Game 4 got off to an ominous start for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Already in an 0-3 series hole and facing the prospect of being swept out in the first round by their archrivals, the Penguins knew they had to keep their composure to have any chance of extending the series. But Pittsburgh took a penalty on the first shift of the game and, just over a minute into the contest, the Penguins were burned – yet again – by a combination of the Philadelphia Flyers’ lethal power play, their own defensive breakdowns and a netminder without the confidence to make the big save.
A few seconds after that, star forward Evgeni Malkin took a frustration penalty, hooking the 19-year-old thorn in his side, Sean Couturier, right off the faceoff.
But the Penguins’ penalty kill finally managed to stand up to the Philadelphia power play, and Malkin emerged from the penalty box to grab a loose puck and head off to the races. He dished it off to Pascal Dupuis, whose initial shot was stopped, then Malkin smoothly recovered, kicked the rebound from his skate to his stick, and flipped a shot past goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov for his first goal of the playoffs.
Getting this season’s leading scorer into the goal column was the first of many things to go right Wednesday for the Penguins, who emphatically staved off elimination with a 10-3 rout of the Flyers to send the series back to Pittsburgh Friday.
For starters, their own power play finally clicked, going 4-for-9, despite the absence of the league’s top power-play goal scorer, James Neal, suspended one game for charging Philadelphia’s Claude Giroux in Game 3.
“That was fun to watch, that’s for sure,” said defenseman Brooks Orpik. “I think, in the first three games, we lost the special teams every game. And usually, this time of year, that’s going to cost you.”
“I think we did a good job of moving around and moving the puck around quick,” said captain Sidney Crosby. “We executed pretty well. And, at the end of the day, you’ve got to bury the chances you get, and guys did a good job doing that.”
Pittsburgh gave up fewer odd-man breaks, spending more time in the offensive zone and taking more responsibility in the defensive zone. And goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury gained more confidence as the game went on, stopping 22 of the 25 shots he faced, while Pittsburgh fired 36 shots at the Flyers’ net, chased Bryzgalov after five goals and scored five more against his backup, Sergei Bobrovsky.
“I think Flower maybe didn’t have the most confidence coming in, so it was great to see him play really well and be a rock back there,” said center Jordan Staal.
“We were a little better in front of our goalie today,” Orpik said. “We didn’t ask him to make five breakaway saves and five back-door saves. I think the quality of chances that we gave up were a lot better, and that’s where Fleury’s been unfairly criticized a little bit. He hasn’t been at his best, but I don’t think any of us have been at our best. The better we play in front of him, the better he looks. And, if we play bad in front of him, he’s human, too. He can’t bail us out every game.”
Pittsburgh also gave its netminder plenty of offense to work with. Staal followed up his two-goal effort in Game 3 with a hat trick, while Malkin scored twice and nine Penguins registered multi-point games.
“We needed it from the big guys, and they certainly were there,” said head coach Dan Bylsma.
“I just wanted to keep it going and didn’t want to lose,” Staal said. “So I just tried to play my best, shoot the puck, and was fortunate enough to get a few.”
Most importantly, the Penguins kept their cool and turned the other cheek more often than not with a Flyers club that looked to be playing at a frustration level similar to Pittsburgh’s in Sunday’s Game 3. Philadelphia took 16 penalties and 64 penalty minutes in Game 4, while the Penguins checked in at nearly half that in a game the referees called tight, trying to avoid a repeat of emotions boiling over as they did Sunday.
“I think we kept our composure a lot better,” Orpik said. “We took five penalties in the first period; I think the referees were calling it a little bit tighter tonight, it was something we had to adjust to, and I think we did a good job adjusting to it after the first. We went down 3-2 after two power play goals, but it was the way we responded to that. There was no panic; guys just believed that, if we kept playing, hopefully we’d have a good chance to win.”
“We just wanted to quiet it down, stay out of the scrums and just play hockey,” Staal said.
Quite simply, the Penguins looked like a team that was embarrassed by their performance in the first three games of this series, and determined not to let their season end this way.
“We just played a full game, and we gave ourselves a chance by doing that,” Crosby said. “I think we owed that to ourselves after the first three.”
Now down 1-3 in the series, can they do it again in Game 5 – and, for that matter, a potential Game 6 or 7?
“We had a task tonight, which was to win one game and only focus on one game,” Bylsma said. “We’ve earned one more game, and that’s our focus again, one more game back in Pittsburgh.”
“It doesn’t get any easier from here,” Crosby said. “We did a good job of hanging in there, and we expect the same effort from ourselves. I know they’re going to be hungry to finish things off, too.”
“It’s just a race to four games, really,” Orpik said. “Both teams will say the same thing. You try to identify what you did wrong; that’s what they’re going try to do, I’m sure. You just try to clear that from your mind as quick as possible. They know they played well for three games, and they’re going to want to get back to that as quick as possible.”