If the Pittsburgh Penguins didn’t learn this lesson during the regular season, perhaps a Game 1 playoff loss will get their attention – don’t count out the Philadelphia Flyers just because they’ve fallen behind by two or three goals.
Wednesday at Pittsburgh’s CONSOL Energy Center, the resilient Flyers shook off a 3-0 Penguins lead to stun the home team with a 4-3 overtime win and take a 1-0 lead in their first-round playoff series.
Through the first period, the Flyers – whose lineup included six players making their postseason debuts – looked a little like deer caught in the glare of the playoff spotlight.
“I don’t know if that’s to be expected with this group, just based on the fact that it was a loud building,” said Flyers head coach Peter Laviolette. “It was a completely different environment from anything that we’ve been used to all year. We have not seen that type of energy in a building; you can tell it’s playoff hockey. And we were standing too much in the first period.”
Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby announced his return to the Stanley Cup playoffs, 700 days in the making, just 3:43 into the opening frame with a backhander that beat a Flyers defenseman and goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov. Tyler Kennedy added to the Penguins’ lead four minutes later, and Bryzgalov began to look noticeably tentative, ducking on some shots instead of challenging the shooter.
With 36.9 seconds remaining in the first, Pittsburgh’s Pascal Dupuis batted home a bouncing puck that deflected off the Flyers netminder and trickled over the goal line, and the Penguins had built a 3-0 lead that looked to be insurmountable.
But the Flyers are used to coming from behind – having trailed 0-2 in eight of their last 13 games – and few clubs are better at it. By the second period, Laviolette had settled his club down and Philadelphia began a slow, steady attack on the Pittsburgh lead.
“I think it was just addressing a realization for them that they know how to play, and they didn’t do that,” Laviolette said. “We have a certain identity that we find success with. We know we can score goals; we know we can win hockey games playing a certain style and a certain brand. The first period, we did too much standing, too much watching. We became targets to hit and we just didn’t move enough.”
The tide started to turn early in the second period when Danny Briere, who missed the final three games of the season with back spasms after a hit from the Penguins’ Joe Vitale, got a break on an offside call, beat the Pittsburgh defense to break in on goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, and cut the lead to 3-1.
The Penguins had three opportunities on the power play – two in the second, one early in the third – to put the Flyers away, but couldn’t come through on the man advantage.
“The penalty kill, I thought, was real good; they have dangerous players out there,” Laviolette said. “I thought our goaltender really made some brilliant saves. Everybody really just dug in a little bit; our game got better [overall], but the penalty kill was sharp.”
Midway through the third, Briere scored again to make it a one-goal game, then the Flyers made the Penguins pay on their one penalty of the night, when playoff rookie Brayden Schenn notched Philadelphia’s third unanswered goal on the power play. That tied the game at 12:23 of a third period that saw the suddenly passive Penguins take only five shots on goal.
“They’ve done it against us this year a couple times,” said Penguins forward Craig Adams. “They’re not going to quit, we know that, and [we need to] sustain our effort for longer. Obviously, we’re not playing as well as we need to for long enough. We need to keep playing in their end; we can’t sit back. We need to keep the pressure on them, keep generating chances and score more goals. We need to stay on the forecheck and try to play in their end, and we didn’t do that enough.”
And the overtime, too, was all Philadelphia. At just 2:23, with the Flyers already on their third chance of the extra frame, Jakub Voracek grabbed a loose puck in front for a slam-dunk into an open side of the net.
Now the Penguins have until Friday to fix what went wrong.
“I think it’s a matter of real conscious decision, through execution and puck management, that allows you to play at that speed and [dictate] where the game’s played,” said Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma. “We were very effective at that in the first, and we didn’t continue. We allowed them to play on the aggressive side of the game and on the forecheck and, as a result, in the offensive zone.”
“We slowly got away from things and let them back into it,” Crosby said. “Sometimes things like that happen, and they won. It doesn’t matter what the score was, whether it was overtime or it was 10-0. We’ve got to fix the things that need to be fixed here.”
And the Flyers – just as they did in the second, third and overtime periods – will keep working, taking nothing for granted.
“They’re a very experienced team, a very good team,” said former Penguin Jaromir Jagr. “I don’t think [a loss] like that can get into their heads. They’re too good.”
“I don’t necessarily believe in momentum,” Laviolette said. “The playoffs are like a loaf of bread; it’s slice by slice. Some slices you really like, and some are kind of moldy and rotten; one has nothing to do with the next. Every day, you’ve got to go out and work for your win and, whether you win or lose, you’ve got to move on to the next game. And that will be the focus, what can we do to be better in a lot of different areas.”