Saturday, April 21, 2018

Flyers, inspired by Sean Couturier, come of age in Game 5 win over Penguins

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.

Not really.

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.

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