The Flyers’ Claude Giroux set the tone for Game 6 on the very first shift – first with a thunderous hit on Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby off the opening faceoff, then with a goal 32 seconds in. And just like that, in a microcosm of the series as a whole, the Penguins were on their heels and never quite recovered as they dropped Game 6, 5-1, and the series, 4-2.
Even when the Penguins went down 2-0 later in the first period, after surrendering the Flyers’ 12th power play goal of the series, they remained confident in their ability to rebound. This was a series that, after all, set an NHL record for goal-scoring in the first four games, and one in which the first team to score had gone 0-5 so far.
“It was quick, but I don’t think it bothered anybody,” said Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. “It happened before, and we still came back and won. We didn’t panic.”
“Scoring the first goal hasn’t been an indicator in the first five games, so I didn’t sense a bend or a break in the team at all,” said head coach Dan Bylsma. “Even down 0-3, we battled in [Games] 4 and 5, and I think we still battled after that [first] goal and giving up the power play goal and getting down 2-0. I still sensed our team was fighting and had the resiliency to come back.”
The Flyers, however, gave Pittsburgh very little opportunity to do that. The Penguins registered 31 shots on goal, but few were quality chances, with orange sweaters collapsing around goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov every time the Penguins were in the offensive zone. Philadelphia blocked an astonishing 40 shots and pressured Pittsburgh shooters into missing 17 more.
And the Penguins didn’t do much to help their own cause by passing up shot opportunities, particularly on the power play, where they went 1-for-5, instead passing around the perimeter looking for open lanes that simply weren’t there.
“We wanted to be more aggressive shooters, and I don’t think we did that the way we needed to, to get pucks to the net, in the blue paint area for our team to have success,” Bylsma said. “They were very good today at blocking shots, and we made one or two extra passes trying to get by that to get a goal.”
The Flyers got their third goal early in the second period – from yet another of the team’s impressive youngsters, defenseman Erik Gustafsson – to gain a comfortable, 3-0 advantage. And when Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin finally broke through on the power play a few minutes later, cutting the lead to 3-1, Philadelphia’s Danny Briere came back with a response just 36 seconds later, restoring a three-goal lead and taking the wind out of the Penguins’ comeback hopes.
“We felt like we had some momentum, and they were able to get that fourth one,” Crosby said. “We knew we had to keep battling, but it was just too big of a lead.”
Especially with the way the Flyers were shutting the door. Gone was the freewheeling offensive team that was willing to trade chances with the Penguins earlier in the series, as Philadelphia played a fundamentally sound game that limited Pittsburgh’s opportunities.
“I don’t think there was a lot out there,” Bylsma said. “We were going to have to manufacture a goal by getting the puck to the net, and I don’t think we did enough of that. And I think the Flyers played their best defensive game of the series today.”
“They forechecked well, they put pucks deep behind our D,” said forward Pascal Dupuis. “We feel like we didn’t shoot enough today; we got into good position and didn’t put it on net. At the same time, they created turnovers by going hard. They were basically better than us today.”
Special teams were a key to the series, as the Flyers’ power play made the Pittsburgh penalty kill – third-best in the NHL during the regular season – look practically inept. With a 52.2 percent conversion rate on the man advantage, it didn’t take Philadelphia long to get in the heads of the Pittsburgh penalty killers.
“The psyche of the PKers going over the boards, having given up opportunities and goals, I think that was a big difference in this series,” Bylsma said. “Starting with Game 1, we didn’t get that first kill … again tonight, we gave up the first power-play goal. At times, I think we gave them too much respect on their power play. It’s a very good power play, they were very effective, but that psyche and that mentality, I think that was a difference.”
Giroux was the best player in the series, racking up 14 points (6G, 8A) in six games to set a new franchise record for points in a playoff round.
“He was the best player on the ice, but I don’t think we were surprised by that,” said Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik. “He’s a guy we’re well aware of and have tremendous respect for.”
The Penguins have now been bounced from the opening round of the playoffs for the second consecutive year. That was tough to take last year, when they blew a 3-1 series lead to the Tampa Bay Lightning, but even tougher to take this year, when a lineup that included a healthy Crosby and Malkin made them a widespread favorite to reclaim the Stanley Cup they won in 2009.
“The expectation is very high for this group and, to get Sidney back for 14 games and have a full complement of players, given what this group has done during the regular season, it maybe sets the expectations even higher,” Bylsma said. “I think there’s not a lot of words to describe this group, the expectations and what we thought [we could achieve].”
And, although the Penguins fought back in Games 4 and 5 to avoid a sweep and make the series competitive, they won’t soon forget the first two contests, which they lost on home ice after blowing multi-goal leads.
“We’ll spend a lot of time thinking about that,” Bylsma said.
“They played really well, and we didn’t play very well, for three games, and we dug ourselves a big hole,” Orpik said. “Obviously a lot of regrets in the room, and stuff you can’t take back. You can’t change the outcome of the first three games … when you look back at a number of things you could’ve done better, that’s what’s a little harder to accept. They were a lot better than us for four games.”