After embarrassing the Flyers 7-0 in Game 1, the Penguins opened Game 2 with another dominant effort. For the first 18:30 or so, anyway.
Then they took the first penalty of the night, a boarding call against Zach Aston-Reese, and things started to unravel.
Less than a minute later, Philadelphia defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere ripped a shot from the point that leaked through Matt Murray. The goal ended the Penguins netminder’s playoff shutout streak at 225:48, going back to Game 4 of last year’s Stanley Cup Final.
By the end of the second, the Penguins were outshooting the Flyers 23-13, but had nothing to show for it. Their league-best power play got too fancy, going 0-for-4 by the start of the third.
“The special teams [were] the difference in the game,” Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan said.
Even Pittsburgh’s best chances showed a distinct lack of luck on the night. Flyers goaltender Brian Elliott was beaten for five goals in Game 1, but rewarded coach Dave Hakstol’s confidence by robbing Sidney Crosby in a breakaway in the second frame.
“I thought he was our first star tonight,” Hakstol said. “But more importantly than that, he went about his business. He battled hard; he made key saves at big times. He did a good job for his teammates tonight.”
Then, in the waning seconds of the period, Crosby found himself at the corner of a wide-open net – and sailed a shot across the goal line without it going in. That one frustrated the Penguins captain enough to break his stick over the net before heading to the locker room.
“Those ones, you’ve got to find a way to put them in regardless,” Crosby said. “If I find a way to put that in, it’s 2-1; it’s a different game. That one and the breakaway was a big turning point in the game. It would have turned momentum.”
Instead, the Flyers kept their momentum going just 1:29 into the third, when 21-year-old forward Travis Konecny kicked off his NHL playoff career with a beauty to make it 3-0.
The Penguins’ penalty kill fell short on two of three attempts, with Philly rookie Nolan Patrick adding another on the power play to put the game out of reach at 4-0.
“They make you play when they go on the power play,” Letang said. “We have to be more disciplined.”
Pittsburgh’s Patric Hornqvist broke the ice for the Penguins just 17 seconds later, but it was too little, too late for the home team. Philly got an empty-net goal from Andrew MacDonald to ice a 5-1 win with 16 seconds remaining, despite being outshot 35-20 on the night.
“We had some high-quality chances,” Sullivan said. “We hit a bunch of posts. We had a breakaway. So it wasn’t like we didn’t have scoring chances; we did. We just couldn’t seem to find the back of the net.”
The Penguins did catch one break on the night. An awkward play that sent Flyers captain Claude Giroux launching backward into Letang took the Penguins’ top defenseman out of the game for part of the second period. The hit was especially concerning given Letang’s concussion history, but he was able to return to the game.
“Just a little break I took,” Letang said, declining to discuss specifics. “I was able to come back after.”
The loss essentially surrendered Pittsburgh’s hard-earned home-ice advantage to the Flyers, who head home with a 1-1 split.
“It was pretty tough for us to walk out of the rink a couple nights ago; that wasn’t us,” Hakstol said. “Nobody is really giving us a serious chance in this series; I don’t know if anybody still will. But I know this – we just got it down to a five-game series, and we introduced ourselves into this series tonight.”
Pittsburgh expected nothing less.
“We know this is going to be a hard-fought series,” Sullivan said. “It’s everything we expect it to be. We’re going to have to go to Philly and we’re going to have to find a way to win games.”
The Penguins have reason to believe they can do that. They’ve had some success at Wells Fargo Center, including two wins there this year. Their stars, especially Crosby, have also fared well behind enemy lines.
“It’s a rink that we’re used to,” Letang said. “It’s a fun atmosphere to be in. It’s a fun series to be in. There’s a lot of emotion.”