PHILADELPHIA — Now this was a Stanley Cup playoff game. Jake Guentzel sure seemed to enjoy it.
The Flyers played as expected in front of their home crowd in a do-or-die afternoon, pouring all their energy into their best performance of this first-round series, but the Penguins had answers for everything, twice rebounding from deficits to win 8-5 on Sunday at Wells Fargo Center and advance to the second round.
Philadelphia led 4-2 after Scott Laughton beat Matt Murray from long range, but Guentzel figured in on five consecutive Pittsburgh goals, assisting on the first one and scoring all the rest himself. Guentzel deflected an Olli Määttä shot behind Michal Neuvirth to tie the game before the second intermission, then had a tap-in in the opening minute of the third, converting a fine hesitation pass from Phil Kessel to put the Penguins up for good.
“He’s one of those players who has ‘it,'” Mike Sullivan said. “He has the ability to play their best when the stakes are highest. And we have a number of guys in that dressing room who have ‘it.'”
The Penguins survived a four-on-three short-handed situation near the midway point of the third, with Murray offering up a couple of redeeming saves on a tough day, to give Guentzel a chance to drill a slapper for his second playoff hat trick at 12:48. Just before that, Kris Letang appeared to get away with a tripping penalty, but the Penguins got the benefit of the doubt in addition to a critical two-goal lead.
“It’s a big goal, especially after the kill we got,” Guentzel said, understated as always.
Ten seconds later, Patric Hörnqvist picked up his third point by driving wide and sliding the puck in front for Guentzel to lift into the net, essentially clinching the series. For Guentzel, that added up to four goals in the game, six in these playoffs and 19 in his first five Stanley Cup series.
“He did just a great job last year in the playoffs,” said Sidney Crosby, who himself finished the series with 13 points after a goal and two assists Sunday. “He’s raised his game to another level. It’s not just scoring, either. He’s hard on pucks and doing the little things. It’s great to see him get rewarded.”
Since it was an elimination game, Bryan Rust capped the scoring with an empty-netter, giving him a two-game goal streak entering the second round. That wasn’t necessary, but it helped calm the Penguins’ nerves after Sean Couturier finished a heroic three-goal, five-point performance with an extra-attacker goal with about three minutes to play.
Basically, Philadelphia accomplished its goals coming in — perforate Murray, get big scoring from its top line, throw a few crowd-inspiring hits — but it still wasn’t enough, even on a day when Evgeni Malkin sat out with a lower-body injury he suffered two nights ago.
However, the return of Hörnqvist after missing two games seemed to counteract the absence of one superstar center. The top line of Guentzel, Crosby and Hörnqvist combined for 12 points, starting with Crosby’s tying goal at 6:30 of the first. That cancelled out Couturier’s first goal, which was made possible by an absolute fire drill of a shift in the Penguins’ zone.
Carl Hagelin put the Penguins in front for the first time less than a minute after Crosby’s goal, slamming home a Kessel feed while wide open in the slot. But that would be about it for Hagelin’s afternoon, as Claude Giroux made arguably his biggest impact of the series when he delivered a hard check to Hagelin in the second period. It was clean, but the hit bloodied the Swedish winger’s mouth and sent him to the dressing room.
Andrew MacDonald, Couturier and Laughton scored in succession to put the Flyers in position to force Game 7 on Tuesday night back in Pittsburgh. That would’ve been an accomplishment in itself after getting blown out by the Penguins in Games 3 and 4 at Wells Fargo Center.
“The more they hang around … ” Crosby said, trailing off. “It’s one game and anything could happen (in Game 7).”
But there will be no winner-take-all in this latest playoff edition of the NHL’s most interesting rivalry, but Game 6 provided enough drama to chew on until the second round. It was the Penguins’ first 13-goal playoff game since that insane first-round series against the Flyers in 2012.
Although Hörnqvist’s goal was a tic-tac-toe beauty, the game really began to turn in the visitors’ favor just before Guentzel’s first goal. Hörnqvist and Guentzel teamed up to hound Flyers defenseman Radko Gudas behind the net, forcing a turnover and leading to Määttä’s pivotal shot from the point. Neuvirth had his moments in this game, but Guentzel’s subtle redirect leaked through him to put the Penguins back on level terms.
“Just the resiliency we showed after they went up 4-2, it’s huge,” Hörnqvist said. “That turned the whole game around. Then in the intermission between the second and third, we just had a good feeling in this room that we were going to do it.”
Count Riley Sheahan as one of those impressed by the Penguins’ steadiness in a chaotic atmosphere. He was the only Pittsburgh forward to play over 20 minutes Sunday, drawing heavy penalty-kill duty as well as more even-strength action with Malkin on the shelf.
“It sucks,” Sheahan said of Malkin’s injury. “He’s such a big part to our team. We obviously rely on our main guys a lot, but there are a lot of characters in this room who can fill in.”
After nine consecutive playoff series wins — a first in the NHL since the 1997-99 Red Wings — there’s little doubt about that depth. Now the Penguins can try to match that Detroit group, which was the last team to gun for three straight Stanley Cups. Those Wings lost out in the second round to the eventual champion Stars, but as for the Penguins of modern day, they’ll await the winner of Capitals-Blue Jackets, which will go to Game 6 on Monday with Washington ahead three games to two.
The champs will have home ice in the second round only if Columbus comes back to advance. Otherwise, it’ll be another trip to the nation’s capital to start the second round, the third straight year for that arrangement.
Thanks to Dan Kingerski for providing the original reporting from Philadelphia.