Let me say that again.
That’s exactly how many people outside of the Flyers locker room thought they could completely turn the tables on the Pittsburgh Penguins following the embarrassment that was a seven-goal loss in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals.
Sure, the more level-headed knew the team would play better – mostly because they couldn’t play worse – but to shut down the Penguins for the first time all season? To score five goals of their own? To dictate the pace, tempo, and style? To revert back to a tried and true formula that certainly still has a place in the sport, especially in the playoffs? To get lights out goaltending?
No. None of this was expected. And yet, it happened anyway.
A mere 48 hours after being the laughing stock of the playoffs, the Flyers suddenly became the first team to draw even with their opponent in the postseason.
And it couldn’t have happened without a herculean effort by several different players. We’ll get to them individually in a minute, but it should be pointed out that this was an incredible team effort – from the much-maligned (in this space anyway) coaching staff to the very last player who touched the ice in Game 2.
The Flyers brought their brand of hockey to the Pittsburgh Penguins full throttle, and for the first time in a long time, there was a look of postseason frustration and concern on the faces of the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions.
Now, whether the Flyers can bring this precision performance to the table three more times in the next five games remains to be seen – and it will be a tall task to do so, because even the best teams don’t play near-perfect hockey for such lengthy stretches, especially in the postseason. But it’s evident that this is how the Flyers have to play to beat Pittsburgh. For one night, they were spot on – and it’s gotten the Flyers back into a series many people gave them no chance of being in.
And, in the words of the immortal Walt Disney, “It all started with a moose.”
Or something like that.
1. Brian Elliott
The number is now official. Whenever someone asks you the question, “How many periods does it take a goalie to really get his feet back under him following surgery for a hernia when he’s coming back within seven weeks of said surgery,” You can now answer, with confidence – nine.
OK, so maybe that’s not such a common question, but the answer is incredibly important anyway – especially for the Flyers.
For goaltending was the biggest cause for concern following the Game 1 loss. Sure, the entire team played like that steamy pile in the corner of the stable, but Elliott looked like he was still hurting and there is zero confidence anywhere else on the goalie depth chart.
There were a lot of people who were perplexed by Dave Hakstol’s immediate reaction following Game 1 to suggest he was sticking by Elliott.
I wasn’t one of them – not because I had confidence that Elliott could flip the switch and be all better, but rather because he still remained – even not at 100 percent, the best option for the Flyers in goal.
But I don’t think anyone expected Game 2.
Elliott made 34 saves and finally stopped the Penguins string of games scoring at least five goals against the Flyers at five.
He was marvelous between the pipes. Especially in the second and third periods. He looked like he was still battling the puck in the first period, but he came through it unscathed, and then suddenly settled in and was as sharp as he’s been in quite some time.
So, it took him nine periods. The shaky win against Carolina. The cakewalk against the New York Rangers where he was hardly tested. The bombardment through two periods in Game 1 where he looked abysmal, and a hold-your-breath first period of Game 2.
But by the second period, Elliott was superb. Sure, he had help. The post assisted him twice. Andrew MacDonald saved his bacon once. But, that’s part of it sometimes.
Elliott got stronger as the game went on – and he stymied the Penguins, only allowing one goal at a point where it was almost certain, with the way the team was playing in front of him, that the Flyers weren’t about to cough up a four-goal lead.
The one stop that everyone will be talking about most though, is this one:
— Sons of Penn (@SonsofPenn) April 14, 2018
So, the sequence started with a low-percentage play at the blue line by Claude Giroux that resulted in a turnover and, instantaneously, a breakaway for Sidney Crosby.
Crosby scored a natural hat trick in Game 1. The Penguins were starting to buzz a little bit at this point and it was still only 2-0 Flyers.
A goal here and the game could have taken a much more dangerous turn.
But Elliott was the difference.
It wasn’t a “wow” save. It wasn’t an eye-popper. It wasn’t a viral video in the making. It was a good save, sure, but nothing specifically special.
However, it may have been the biggest save of the season for the Flyers.
Seriously, give the Penguins life there and they ramp it up a level. Maybe the Flyers confidence sags some. Any number of things, none of which are good, could have followed.
But Elliott was there, making the save when the Flyers needed it most.
Now, he also caught a break at the end of the second period as well when Crosby missed this shot:
U mad Sid??
Flyers still up 2-0 at the end of the second period 😎 pic.twitter.com/tAEA1WMBMF
— NBC Sports Philadelphia (@NBCSPhilly) April 14, 2018
But when things are going well…you get lucky sometimes too. And Crosby’s reaction is indicative of someone else who had a great night:
2. Dave Hakstol
Regular readers will know I am not shy about my criticism of the coach. My belief in sports is that coaches can’t necessarily win games, but they certainly can make decisions to lose them.
Throughout the season I have been especially critical of Hakstol’s lineup choices and his systems, as I have felt that the Flyers would be better served with different choices on both fronts.
Of course, it’s easy to tell me to shut up because they made the playoffs, and I can counter with the fact that it took until game 82, in a weak conference, and that the Flyers were, in essence, a 42-win, 40-loss team.
