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Gajtka: Flyers Fortunate To Have Hope Against Superior Penguins

The champs have had ‘it’ from the drop of the puck in Game 1.



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One of the more annoying trends in sports analysis is the apparent need for some commentators to retrofit their perspectives based on the outcome of a given game, series or season.

Sometimes, though, circumstances dictate taking a step back from the granular and saying, simply, “That’s hockey.”

I find it interesting that the players and coaches are a lot of times more willing to accept the randomness of the sport than the people paid to distill it for the general public. Perhaps that’s because they have more at stake than those of us on the ‘outside,’ and being able to shrug off certain outcomes is the best route to stay sane.

Or maybe they’re the ones closest to the action, and they’re just flat-out correct.

In the case of the Penguins, leading their first-round series against the Flyers two games to one after a 5-1 win Sunday in Philadelphia, their guarded optimism after a Game 2 home loss is looking rather prescient.

“That’s hockey,” said Mike Sullivan after the Penguins hit the goal frame three times and missed on a handful of other golden looks in Friday’s loss.

The coach had an even stronger perspective when I asked him on Monday morning teleconference about whether he felt his team gained confidence from the first two games of the series, even if the second one went the Flyers’ way.

“There was a lot to like from Game 2,” Sullivan said, growing a bit animated. “I didn’t feel like it was a disaster as it was portrayed by some in the media.”

Ouch, Mike. Hope you’re not talking about me, since I did all I could in Friday’s postgame story to identify the result as a blip on the Penguins’ collective radar screen.

It could be that Sullivan is referring to national television commentators when he says “the media,” more than anyone with a local bent.

You know the ones. If a team wins a given game, they had to have earned it fair and square, through brains and brawn. There’s a fear to tell the consumer that a certain result was something of a fluke, a fact that Sidney Crosby practically conceded when asked about his handful of near-misses Friday.

“The chances were there,” he said in a matter-of-fact tone. “I’ll put those in most times.”

Fair and Square?

Crosby did, in fact, put one of those in Sunday, stemming the tide in a first period that was easily the Flyers’ most threatening stretch of the series.

We could argue Philadelphia was unlucky to not take an early lead in Game 3, but after they somehow produced five goals out of 30 shot attempts — not on goal, but attempts — in Game 2, there was no sense of injustice when water found its level and the Penguins popped in three more in the decisive second period Sunday.

(I suppose Flyers fans might’ve felt a sense of injustice, but that’s beside the point.)

Bottom line: The Penguins are the better team in this series. I picked them to win in six because I thought they’d take a game or two to find their reliable playoff rhythm. I was wrong, because they had it from the drop of the puck in Game 1, so now it feels as if the Flyers are fortunate to not be facing elimination in Wednesday’s Game 4.

They’ll have a couple of days to think about how they might shift a series that the Penguins are dictating in more places than just the scoreboard, where they hold a 13-6 advantage through three games. If we adjust the underlying shot-based metrics for score effects, the Penguins have 54 percent of the even-strength attempts in this series and 55 percent of the scoring chances.

It’s not domination, but the Penguins have had an overarching consistency to their game since about the time Bryan Rust dented Brian Elliott five nights ago. When the games have been up for grabs, Sullivan’s guys have been superior.

The Road Ahead

Don’t get it twisted. The Penguins don’t think they’ve been perfect.

On Monday’s conference call, Sullivan brought up the need for “rush trackers” to monitor when the Flyers activate their mobile defense corps. The coach still thinks the power play should keep that “shot mentality” it displayed on a successful Sunday, because he knows his best offensive players are always going to default to playmaking mode.

“We try to look at the game objectively, give our players a fair assessment, learn from it and move,” Sullivan said. “We have to make sure we continue to stay diligent and defend hard when the time is called upon.”

It’s why morning-after video sessions can be the most productive time for a coaching staff, because the emotions inherent to the game have dissipated, allowing players to take more of an analytical perspective. For all this group’s success over the past two-plus years, surely that helps when a result doesn’t go the way it probably should, like what we saw in Game 2.

“Sometimes that’s gonna happen,” Sullivan said, “and that’s hockey.”

And, frankly, the Flyers are lucky to still have hope.

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A lifelong hockey addict, Matt has been fortunate enough to make his career in his sport of choice, working in high school, juniors, college and the pros in various multimedia roles. Previous to joining PHN, Matt was a credentialed Penguins/NHL beat reporter from 2016-18, including coverage of the 2017 Stanley Cup Final. He contributes commentary and analysis here in various forms.

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4 years ago

I think this series get distilled thusly: The Flyers cannot beat the Pens, but the Pens can defeat the Pens. Pittsburgh is a better team, with better goaltending. If they play anywhere close to their potential during the series, they win. Hey, I like this analysis stuff. Next game I’m going to throw in a fancy stat.

Dan Kingerski
4 years ago
Reply to  Eric

We look forward to it

4 years ago

I agree completely. So many people were talking about Elliot stealing the game in game 2. I was like, well, they hit several posts and Sid missed a wide open net. Looked more like bad luck to me. Then in game 3 the puck was going in the net again when it got by Elliot. Game 4 is big. If we go up 3-1, the series is pretty much over. What we don’t want to do is give the Flyers any hope at all.

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