Sunday, April 22, 2018

Penguins took Game 5 win for granted

By Mark Madden
April 21, 2018
Valtteri Filppula #51 of the Philadelphia Flyers celebrates his short handed goal in the second period against 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)

If I close my eyes and think, I can still hear the sounds: “clang” and “ping.”
A loud, echoing “clang” was the noise Pierre Larouche's shot made when it rocketed off the post and back into play. An underwhelming “ping” cut through an otherwise silent Civic Arena when Ed Westfall's backhand ticked iron before settling into the net.
Those sounds were both made in Game 7 of the 1975 NHL quarterfinal series between the Penguins and New York Islanders. Westfall netted the game's only goal. His Islanders overcame a three-games-to-none deficit to eliminate Larouche's Penguins.
It was the day I learned to never take anything for granted again.
Perhaps the current Penguins learned that same lesson Friday, because they played Game 5 of their playoff series with Philadelphia as if certain assumptions had been made.
The Penguins had a chance to close out the series on home ice, yet played with little desperation and kept flunking Hockey 101 over and over.
Let me count the ways:
• On the first-period goal that gave Philadelphia a 1-0 lead, both defensemen (Brian Dumoulin and Kris Letang) chased the puck behind the net, leaving the Flyers' Claude Giroux alone in the slot. Just before the play coalesced, four Penguins were below the goal line.
• On the Flyers' short-handed goal that tied the score 2-2, Phil Kessel made an absurdly dangerous cross-ice pass just inside Philadelphia's blue line that was intercepted and sent the Flyers on the counter-attack. Valtteri Filppula converted, and the score was even with 1 minute, 45 seconds left in the second period.
Kessel had a rotten night: No shots, four giveaways. The turnover that led to Filppula's shortie showed no regard for score and situation. More goals are nice, but the Penguins needed to send the Flyers to intermission down a goal and facing the end of their season.
You're allowed to win 2-1. Sometimes you have to settle for winning.
• The Flyers' winning goal came from a Penguins' turnover at their blue line. It was the sort of error that haunted the Penguins in bad moments during the regular season but had been absent in the playoffs.
There were other problems, like going 0 for 5 on the power play. Not capitalizing on a second-period 4-on-3 man-advantage that lasted 1:36 was particularly galling, especially because it produced no great opportunities.
Evgeni Malkin left the game in the first period with a lower-body injury. He returned and had chances. But his speed was noticeably dimmed.
The Flyers played better and were inspired by the return of Sean Couturier from injury, which paid off tangibly when he scored the winner. The Flyers' goaltending didn't out-and-out stink, which was a big upgrade.
But Friday's game was eminently winnable for the Penguins. Except for the very basic mistakes they made, the Penguins should have won.
The teams reconvene for Game 6 on Sunday at Philadelphia. Home ice has meant very little in this series, as the host team's 1-4 record indicates.
If winning three straight at Wells Fargo Center seems unimaginable, so did the Flyers winning two of three at PPG Paints Arena, where the Penguins won 30 games and lost just 11 during the regular season.
Any adjustments made by coach Mike Sullivan would be akin to throwing excrement at the wall, then seeing what sticks.
The power play should shoot more but won't, and you can't fault its results (except for Friday's). Derick Brassard is playing well, so the idea of reuniting Brassard and Kessel on a line with intent of sparking the latter rings true. Zach Aston-Reese > Conor Sheary sooner or later, so why not sooner? It's important that Patric Hornqvist plays and that Dominik Simon doesn't.
But what the Penguins mostly need to do is remove their heads from their backsides, where they were too often collectively lodged Friday.
If Westfall's shot bounces out, and Larouche's shot caroms in, the Penguins would have only come close to blowing it in 1975.
Nobody remembers almost.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).

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