Phil Kessel #81 of the Pittsburgh Penguins gets his shot past Brian Elliott #37 of the Philadelphia Flyers in the first period in Game Four of the Eastern Conference First Round during the 2018 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Wells Fargo Center on April 18, 2018 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
PHILADELPHIA — The Penguins made it get late early for the Flyers on Wednesday night. That shouldn’t be a surprise for anybody who’s watched the teams’ playoff series.
Pittsburgh again proved to be faster, more talented, deeper and with better goaltending in Wednesday night’s 5-0 Game 4 victory at the Wells Fargo Center.
It’s essentially men against boys. Perhaps that explains why the Flyers appeared so listless and were booed at home in a game they had to win to avoid falling into a 3-1 hole.
The two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins can close out the best-of-seven series with a victory Friday evening in Pittsburgh.
To think the Flyers are capable of winning three in a row, two of which would be at PPG Paints Arena, against the Pens would be taking optimism to a whole other level based on the last two games.
“It’s not where we wanted to be,” Flyers goalie Brian Elliott said. “It’s not where we went to bed thinking how this game would end up. You just have to regroup.”
“It’s disappointing,” rookie center Nolan Patrick said. “We know the position we’re in and we’re going try to bounce back.”
Philly nemesis Sidney Crosby, who surpassed Mario Lemieux’s franchise record for postseason points with a goal and an assist to reach 173, started the night with a beautiful feed to Evgeni Malkin for a power-play goal 4 minutes, 33 seconds into the game. The second straight rout in South Philly had begun.
“Game 4 is usually a tough game to win, but we have experience and confidence,” said Malkin, who added an assist on the Phil Kessel’s goal to make it 2-0.
Flyers coach Dave Hakstol pulled starting goalie Elliott after allowing three goals on 17 shots, but Michael Neuvirth didn’t react to Crosby sneaking in with a wraparound from behind the net until it was too late less than three minutes later. It didn’t matter who Hakstol put in the net because none of the Flyers can compare to Pittsburgh goalie Matt Murray, who permitted one goal in the three Pens wins.
That the Flyers were without top-line center Sean Couturier, who sat out with a lower-body injury that occurred from a collision with teammate Radko Gudas during Tuesday’s practice at the Skate Zone, didn’t help their chances against high-powered Pittsburgh.
With one goal and two assists in a 5-1 Game 2 victory, Couturier is the only Flyers forward with a multi-point game in the series (defenseman Ivan Provorov had two assists in the same game).
The Penguins didn’t have winger/power Patric Hornqvist (upper-body injury). While Hornqvist is an important part of the Pittsburgh power play, the Flyers lost out in that trade-off because Couturier is a key element on the penalty-kill, even-strength and power-play units, with the Pens boasting more high-level forwards than Philadelphia.
The Flyers are just 2 of 16 on the power play in the series, which is one of numerous telling stats.
Patrick took Couturier’s place on the top line between captain Claude Giroux and winger Jake Voracek (no goals, two assists in the series). None had any success, with Giroux still stuck at one point (an assist) in the four games after finishing with 102 in the regular season.
“We’ve all got to be better,” Giroux said. “We know that. Somehow we have to get our confidence back.”
As for his individual struggles, Giroux said, “You want to help the team any way you can. I’m frustrated and a lot of guys are frustrated.”
By comparison, Crosby has accumulated five goals and four assists in the four games. All of the Flyers’ forwards have a total of three goals.
“We’re working as a group out there,” Crosby said. “They’re good players. They’re going to get their chances. You’re trying to limit them, clear rebounds and play in their end.”
It’s working out extremely well for the Pens.
Pittsburgh has scored at least five goals in seven of its eight meetings with the Flyers in 2017-18, counting the regular season. The Penguins won all four at the Wells Fargo Center by a combined 20-4, including 10-1 in Games 3 and 4.
“We’re one game away from the season being over,” Giroux said. “We’re going to fight until the end.”
There’s no reason to think the Game 5 will be any different than the last two outings.