PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Penguins pummeled the Philadelphia Flyers in all aspects in Game 1 Wednesday night.
Conor Sheary made the game’s first big hit, the Penguins forwards were able to attack the Flyers defense on the forecheck, Matt Murray faced only 24 shots, and the Penguins defensemen outshined their heralded young counterparts.
And that’s why the Flyers have a chance in Game 2.
Even the 2017 Stanley Cup champion Penguins team had difficulty stringing together consecutive great performances. Whether the Penguins took their foot off the gas or if they were dead tired and only able to summon greatness when needed is a matter of conjecture. The undebatable result was a roller coaster.
Could the Penguins, coming off a resounding win which satisfied fans and humiliated their opponent, lack the same fire and intensity?
“I think our players are well aware of how the playoffs operate,” Mike Sullivan said Thursday after practice in Cranberry Township. “We watched some film this (yesterday) and looked at ways they could get better. I just think this team has a maturity about them.”
It’s not a great chance the Penguins ease up, but it’s probably the Flyers’ only chance.
Turned It Up
The Penguins’ intensity heightened their precision and execution Wednesday. The Penguins’ experience also played a significant role in Game 1.
To many on the Pittsburgh side, amping the intensity and speed of the game in Round 1 is old hat. After they settled in, the Penguins controlled the flow of the game. That fact wasn’t lost on Penguins rookie Zach Aston-Reese.
“I think that’s fair to say. They do have some younger guys,” Aston-Reese said Thursday of the Flyers. “Even their older guys might not have gone as far as the leaders here. I think that definitely plays a role in it.”
PIttsburgh Hockey Now spoke with Aston-Reese again Friday morning. Look for that interview coming up on PHN. The kid is a good quote!
The Late Wave
In the regular season, the Flyers created offensive opportunities against the Penguins with trailing defensemen. The Penguins forwards occasionally chased the puck or, as Patric Hornqvist told Pittsburgh Hockey Now, the forwards overcommitted to the backcheck and skated too low in the zone.
The result was space at the top of the zone for the Flyers defensemen who had momentum and a clean look at the Penguins net.
In Game 1, the Penguins defensemen activated and created offensive pressure. Kris Letang elevated his game to a level rarely seen this season.
For all of the talk whenever Letang was on the ice for a goal against — his fault or (usually) not — Letang was a plus-4 in Game 1. Brian Dumoulin had two assists. And sixth defenseman Chad Ruhwedel blocked six shots.
As a side note, Penguins assistant coach Jacques Martin evenly played the Penguins defensemen. Jamie Oleksiak was on the low end of ice time with 15:21 and Letang was on the high side with 21:57.
The Penguins brought the wave. The Flyers didn’t. Even if the Penguins don’t bring their best game Friday, the Flyers will still have a steep path to victory unless their defensemen get offensive chances.
The Carl Hagelin–Evgeni Malkin-Hornqvist line didn’t have a consistent matchup in Game 1. As the game settled, the Penguins (or the Flyers) used Malkin against the Flyers’ top line of Claude Giroux-Sean Couturier-Michael Raffl. The Penguins also short shifted Malkin to get advantageous matchups against the Flyers bottom six.
The Malkin line combined for 10 of the Penguins 33 shots, nine of them at five one five. Malkin and Hagelin had three shots each; Hornqvist had four.
Therein lies the Flyers’ greatest deficit, at least among skaters: The Flyers have a solid top line able to play with Sidney Crosby but not a second line able to deal with Malkin. The Penguins do not have the deficit as several times the Penguins deployed their fourth line, led by Riley Sheahan, against the Flyers’ second line.
Where was the circus in Game 1? This is Penguins-Flyers. There is supposed to be fighting, cheap shots, ham-fisted battles in front and general goonery to send a message.
Actually, that stuff is dated. The Flyers have copied the Penguins; Philadelphia wants youth, speed, and scoring. So, if you’re still referencing the 2012 series or expecting the Broad Street Bullies, it’s time to click update.
The Flyers dished 39 hits in Game 1, but few made an impact. Aston-Reese almost sounded disappointed with his first playoff experience in that way.
“Maybe the series might get a little more physical,” he said. “Watching the L.A. game afterward, I think there were 50 hits on each side after the second. There were a ton of big hits in the Winnipeg game, too. I’d expect the series to get a lot more physical.”
Then again, physical play could mean more power plays. Do the Flyers really want to go there?
Note: PHN’s Matt Gajtka will cover Game 2 from PPG Paints Arena. Matt and I will be live on Facebook, at about 6 pm, prior to the game with a pregame show.