffs.

The Penguins are the defending two-time Stanley Cup Champions for a reason, as the team has arguably the deepest offense in the entire league. Any team that has Crosby (89 points), Malkin (98 points) and Phil Kessel (92 points) on three separate lines is a defined offensive juggernaut. Considering the “spread the wealth” mentality that the Penguins operate by, they will have at least one of their superstars on the ice for over half the game. With the Flyers’ defence not being especially deep, the coaching staff will be riding their top pair especially hard.

To say that this will be the biggest challenge yet for the Flyers’ defensive duo would be an understatement. The Flyers revamped defence has been fun to watch for the last two seasons, but will be truly tested for the first time in this year’s first round. Provorov’s first playoff test will be trial by fire, while Gostiebehere’s first two playoffs series will be against Alex Ovechkin and Crosby, respectively.

With how deep Pittsburgh’s offense is, expect Provorov and Gostisbehere to be playing just shy of 30 minutes per game come the playoffs. With the reliance of the duo in all scenarios, Hakstol will be riding his two star rearguards in every way.

The Flyers’ dynamic duo has been nothing short of remarkable this season, but the true litmus test to see just how good they really are will be made in the first round.

Anthony Di Marco is the NHL Correspondent for The Fourth Period.
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