It was all but over.
After two listless performances on home ice, the Flyers limped into Pittsburgh facing a 3-1 series deficit against a Penguins team looking to hoist the Stanley Cup for the third straight season.
The patient clung to life – barely. All that remained was for Sidney Crosby to administer last rites, Evgeni Malkin to drive the final nail into the coffin, and the local beat writers to shovel dirt on the grave that would serve as the final resting place of the 2017-18 campaign.
And then something unexpected happened. The Flyers showed a pulse.
They didn’t deserve to win. The Penguins dominated large stretches of the 2nd and 3rd periods while the Flyers took bad penalties and relied on Michal Neuvirth to cover for poor play in the defensive zone. Pittsburgh claimed a big advantage in the faceoff circle, possessed the puck for much of the contest, and consequently had the Flyers chasing the game instead of dictating it.
Neuvirth was spectacular, except when he wasn’t. The two goals he conceded were incredibly soft. The first came after Neuvirth carelessly turned over the puck, leading to extended offensive zone time and a wraparound goal delivered by Penguins forward Bryan Rust. Neuvirth was able to get to the post to stop the shot, but somehow the puck squeaked through his pads.
The second goal was equally inexcusable given the situation. Jake Guentzel took a pass from Crosby, depositing the puck through the five-hole and into the back of the net. Neuvirth’s second period nadir put the orange and black in a 2-1 deficit. If they had put forth the effort they exhibited in Games 3 and 4, the series would have ended.
Instead, the Flyers battled back. A short-handed tally from Valtteri Filppula tied the game late in the second, while a Sean Couturier blast from the blue line late in the third pulled the Flyers ahead. Matt Read sealed the victory with an empty net goal, and the Flyers lived to play another day.
Given the evidence of the past week, the result seemed improbable, but in the context of the longer arc of the Flyers’ season, the Game 5 triumph was not unusual.
This is an organization whose only consistent attribute is its inconsistency. After dropping 10 in a row during a horrid November skid that stretched into December and pushed them into the NHL basement, the Flyers responded with a 10-1-2 February run that catapulted them ever so briefly to the top of the Metropolitan Division.
Through it all, the fans who support this organization have been along for the ride. They have exhibited a remarkable degree of patience while Ron Hextall slowly reconstructs the roster. Hextall’s plan does not feature a catchy name like “The Process.” It more closely resembles a multi-year renovation project than the wholesale demolition and rebuilding campaign that the 76ers executed under Sam Hinkie.
In the battle between the present and the future, the general manager has been more inclined to favor the latter. The offseason trade of Brayden Schenn exemplified this posture. Though the deal was met with some consternation, particularly early in the season when Schenn got off to a hot start, it was a good haul for the Flyers. In return for assuming Jori Lehtera’s salary, which comes off the books after next season, Hextall netted two first round draft picks for a player whose point production was overly reliant on Claude Giroux and the power play. One of those selections was used on Morgan Frost, a promising prospect who had a dominant season in the OHL. The swap also opened up an opportunity for Sean Couturier to play on the top line, which unlocked his offensive game and catapulted the young center to a Selke Trophy nomination.
Hextall has shed the go-for-broke approach that characterized the Ed Snider era. Gone are the days of mortgaging the future for increasing the chance at the Stanley Cup in the present. Given the demands of the salary cap era, it’s the right strategy. However, the fan base has been saddled with a team that lives on the fringes of contention – sometimes exciting, other times frustrating, and ultimately disappointing.
As a reward for their loyalty, Flyers fans have been granted another opportunity to experience playoff hockey. Although Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Mike Sielski might feel differently, the fans deserve it.
"#Flyers fans know at their subconscious core that they would adore [Crosby] if he played for their team. God forbid they admit as much, of course. Better to piddle on his image. And their own." https://t.co/5cQAIHteYw #Penguins
— Mike Sielski (@MikeSielski) April 16, 2018
Sielski is a smart and talented journalist. Nevertheless, the column he wrote after Game 3 was a condescending pile of garbage written from the perspective of a person who seems disconnected from the fans to which his writing is directed.
It wasn’t bad because it was written poorly. Just take a look at Sielski’s lede and appreciate the wonderful display of alliteration:
There is no shame, if you have any sense of grace or even a small measure of self-respect, in taking perverse pleasure in watching Sidney Crosby torment and toy with the Flyers in this first-round playoff series.
It was bad because Sielski stubbornly refused to allow facts and context to get in the way of a good story. In his piece, Sielski propped up the “Philly fan” straw man and took some swings. The source of his outrage was the placement of “custom-made” Sidney Crosby urinal cakes in various bathrooms at the Wells Fargo Center:
No opposing athlete arouses the same animosity here that Crosby does, none drives the most repellent segment of the Flyers’ fan base battier than he does, and none responds to the vitriol with the same excellence. He was the best and most productive player on the ice in the Penguins’ 5-1 Game 3 rout on Sunday, scoring their first goal and adding three assists thereafter. This, four days after a hat trick in Game 1. This, amid another example of the puerile behavior that too many Flyers fans are too happy to exhibit.
In a paragraph that is peppered with specific numbers, it’s the “too many” quantifier that really stands out. “Too many Flyers fans” engage in bad behavior, says the bard from his lofty perch in the media room. How many, exactly? How many fans does it take for an ugly, unearned stereotype to take hold?
It’s one thing to be subjected to trite descriptions of the forest from national journalists in search of easy copy and a hot take, but a local sports writer who lives and works among the trees should know better.
The fans in Philadelphia will boo Sidney Crosby, just as they do in New York and Washington. Such is life for one of the best players ever to grace the NHL stage. A player that the fans believed actually sucked would be met with indifference, not hostility.
Left unmentioned in Sielski’s screed is the way the NHL has leaned into the polarizing reaction its star athlete engenders. There’s a reason why the Flyers-Penguins series is assuming a central place on the NHL’s dwindling national platform. For a league that has long played fourth fiddle in the professional sports quartet, any reaction besides indifference is beneficial from a ratings standpoint. And better ratings produce more lucrative television deals, which means a higher salary cap and richer salaries (plus increased endorsement opportunities) for players like Sidney Crosby.
Flyers fans show up and support their team. The same cannot always be said for their counterparts in Pittsburgh. In the year prior to the arrival of Crosby, the Penguins were last in the league in attendance. The city almost lost the franchise in 2007. But the presence of a roster littered with superstars has a way of resuscitating a moribund hockey town.
What can you do? Even among the local sports media, no one likes us, and we don’t care. Well, maybe we care a little.
None of it matters now. On Sunday afternoon, a hated fan base will greet its embattled hockey team. The atmosphere will be raucous, but the Flyers will need to sustain the interest of the crowd by displaying the type of effort they produced during Game 5. I wouldn’t mind a start that resembled the last time the Flyers and Penguins met in a Game 6 in Philadelphia:
The trajectory of the series suggests a Penguins win. But when it comes to the Flyers, it’s best to expect the unexpected.