PITTSBURGH — In a series that started with four consecutive blowouts, Penguins-Flyers finally produced a typically-tight playoff finish.
Unfortunately for the Penguins, their momentary lapses provided enough of an opening for the Flyers to jump through and extend this first-round Stanley Cup playoff series. Philadelphia won 4-2 on Friday night at PPG Paints Arena, setting up Game 6 on Sunday back across the state.
Sean Couturier, back in the lineup after missing Game 4, whipped a 60-foot shot off Brian Dumoulin and behind a helpless Matt Murray with 1:18 left in the game. The Penguins couldn’t clear the puck from their zone, with Conor Sheary firing an errant pass, giving Philadelphia an extra look at the net … and it counted in a big way.
“We didn’t give up a whole lot of chances,” said a steadfast Mike Sullivan after his team fell to 3-6 in elimination games over the past two years. “One of those in the third period ends up in our net. It was just one of those chances that found a way in.”
Sidney Crosby had a prime chance to tie when a puck bounced his way in the final minute, but Michal Neuvirth made a dazzling glove stop, setting up Matt Read with a chance to ice the game with an empty-netter. After getting swept at home in Games 3 and 4, outscored 10-1 in the process, the Flyers have won their second in Pittsburgh this series.
“We didn’t play well at home,” Flyers coach Dave Hakstol said. “That’s hard. When you have two games like that in your building … we needed the 24 hours in between to clear our heads. We wanted to make sure it was a real hard game for (the Penguins).”
Bryan Rust scored his ninth goal in 15 career elimination games at this level, pulling the defending champions even in the second period, shortly followed by Jake Guentzel‘s second of the series and 15th of his short playoff career. The Flyers, who benched their previous starting goalie Brian Elliott in Hakstol’s biggest coaching move of the series, got one goal in the first from Claude Giroux and another in the second by Valtteri Filppula, the latter of which came short-handed to set up the decisive third.
As if sensing the finish line, the Penguins largely tilted the ice in the final 20 minutes, but couldn’t dent Neuvirth, who made 30 saves in the victory. The Penguins and Flyers will now face off 3 p.m. Sunday at Wells Fargo Center, where the visitors have won all four games this season in this cross-state rivalry.
“We know it’s tough to eliminate teams,” Guentzel said. “We’d like to do it for the first time, but we gotta go to Philly and believe we’re going to win.”
While Game 6 will be amplified in intensity, for sure, Friday’s first period was curiously cautious and stagnant for both sides, considering the stakes.
Both teams misfired on early power plays, but the Flyers connected for the only goal of the first 20 when Giroux buried a Jakub Voráček pass from 25 feet away. Kris Letang was guilty of a giveaway during that ugly shift, with Guentzel also failing to capture a loose puck before the goal.
“I forgot to celebrate,” said Giroux, who hadn’t scored in past 11 playoff games dating back to 2014.
On top of that blow to the Penguins’ psyche, Evgeni Malkin limped to the dressing room late in the first after getting his left leg pinned under a falling Jori Lehtera. However, Malkin returned to the ice at the start of the second period without incident. He wasn’t available to reporters afterward but Sullivan said Malkin was “fine” after the checkup.
Overall, the Penguins pointed back to that sleepy first period as the biggest issue of the evening. They generated just 11 shot attempts in the opening 20 minutes. The Flyers weren’t much better, with 18 attempts, but they probably felt better about their start than the home team.
“We knew they were going to come hard at us,” Dumoulin said. “If we can shoot the puck a little bit more and come out with more urgency, create a little scrum in front of the net and bang in a greasy one. I mean, we got to our game in the second and third, but it wasn’t enough.”
Sullivan agreed with that analysis, even if he felt good about his team’s rebound in the final 40.
“I didn’t think we shot the puck enough early,” Sullivan said. “We had a number of chances from the top of the circles and we were looking for the next play. A lot of times that lateral play doesn’t materialize. I thought we had a lot of chances to put the puck on net a whole lot more in the first period and we didn’t do it. Having said that, I didn’t think we got dominated by any stretch.”
After surviving the injury scare, Malkin continued to be the center of attention when Flyers defenseman Brandon Manning felled him twice during an extended shift early in the second. Malkin ended up retaliating and getting an even-up roughing penalty. But after his time in the box expired, he burst right to the net with the puck and drew a slashing call, getting the crowd to its feet.
Although the Penguins didn’t score on the ensuing power play, the pressure the second unit generated at the end of it seemed to carry over to five-on-five play afterward. Just after Malkin hoisted a point-blank backhand over the crossbar, Rust dug his skates in behind the net and jammed a backhand between Neuvirth’s left skate and the right post. The dam broke and the score was 1-1 with eight to play in the second.
“We hit a couple posts and hit a couple (stick) knobs and things like that,” Rust said, suggesting the second-period outburst could’ve been bigger. “We definitely have a couple of things to build off.”
Crosby drew a holding penalty from Shane Gostisbehere about a minute later, giving the home side an extended four-on-three advantage, but too many efforts to find the perfect connection resulted in frustration. The major chance to take the lead vaporized.
“(We) weren’t moving enough,” Justin Schultz said of the power play troubles. “We didn’t get any (shooting) lanes and didn’t get any shots.”
The man-advantage misfire was soon forgotten, though, when Guentzel buried a left-circle feed from Crosby, beating Neuvirth between the legs. Dominik Simon deflected a Dumoulin lead pass to give Crosby the space in the middle of the ice to generate his 10th point of the series.
By the time Zach Aston-Reese drew a holding penalty from Radko Gudas, the Flyers were teetering. Nevertheless, the top-unit power play continued to overpass, leading up to Phil Kessel‘s giveaway at the offensive blue line and a counterattack for Philadelphia.
The result? Murray coughed up a rebound on a long wrister and Valtteri Filppula guided the puck under Murray, beating Letang’s attempted check.
“On the goal against, it was a two-on-two,” Sullivan said. “I think our first unit probably overstayed the shift. They should’ve changed and we should’ve had fresh people out there.”
Crosby pushed back against the idea that Filppula’s stunner was the pivotal moment of the loss.
“It was a turning point because we let it be the turning point,” Crosby said. “We gotta get the next one.”
The power play earned a quick redemption chance early in the third when Filppula tripped Dumoulin. The first unit proceeded to spend the entire two minutes in the offensive zone, but couldn’t beat Neuvirth. Kessel had the best opportunity from the left circle, but fanned on the one-timer. Neuvirth then denied Simon on a slot chance at even strength to keep the score level.
Jamie Oleksiak played just under 10 minutes, the least of the Penguins defensemen, but he fought Gudas just after leveling Giroux with an accidental hit. Giroux briefly went to the dressing room but didn’t miss much time.
Malkin had the Penguins’ best opportunity to take the lead back, whipping a wrister just wide of the top-right corner from the inner edge of the left circle with about five minutes left. Both he and Kessel missed the net on a handful of chances in the game, leaving the door open for a bounce to decide it.
Then there was the power play, probably Friday’s primary culprit. The NHL’s best unit during the regular season had converted five times in 19 attempts over the first four games, but banged its head against the wall five times in Game 5.
“I thought our power play had a chance to be the difference in the game,” Sullivan said. “It wasn’t. But most nights it is.”
Getting Patric Hörnqvist back would be a boon to both the power play and the team in general. After missing the past two games due to an undisclosed injury, he skated prior to Game 5 and appears to be on track for a return in this series.
The Penguins practice Saturday in Cranberry Township before traveling to Philadelphia. Dan Kingerski will have our coverage from there, and at Game 6 out east.