Saturday, April 21, 2018
April 20, 2018
Scott Laughton #21 of the Philadelphia Flyers celebrates the game winning goal by Sean Couturier #14 of the Philadelphia Flyers (not pictured) against Matt Murray #30 of the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game Five of the Eastern Conference First Round during the 2018 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at PPG Paints Arena on April 20, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH — They scored first. They scored shorthanded. The captain scored.
The comeback kid scored, the winner, from 50 feet away, against Matt Murray, the best playoff goalie of the last two years.
The Flyers discovered something about themselves in their Game 5 win over the Penguins. The score was 4-2, but the effect was palpable.
They discovered their heart.
It was framed by a resurrection. Another resurrection, that is; this one, by Sean Couturier.
Back in 2011, star defenseman Chris Pronger, the heart and soul of those Flyers teams, had missed 21 games with a broken hand. The Flyers faced elimination in Game 6 of the first round, at Buffalo, and Pronger’s return was not imminent — until it was. When the players awoke at 3:30 from their game-day naps, Pronger told them he would play.
Pronger contributed 4 minutes, 33 seconds of power-play time.
Couturier was more significant.
A Selke Award finalist and the Flyers’ best two-way forward since Mike Richards, Couturier was injured in a collision with teammate Radko Gudas in practice between Games 3 and 4, and missed Game 4 with a leg injury. He practiced the last two days and worked out hard at the optional game-day skate Friday, then played coy with the press afterward.
“Still hoping,” he said.
Giroux told Couturier the Pronger story before the morning skate. Afterward, Couturier texted Giroux:
“Yeah. I’m pulling a Prongs.”
Giroux, the captain, smiled as he told the tales.
“He’s a huge piece of our team,” he said.
So was Michal Neuvirth, who played heroically two years ago against the Capitals, and did so again Friday night, his first postseason start of his injury-plagued season. He had 30 saves, none bigger than the one that denied Sidney Crosby with 50.3 seconds to play, preserved the win, and set up Game 6 in Philadelphia at 3 p.m. Sunday.
They welcomed back Couturier, who killed penalties and potted the difference-maker with 1:15 to play.
They took the the best the Penguins could offer, in their building, in front of a bloodthirsty crowd eager to get on with the rest of the playoffs and maybe a third consecutive Stanley Cup.
For a change, the Flyers were their match.
“I thought this was our best game, for sure,” Giroux said.
Oh, they turned the puck over — three times, one trip — and they got lucky, a lot. The Penguins couldn’t have missed more nets or whiffed on more bunnies if they’d played the game with swizzle sticks.
What matters, though, is that they showed starch. That includes their walkover win in Game 2, which was little more than a gift from their far superior western neighbor, which had beaten them in seven of their previous eight games this season.
There’s no shame in acknowledging that. The Flyers are, after all, rebuilding. Seven players saw their first NHL playoff action in this first-round series. They get to see at least one more game.
It was obvious, from the start: they would fight on this night. They dumped Evgeni Malkin three times in the first 25 minutes. The third time, Malkin retaliated, which sent both him and his aggressor, Brandon Manning, to the penalty box for roughing. Ivan Provarov dropped Jake Guentzel during a power play. The Flyers outhit the Penguins by 2-1.
It was that kind of party.
“It was playing smarter,” Giroux said. “We didn’t go out there to kill guys, or lay them out.”
As usual, when the Penguins asserted themselves, they dominated play. Giroux scored his first playoff goal in 12 games near the end of the first period, which woke the dozing Penguins for the rest of the evening. They outshot the Flyers, 14-8, in the second period, then 13-8 in the third. It seemed like more.
Neuwirth gave up a soft wraparound goal and a five-hole softie in the second period, but be was peppered and pressured and he did not crack. Those two second-period Pens goals were blood squeezed from stones, and they were nearly exasperated. This wasn’t coming as easily as it came in Games 1, 3 and 4, won by an aggregate score of 17-1.
Couturier returned and replaced Jordan Weal, but that switch was inevitable. Others weren’t. Second-year defenseman Robert Hagg got his first taste of the playoffs, in place of rookie Travis Sandheim, who played the first four games in the series and scored a goal in Game 3. Veteran wing Dale Weise replaced rookie Oskar Lindblom.
When it all shook out, Couturier played on the third line, at about 80 percent, while Val Filppula jumped up to the first, with Jake Voracek and Giroux. Oh yes; it was Filppula’s tenacity and grit that gained the Flyers their first goal. Amid that grit, he twice failed to connect on shots, but there’s a reason he’s usually on the third line.
He won’t be Sunday. Not after a goal and two assists.
