For a team stacked with a healthy roster of Stanley Cup veterans, the Pittsburgh Penguins are being schooled by the Philadelphia Flyers.
In Friday’s Game 2, the Penguins – as they have in several games against their cross-state rivals this season, most recently Wednesday’s Game 1 – jumped out to an early, multi-goal lead. And, once again, Pittsburgh allowed the Flyers to claw all the way back. This time, Philadelphia lured them into an end-to-end, defense-optional track meet, pouring on a few late goals for good measure to take an 8-5 decision, and a 2-0 series lead, back to eastern Pennsylvania.
“When you’re able to come back in a game like that again, I think it speaks volumes about the character in the room,” said Flyers head coach Peter Laviolette. “Fighting back like that’s not easy, and the players were just so resilient that it’s unbelievable, really.”
Philadelphia keyed its comeback with quick responses to Pittsburgh’s goals and by capitalizing on the Penguins’ lapses.
“It’s not a matter of mistakes going by without any consequences,” said Penguins captain Sidney Crosby. “Every mistake we’ve made has ended up in our net.”
Friday, those mistakes included two shorthanded goals, which canceled out Pittsburgh’s success on a power play that went 2-for-4 after being shut out in three chances Wednesday.
“That’s a big momentum swing,” Crosby said.
“The special teams [have] been a real factor in the series to this point,” said Penguins head coach Dan Byslma. “They’ve won the special teams now in both games, and [that was] probably the difference in each game.”
The Flyers’ best player was also a big difference-maker Friday, as winger Claude Giroux fired 10 shots on goal and collected six points (3G, 3A). Former Penguin Jaromir Jagr gave his club its first regulation lead of the series, 6-5, midway through the third period, and it was all the Flyers would need as they managed to slow down the game from there, stopping the back-and-forth that had prevailed to that point.
“I think we were so happy to have [the lead] that we were just fighting like crazy to keep it,” Laviolette said.
“We had a tough time getting through the neutral zone with speed and getting in their end,” said Penguins center Jordan Staal.
And Philadelphia’s playoff rookies continued to perform like seasoned vets. In Game 1, 20-year-old center Brayden Schenn was perhaps the best player in orange and black, registering a crucial, game-tying goal, two assists and a few crushing hits. Game 2, meanwhile, served as Sean Couturier’s coming-out party, as the 19-year-old center became the first rookie to record a playoff hat trick since 2006. Perhaps even more impressive, he’s managed to keep Evgeni Malkin off the board, holding this year’s Art Ross Trophy winner to just two assists and five shots in two games.
“I think there’s always a feeling-out process with players but, in regard to Sean, we started giving him responsibility in training camp and, every time we did that, he answered the bell,” said Laviolette. “He may not win the Calder [Trophy] because he didn’t put up 50 points, but … I think what has allowed him to increase his minutes and his responsibility is his hockey sense. He plays older than he is.”
Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury was shelled for seven goals-against, but his team did him no favors. The Flyers regularly flew through the neutral zone, got behind the Pittsburgh defense and came at the Penguins netminder on odd-man breaks.
“We put him in a lot of tough situations,” Bylsma said. “The shorthanded goals were both breakaway-type situations … I think both goalies probably felt that way a little bit. The barrage and the quality of the guys coming at them was drastic, and I don’t think either goalie likes to see a playoff game with those numbers out there.”
“It’s been frustrating,” Staal said, speaking of not only the two playoff contests but Pittsburgh’s lapse in defensive play over the past several weeks. “We’re trying to get back to it. I think the game’s been too open, and they’re a very fast team; they jump on opportunities when they can. We’re trying to do our best to keep them off the scoreboard and, obviously, tonight wasn’t our best effort in that regard.”
The Flyers, who certainly would have considered a split in Pittsburgh to be a success, now head back home in an enviable position.
“It’ll be nice to get back to Philadelphia,” Laviolette said. “We’ve got the best fans in the league; let them make some noise. It’ll be nice to see that wave of orange in the building instead of the white.”
And the Penguins – widely viewed as a Stanley Cup favorite at the start of this week – are left looking for answers about why they’ve strayed so far from their goal of being a tough team to play against.
“I think part of [that] is more than the physicality of it,” said Bylsma. “It’s [being] a tough team to play against all over the ice. We’ve got to do a better job in that aspect, defending coming through the neutral zone and defending the defensive zone. That’s got to be a better part of our game, and we’ve got to be a tougher team to play and get offense against.”
“It’s a good team over there, and we’re a good team as well,” Staal said. “We’ve got to keep moving forward. We’re going to find a way to win one of these games. We’re going to keep playing as hard as we have been and we’re going to get that bounce and find a way to win.”