Sunday’s contest between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers was, for all intents and purposes, Game One in a likely first-round playoff series that will give the cross-state rivals the opportunity to see one another up to eight more times in the next couple of weeks. And, by the time the Flyers emerged with a 6-4 win, the rivalry had found a way to reach a new level of intensity.
The game had plenty of similarities to the one that snapped Pittsburgh’s 11-game winning streak two Sundays ago in Philadelphia, with the Penguins staking out a 2-0 lead, then watching it slip away. It also had much in common with the team’s up-and-down play since that overtime loss, with plenty of lapses in its defensive zone coverage and handling of the puck.
“Great first period,” defenseman Brooks Orpik said of the Penguins’ start, which saw Steve Sullivan and James Neal score in the first 4:58 and the Flyers use their time-out to settle the team down. “Bad puck management after that.”
In a common theme of late, Pittsburgh outshot its opponent, 47-26, but had limited high-quality chances against Flyers netminder Sergei Bobrovsky. “I think we passed up opportunities to shoot, looking for a better play at times,” said head coach Dan Bylsma.
Meanwhile, the Penguins’ poor puck management and 12 giveaways gave Philly plenty of opportunities to capitalize.
“We generated some really good chances, but we made some big mistakes,” said captain Sidney Crosby. “We can’t afford to make those and expect to win games.”
That’s especially true against a club like the Flyers, which – with offensive weapons like Claude Giroux, Scott Hartnell and Jakub Voracek – has scored more goals than any team other than the Penguins.
“I don’t think it’s matter of focusing too much on offense; I think it’s just a matter of making sure we don’t turn the puck over and make a big mistake that’s going to hurt us,” Crosby said. “They have guys who can definitely take advantage of those mistakes.”
The last time the teams faced off, the Flyers threw the Penguins off their game with chippy play after the whistle. Sunday’s contest was predictably physical, but it got particularly ugly with just over a minute remaining, and there was plenty of blame to go around.
Philadelphia coach Peter Laviolette was unimpressed with Pittsburgh’s decision to send out its checking line of Arron Asham, Joe Vitale and Craig Adams after Voracek scored an empty-net goal to pad the Flyers’ lead to 6-3.
“Those guys hadn’t played in 12 minutes,” Laviolette said. “It’s a gutless move by their coach. Just gutless.”
And when Vitale – who had earlier put Flyers defenseman Nicklas Grossmann out of the game with a knee-on-knee collision – went on to level forward Danny Briere with a hard, open-ice check, Laviolette blew a fuse, prompting a scrum that saw the teams combine for 52 minutes in penalties. Laviolette and Penguins assistant coach Tony Granato exchanged words over the glass and were both ejected.
“From what I can gather, their coach didn’t like the hit and took a stick and broke it over the glass, and that stick ended up on our bench,” Bylsma said. “And that’s pretty much what ensued.”
“Joey had a great hit, clean as it gets,” Orpik said. “I think it was an overreaction.”
The Penguins, too, took exception to a cross-check from Philly’s Brayden Schenn on Crosby after the whistle a few minutes earlier.
“Clearly a cheap shot,” Bylsma said. “Clearly a guy targeting a player, well after the whistle, [who] was going back to the bench.”
“It’s pretty cheap,” agreed Crosby. “He skates 10 feet or whatever … if that’s a sign of what’s to come, we’re going to be in for a pretty tough playoff series, if that’s the way it ends up.”
Barring a collapse by one of the clubs in this last week of the regular season, the Penguins and Flyers are on a collision course for that first-round playoff matchup, with only the seedings in doubt. With Philadelphia now one point behind Pittsburgh, either could finish in fourth place and open at home – not that the Flyers, who lead the NHL with 26 road wins, would have reason to be concerned about opening at CONSOL Energy Center, where they’ve gone 5-0 since it opened in October 2010.
With Philly leading the season series, 4-1, the rivals will face off once more in Pittsburgh this Saturday, on the last day of the regular season. The Penguins don’t expect any less intensity – though they do expect a better performance.
“I think everybody knows what kind of games we play against Philly,” Orpik said. “It’s just one game. It’s a good hockey team we lost to, and we can play better.”
If the Penguins hope to go into the playoffs on a positive note, they’ve got one more chance to do exactly that.