Filppula picked off a pass and streaked down the ice and dropped it for Jori Lehtera, whose shot rebounded softly at Murray’s feet. Filppula elbowed Kris Letang out of the way and poked the puck past Murray to knot the score at 2-2 with 1:45 to play in the second period.
And that’s how they all played, for all 60 minutes.
They killed a four-on-three penalty late in the second period, made possible by Andrew MacDonald’s brain-dead relatiation and, shortly thereafter, Crosby’s thespian skills (he dived). They killed all five penalties, in fact, after giving up goals on five of the previous 19.
They played ragged at times, and sometimes they played dumb, but they played with heart and with guts and with fire.
They played like a team that had found its hero and come of age.
One more thing: The Flyers won that Game 7 in 2011.
Friday, April 20, 2018
April 19, 2018
Patric Hornqvist #72 and Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins skate against Claude Giroux #28 of the Philadelphia Flyers during the first period in Game Three of the Eastern Conference First Round during the 2018 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Wells Fargo Center on April 15, 2018 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Though they have been outplayed, outhustled, and outscored by an embarrassing 17-1 in their three playoff losses, the Flyers tried to put a happy spin on their predicament as they prepared for Game 5 on Friday in Pittsburgh.
Trailing three games to one in an Eastern Conference quarterfinal that has lacked intensity and drama and has felt like anythingbut a playoff series, the Flyers need to win to stave off elimination.
The Flyers have been badly beaten to loose pucks, lost a majority of board battles, and been outscored 5-0 in special teams in their three losses. In addition, the Flyers’ star players have been mostly invisible, and Penguins goalie Matt Murray (1.27 GAA, .948 save percentage in the series) has outplayed gallant Brian Elliott (4.74 GAA, .856), who has tried to return from core-muscle surgery.
So you can understand why the words coming from captain Claude Giroux (one assist, minus-7 in the series) seemed sincere but, at the same time, hollow.
“We’re not ready for our season to be over,” Giroux said after practice Thursday in Voorhees. He said Pittsburgh was a “tough building to play in, but we know we can win there. We know if we play our game, we can win. So we’re going to go out there, play our game, and be back for Game 6.”
The Penguins finished just two points ahead of the Flyers in the regular season, but they have been miles better than coach Dave Hakstol’s unassertive team in the series. Pittsburgh has been more focused, more relentless, more opportunistic.
Giroux said the Flyers have been pressing.
“I think our compete level is pretty good,” he said. “I know it’s tough to see. I think the guys are working a little too hard; we’re not playing smart enough, gripping our sticks a little too much, I think we need to take a breather and play some hockey.”
After Thursday’s practice, Giroux gathered the team together on the ice and spoke to the players about the situation.
Giroux’s message: “I think it’s believing in ourselves. All year we’ve done that. I know we’ve talked about it before, but you lose 10 in a row and you find a way to win and get in the playoffs. Not a lot of teams can do that. Just the fight in this team” was outstanding in the regular season.
The Flyers can be proud of the last four months of the regular season, when they overcame the odds and earned a playoff spot.
But they have not showed that same swagger in the postseason and have seemed overwhelmed by the spotlight. Getting outscored 17-1 equals their largest margin in the first three losses in any playoff series in franchise history. (It matches their 1979 series against the Rangers.)
Friday is “going to be a big game for us,” Giroux said. “If we go down, we’re going to go down swinging.”
“We can play better. The good news is there’s a lot more ability there that can shine through,” general manager Ron Hextall said about the Flyers’ dismal showing so far. “… It’s an elimination game for us, and we need to match their hunger and be ready to go right from the start.”
In the series, the Flyers have been outscored, 6-1, in the first period.
Giroux carried the Flyers to a playoff berth by scoring 19 goals in the last 29 games of the regular season and finishing with a career-high 102 points. But the MVP candidate has struggled mightily in the playoffs and conceded he was frustrated.
“Anytime the team is doing bad, everyone puts a little pressure on themselves,” he said. “In the past, I’ve put a lot of pressure on myself. I try not to, but you get frustrated, you try a little harder; you get down further, you try a little harder and nothing is working for you. You got to keep going. At the end of the day you got to keep going and good things are going to happen.”
Hextall said it was the Flyers’ execution, not their compete level, that has caused them to fall into a 3-1 hole.
“I think guys are working their asses off,” he said. “The execution just is not there. We know that. You know, we need to relax and play some hockey here.’’
After practice Thursday, Hakstol was asked about the team’s mind-set.
“There’s a little bit of tension there,” he said. “We didn’t do a whole lot of talking. The guys talked a little bit on their own. Today was a day to just go out and work for 30 or 35 minutes, clear the mind a little bit, get the bodies going.”
