PITTSBURGH — Consider it a goal achieved for the underdog Flyers, who pulled a 5-1 victory out of the PPG Paints Arena cauldron Friday night, leveling a first-round Stanley Cup playoff series at one game apiece heading to Philadelphia for Sunday’s Game 3.
Although they were outshot 35-20 and out-attempted by nearly a two-to-one margin, the Flyers scored off two counterattack opportunities and went 2 for 3 on the power play to squeeze the most out of their performance.
The Penguins, on the other hand, went scoreless on four power plays, hit the post twice and saw Sidney Crosby misfire on two glorious chances when the game was still in the balance.
“We had some good looks,” said Crosby, 48 hours removed from a hat trick in Game 1. “Gotta make sure that we limit mistakes going the other way, but for the most part, we had some chances. We’ve got to find a way to put them in.”
Brian Elliott, whose best save came in the second period when he denied Crosby’s breakaway backhand, appeared shaky again at the start, but settled well enough to hold the champs off the scoresheet until the third.
“I thought he was our number one star,” Flyers coach Dave Hakstol said. “He battled hard and made some key saves, which is the most important thing.”
Mike Sullivan‘s take?
“Special teams were the difference in the game,” he said.
The first period began as it did in Game 1, with the Penguins asserting their high-pressure game on a Flyers team seemingly ill-suited to counter it. But, with some luck, the visitors navigated the opening frame without allowing a goal. Patric Hörnqvist came the closest to denting a scrambling Elliott, twice striking the right post with innocent-looking shots.
The Penguins out-attempted their cross-state neighbors 15-10 in the first, a spread that would only grow throughout the game, but Sullivan thought his players were a little too choosy. He stopped short of insinuating Elliott was vulnerable, but you can be the judge.
“I thought at even strength we had a lot of zone time,” Sullivan said. “I still think we have opportunities to shoot the puck more. I thought we could’ve put the puck on net more and challenge them to defend the scoring area. I think we’ve got to do a better job there.
“Listen, Philly’s a good team. They’re going to push back, too. It’s not like there weren’t parts of the game that we liked. We just couldn’t seem to find the back of the net.”
Zach Aston-Reese stood out in the first, breaking up a goal-mouth feed for Flyers center Jori Lehtera and getting a scoring chance himself when he tipped Justin Schultz‘s relay off Elliott’s pad from the top of the crease. Yet, Aston-Reese was whistled for a dubious boarding penalty at 18:30, which led to the icebreaker for Philly.
Matt Murray‘s playoff shutout streak — which began back in Game 4 of the 2017 Final — ended after 225 minutes and 48 seconds, with help from an inadvertent deflection. Brian Dumoulin changed the direction of Shayne Gostisbehere‘s point shot just enough to have it creep through Murray’s pads with 37 seconds left before intermission.
Another bounce went against the Penguins early in the second, when Sean Couturier took a pass from Ivan Provorov to finish a counterattack, turning the puck on net. Murray made the stick save, but the puck caromed into the net off a backtracking Kris Letang.
The bad fortune continued for Letang a few moments later, when an off-balance Claude Giroux backed into Letang with great force, raising his . Letang crashed to the ice hard and skated straight to the dressing room, although he would return before the end of the second period.
“I thought he hit him high,” Crosby said of Giroux. “I’m sure the league will look at it, but I thought it was a high hit.”
Sullivan said he had an opinion on the play, but wasn’t willing to share it in a public forum.
The Penguins weren’t lacking for chances to climb back into the game before the second intermission. As mentioned above, Crosby had the two best opportunities, getting stoned by Elliott on a clean breakaway for the first of those.
Just before the buzzer, Crosby guided a slick power-play setup from Phil Kessel wide of the net from along the goal line, prompting the captain to snap his stick over the crossbar.
“It’s disappointing,” Crosby said. (More from him later in my Penguins Locker Room on PHN Extra.) “You want to put those in, especially at that point of the game.”
The Penguins had a total of three power plays in the second, but the top unit generated just a few threatening moments. Evgeni Malkin had a particularly rough time, misfiring on two one-timers from the right circle and giving the puck away near the blue line on a few attempts to enter the zone.
“It’s nothing our penalty kill wasn’t doing the last month of the season,” Hakstol said. “We were able to hold the line a few times tonight.”
Sullivan had a different take on it.
“We didn’t take what they gave us instead of just shooting the puck,” he said. “I think we have to shoot the puck more. Having said that I thought we had a few high-quality chances.”
Instead of having a rebound at the start of the third, the Penguins allowed two goals in the opening six minutes.
Travis Konecny burst through the neutral zone and past Chad Ruhwedel on his way to a breathtaking rush goal, the first of his playoff career. Then, with Bryan Rust in the penalty box for slashing, last year’s No. 2 overall draft pick Nolan Patrick finished a between-the-legs dish from Couturier into a yawning net.
Hörnqvist charge to the net and roof job produced the Penguins’ first goal at 5:27 to provide some life, but his roughing penalty about a minute later hurt the comeback cause. The Penguins played the final 4 1/2 minutes with Murray on the bench, but couldn’t convert on some heavy offensive-zone time. Andy MacDonald tossed in a final-minute empty-netter.
Along the way to the finish line, Hörnqvist and Flyers defenseman Brandon Manning were each issued misconduct penalties, ending their nights early. Hörnqvist ended up with 16 penalty minutes, capped by a controversial embellishment call on MacDonald’s cross-check that sent the home crowd into an obscenity-laced frenzy.
After a relatively calm Game 1 for this rivalry, 13 penalties were issued in Game 2, with much more by the way of post-whistle dust-ups and net-front snarl.
“That’s playoff hockey,” said Jamie Oleksiak, who had just finished his second career postseason tilt. “You just gotta play between the whistles and not get sucked into too much extracurricular stuff.”
The Flyers didn’t exactly dominate, but a 5-1 win is quite the departure from Game 1, when they trailed 3-0 after one and lost by a score befitting an NFL game.
“It was tough for us to walk out of the rink the other night,” Hakstol said. “That wasn’t us. I don’t know if anyone is giving us a chance to win this series, but I know this: We just made this a five-game series. … We didn’t play well two nights ago. Tonight we played our asses off.”
Game 5 is now guaranteed, with faceoff set for 7 p.m. next Friday at PPG Paints Arena. Game 3 will be at 3 p.m. Sunday at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, with Game 4 set for Wednesday night.
“Sometimes the puck doesn’t want to go in for you,” Sullivan said. “It was one of those nights. We know it’s going to be a hard-fought series. It’s everything we’ve expected it to be. We’re going to have to go to Philly and find a way to win some games.”