But fine, it was enough to squeak into the postseason – that doesn’t mean it couldn’t have been – and really, shouldn’t have been better.
All that griping aside, I am not Howard Eskin. I can see when a coach or a player that I am traditionally hard on has an ah-ha moment and does something well.
And Dave Hakstol deserves a lot of credit for that in Game 2.
Almost everyone wanted him to change goalies – and he didn’t.
Everyone (including me) wanted him to juggle his lineup around – and he didn’t.
He believed in his group and his group responded.
But it’s more than that for the coach. Sure, those coaching decisions that show confidence in your players are important for the team’s collective psyche, but they aren’t what really makes a difference in-game.
What Hakstol deserves credit for – and by association, his assistant coaches as well – is a systemic change and a strategic change that the Penguins weren’t expecting.
It was multi-faceted.
- Slow the game down by clogging the middle of the ice with active stick work, and force the free-wheeling Penguins to either take the less-desirable outside lanes into the offensive zone, or play dump-and-chase when they aren’t a great dump-and-chase team.
- Ramp up the physical play – no team likes getting hit, least of all the Penguins.
- Agitate them. Get under their skin. The Penguins are prone to reacting negatively when they get frustrated – see Sid’s stick break above – but more damaging to the Penguins are the antics of Evgeni Malkin and Patric Hornqvist – both of whom can lose their cool at the first sign of distress.
- But, if you’re going to be willing to play with a little sandpaper, you have to be ready to be shorthanded – and while that’s never a desirable situation, it’s really not a good matchup for the Flyers when the Pens have the best power play in the NHL and the Flyers penalty kill ranked 29th in the regular season. But, in two games, they have stunted the Penguins PP – mostly by being aggressive on the puck. Don’t sit back. Don’t just hope to get in the way. Be active. Attack the puck. And it’s working.
Now, the fancy stats will tell you the Penguins are still driving the play. They’re still generating more shots, more chances, and more expected goals. And the fancy stats are right. Normally, you can’t expect to win consistently this way.
However, that’s over the course of a full season. In a small sample of games, it can certainly work – especially against a team that is prone to getting caught up in the emotional side of a game. Things started getting real chippy once the Penguins realized they were in trouble last night. Mike Sullivan, who I think is an excellent coach, was visibly frustrated.
The Penguins may have been cool as a November night in the locker room after the game recognizing that they were victimized primarily by a hot goalie and that they still held big statistical advantages over the Flyers, but games do have outcomes that belie the statistical measures of them, and the Flyers are the poster team for that this season.
So, they can continue to win this way. They can continue to frustrate the Penguins this way. And Dave Hakstol would be smart to continue to employ this style and philosophy.
The big question is, can the players execute it three more times in the next two weeks to win the series?
That’s not on the coach. That’s on the players. This style. This system he implemented, works. The coach did his part in Game 2. To do his part the rest of the series, he pretty much should leave well enough alone with only minor tweaks as needed – because this is a good formula.
3. The others
Sean Couturier and Claude Giroux had their most underwhelming playoff games of their respective careers simultaneously in Game 1.
Game 2 was a different story.
Couturier had three points – a fluky goal and two assists – including this savage one:
A FILTHY pass by Couturier to set up Patrick! pic.twitter.com/XaonPq3iLg
— Sons of Penn (@SonsofPenn) April 14, 2018
It was also the sixth anniversary of his hat trick against the Penguins in Game 2 of the 2012 playoffs. Something about Friday the 13th, eh?
As for Giroux, aside from his miscue on the Crosby breakaway, he was sensational controlling the puck and driving the play. The Penguins only got two shots (including the Crosby breakaway) on goal at 5-on-5 while Giroux was on the ice.
You notice him on offense because he’s so dynamic, but this was a serious defensive effort by all, especially that top line.
Couturier played more than 27 minutes, which means Hakstol finally got away from his more balanced distribution of ice time among four lines (another good decision by the coach that I neglected to mention above), and the more Couturier’s line plays, the better the Flyers chances of winning.
And although he took a stupid penalty early by being overly-physical at a time that didn’t call for it, Travis Konecny proved that he has a killer instinct on ice with this beaut:
What an effort by TK! pic.twitter.com/3y19lovQHv
— Sons of Penn (@SonsofPenn) April 14, 2018
His combination of speed, skill, tenacity and energy is made for the postseason. It’s why I want to see more of him with the Flyers other skill players, but it’s hard to knock the lineup decisions on this night.
Still, Konecny is a difference-maker. And could be even more so when Hakstol gets the matchups he wants in the upcoming home games.
Ivan Provorov was a stud. He set the tempo early with his own brand of physical play. Andrew MacDonald played a great game against Malkin and even bailed out Elliott by blocking a would-be wrap-around goal from Hornqvist from going into the net. And Matt Read continues to play an unheralded defensive game in his limited, but important role.
It was the best game the Flyers have played in a long time. Now, if they can replicate it Sunday in Game 3 in what promises to be an electric and overtly orange Wells Fargo Center, then we’ll really have something to talk about.