Unless they get a much better effort Friday, those bodies could be going to the golf course.
Thursday, April 19, 2018
April 18, 2018
Michal Neuvirth #30 of the Philadelphia Flyers greets Brian Elliott #37 as he enters the game after Elliott surrendered 3 goals on 17 shots by the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game Four of the Eastern Conference First Round during the 2018 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Wells Fargo Center on April 18, 2018 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images)
For the Flyers to beat the Pittsburgh Penguins in their first-round playoff series, they needed everything to go right.
Not for everything to go wrong.
They needed Brian Elliott to play as he had in December, or at least how he played before suffering that core muscle injury. Not be taken out prematurely in two of the four games played thus far.
They needed Claude Giroux to carry his Hart Trophy worthy season into the postseason. They needed Wayne Simmonds to relocate the speed, strength and balance that made him such a force last season and at the start of this one. They needed Radko Gudas to cease with his hot potato act every time the puck is on their sticks, as if seeking to avoid blame by pushing it to his partner – often in an impossible to play position.
They needed Sean Couturier, the Selke Trophy finalist who was averaging 24:35 of playing time over the first three games of this series, playing against Pittsburgh’s top lines, on the penalty kill and the power play to… play.
Hurt in a collision with Gudas during Tuesday’s practice, Couturier’s absence sent a team already in search of answers in search of miracles. The Flyers countered Pittsburgh’s holy trinity of centers – Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Derick Brassard with rookie Nolan Patrick, 34-year-old Valtteri Filppula and Scott Laughton.
With Wednesday’s 5-0 Game 4 victory over the Flyers, the former have combined for nine goals thus far in this series.
Patrick has the lone goal of the latter triumvirate.
In the three games they have lost to the Penguins so far, the Flyers have scored one goal.
Which would imply that it’s not just the goalie. Or goalies.
“We lost to a better team,’’ Michal Neuvirth said plainly after replacing Elliott after the score grew to 4-0 in the second period.
Yeah, it hasn’t been much of a fight. And while that’s not earth-shattering news, Patrick’s lone goal among the team’s centers underlines an underreported aspect of this series – and, really, their season.
It’s not the kids who make you grind your teeth watching this team. Patrick, Shayne Gostisbehere, Ivan Provorov, Travis Konecny, even Travis Sanheim of late: You feel generally good when the puck’s on their sticks.
And as ineffectual as Giroux has been in this series – and really Couturier before his injury – that seems to be a byproduct of the abyss in talent between the teams. Giroux and Couturier – and last night Giroux and Patrick – spend too many of their shifts trying to alter momentum, not continue it.
There are spots when they do generate momentum. For nearly 3 ½ minutes of the first period Wednesday night, down by just a goal, the Flyers pinned the Penguins in their own zone, rolling all of their lines in the process. Giroux’s slapshot was stopped by Murray. His tip-in try went wide. Andrew MacDonald’s slapshot was turned away, Provorov wristed one wide, Voracek got off a snap shot from 31 feet and Konecny missed wide with a wrist shot.
Finally, Laughton coughed up a puck in Pittsburgh’s zone. Six seconds later Phil Kessel took a pass from Evgeni Malkin on a 2-on-1 and fired it past Elliott for a deflating second goal.
“We had some good spurts,’’ said Patrick. “And then we’d make a mistake and it would end up in our net.’’
Too much talent. Too much firepower. Too much experience in these kind of games.
The Flyers lineup for Game 4 of their postseason contained three players who spent chunks of their season in the AHL – Matt Read, Oskar Lindblom and Travis Sanheim — and two players, Jordan Weal and Jori Lehtera, who have scored 11 goals between them.
All this could be salvaged perhaps if the one position General Manager Ron Hextall tried to cover with the low-budget signing of Michal Neuvirth amid last season and the equally cost-conscious free-agent signing of Brian Elliott had played out in any way, shape or form the way he professed it would last summer. Two guys sharing the load. Not one guy used in back-to-backs, ridden from the depths of the division to, for a brief time, the top of it, before his 32-year-old body broke down.
If this sounds like an epitaph one game too soon, well, you’re right. The Penguins finished last game the way they had in their two other wins, with all the intensity of a Friday afternoon pickup game – and all the resistance of one too. The few Flyers who showed up in their dressing room afterwards seemed worn down by their previous no-quit proclamations.
And as it ended, as the remaining fans exhausted of their Eagles cheers and Crosby jeers, a chant grew among the few who remained.
“Fire Hakstol,’’ it sounded to some in the press box.
“Fire Hextall,’’ it sounded to others.
Who knows? Maybe the chant contained both.