Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins controls the puck on his backhand while being pursued by Ivan Provorov #9 of the Philadelphia Flyers in Game Six of the Eastern Conference First Round during the 2018 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Wells Fargo Center on April 22, 2018 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images)
PHILADELPHIA — The Penguins handle adversity better than the Flyers.
If the Flyers didn’t know that before, they certainly do after Sunday afternoon’s 8-5 series-clinching Game 6 playoff loss to the Penguins at the Wells Fargo Center.
A little more than midway through the second period, the Flyers took a 4-2 lead and the Philly faithful was really into it, thinking there could be a Game 7 on Tuesday night in Pittsburgh.
But one big difference between the two teams is the Pens, unlike the younger Flyers, didn’t get deflated when they fell behind. Pittsburgh scored five goals in a row — one by winger Patric Hornqvist, who returned after missing two games due to an upper-body injury, and four straight by winger Jake Guentzel.
That was in stark contrast to Game 3, when the Flyers had four really good chances on Pittsburgh goalie Matt Murray in the opening 14 minutes, only to fall behind 2-0 on a Phil Kessel goal shortly thereafter. Instead of responding, the Flyers wilted.
“The difference in the series was momentum swings,” said winger Scott Laughton. “We’ve got to handle them better.”
Asked how things fell apart, captain Claude Giroux replied, “I’m not too sure. It happened quick. It looked like we were in control of the game and they got two quick goals there.”
“You make one, two, three mistakes and usually they end up in the back of your net,” said winger Wayne Simmonds. “I guess that’s why they’re the two-time defending champions.”
A giveaway by second-year defenseman Ivan Provorov resulted in a Kessel steal and Guentzel’s second goal 30 seconds into the third period, putting Pittsburgh ahead for good.
Considering Provorov was playing with an injured left shoulder that he admitted forced him to pass more and limited his ability to shoot, placing too much blame on Provorov probably isn’t fair.
Asked afterward how close he came to sitting out, Provorov said, “As long as my arm was attached to me, I was playing.”
But it’s fair to question the contributions of top forwards Claude Giroux (one goal, two assists), Jake Voracek (no goals, three assists) and Simmonds (no goals, two assists). The Flyers needed more from those veterans during the series and didn’t get it.
“Not good enough,” was how Giroux described his performance. “Got to find a way. When you play against the best players on the other side, got to step up your game and play better. Only word I can say is it’s frustrating.”
Sean Couturier had three goals and two assists Sunday despite a torn knee ligament he sustained in a Tuesday practice collision with defenseman Radko Gudas, so he finished with five goals and four assists in the series. That means he outproduced Giroux, Voracek and Simmonds combined.
Meanwhile, Pittsburgh superstar Sidney Crosby had a goal and two assists Sunday, giving him six and seven for 13 points in the six games.
Could it be time for general manager Ron Hextall to consider dealing Simmonds or Voracek? With center Nolan Patrick, winger Travis Konecny, defensemen Shayne Gostisbehere and Provorov, there is a talented, young core. Defensemen Robert Hagg, Travis Sanheim and winger Oskar Lindblom have also made an impression on the Flyers, with more promising guys in the pipeline.
Speaking of Hagg, it would’ve been nice to see him earlier than Game 5 because of his ability to handle the puck.
It was a strange series in that the home team lost five straight in a Flyers series for just the second time (the other was the first five games of the 1995 conference finals, a 4-2 loss to the Devils). That had never happened with the Penguins until now. Both franchises are in their 51st seasons.
The Flyers scored a shorthanded goal and held the Pens’ high-powered power play scoreless in the past two games. It was enough in Game 5 to bring the series back to South Philly, but not to extend it to an all-or-nothing Game 7.
The Pens scored 18 goals in three wins at the Wells Fargo Center, which shows there is work to be done. The search for a reliable goalie remains at the top of the Flyers’ list.
“Today we let a two-goal lead slip,” Couturier said. “That shouldn’t happen in the playoffs. We’ll learn from it and come stronger next year.”
It remains to be seen how much the Flyers will be able to close what is still a fairly sizable gap between them and upper-echelon teams like the Penguins.