It’s only been about 10 months since the Philadelphia Flyers executed this very same game plan to perfection, knocking the Pittsburgh Penguins out of the postseason in six games. And, as the Penguins prepared to host their cross-state rivals for the first time this year Wednesday night, they said they remembered and knew what to expect.
It didn’t matter, as an undisciplined, unfocused Pittsburgh team built an early 2-0 lead, allowed four unanswered goals, then got sucked into a penalty-filled track meet before pulling into a 5-5 tie and losing, 6-5, in the game’s final minutes.
“I think we lost our focus a little bit,” said defenseman Brooks Orpik. “It’s something we addressed before the playoffs and after the playoffs. We know how they play. We know, especially once we get the lead, that they like to target certain guys on our team. And, for whatever reason, we like to retaliate back.”
It’s a strategy that continued to serve the Flyers well, as they found a way to get some of the Penguins’ biggest threats, like defenseman Kris Letang and forwards Evgeni Malkin and James Neal, off the ice for two to four minutes at a time.
“After we go up two and they start running around a bit, it’s the same old story with what they like to do after the whistle,” Neal said. “And we can’t get dragged into that.”
“[When] Zac Rinaldo goes off with Tanger, that’s a pretty good tradeoff for them,” Orpik said. “Back-and-forth [hockey], penalties we probably didn’t need to take … it was reminiscent of the games last year.”
The back-and-forth produced a highly entertaining game with lots of offense – “a typical Flyers-Penguins game, just one of those things where you get caught up in the pace,” Neal said. But it also produced 48 combined penalty minutes and not much in the way of defensive responsibility.
“Just a rollercoaster of emotions,” Orpik said. “It’s entertaining for the fans, but I don’t think it’s very conducive to winning. You watch the teams that had success in the playoffs last year and it’s the exact opposite. It might be fun to watch but, in the long run, I don’t think it’s a very good way to play.”
Midway through the third period, with Philadelphia leading 5-3, the Penguins got their own opportunity to take advantage of the Flyers’ lack of discipline with an extended 5-on-3 power play. Neal converted with the man-advantage to pull the Penguins within one, Chris Kunitz had a kicked goal disallowed, then Brandon Sutter tied it with 2:03 remaining. And the 18,650 fans at CONSOL Energy Center erupted.
“Even though we were down two goals late, the bench was still positive. We knew we could still win this game,” Neal said. “We came back strong and fought to the end to win that game.”
But a contest that appeared to be headed to overtime shifted again just 32 seconds later, with Penguins goaltender Tomas Vokoun giving the Flyers’ Jakub Voracek, a thorn in Pittsburgh’s side in last year’s playoffs, the opportunity to win the game with his third goal of the night.
“He just shot it from behind the net and I knocked it into my own net,” Vokoun said. “That’s tough. The guys battled hard and they tied the game, and a goal like that is a bad break. Sometimes that’s the way hockey is, but it’s very disappointing. It was an all-around weird game, a couple goals that could’ve been whistled [dead], but it doesn’t matter now. The game is over and the score is what it is. Obviously, today, I didn’t play great.”
The Flyers may have succeeded in knocking the normally sound Vokoun off of his game, too, with frequent havoc in the crease – “We weren’t in good position and, when the puck did get to the crease, they certainly went there with numbers and exploited the situation, knocked our goaltender out,” Bylsma said. But his teammates didn’t play the game they wanted to, either.
“I think we got too involved with the emotions of the game, too involved with the extracurriculars between the whistles and worrying about the perpetrators,” Bylsma said. “It took away from the game and I think that was something they needed, something that got energy going their way and, clearly, something we knew going into the game.”
“I don’t know how many times we can address it,” Orpik said. “We know. It doesn’t do you any good if you go out and do the opposite.”