PITTSBURGH — Tale as old as the Stanley Cup itself: Experienced, proven team wallops playoff newcomer to provide an informal introduction to one of the most intense competitions on the planet.
The Penguins were on the receiving end 11 years ago in Ottawa, but they were doing the administering Wednesday night at PPG Paints Arena, cracking the Flyers 7-0 in Game 1 of their first round Stanley Cup playoff series behind Sidney Crosby‘s third playoff hat trick and a comprehensive performance by the two-time defending champions.
Basically everyone the Penguins would like to show up for the start of a potential three-peat run, did show up.
Crosby and Evgeni Malkin both connected for highlight-caliber goals, Kris Letang was assertive and aggressive, Derick Brassard and Jake Guentzel hooked up for a tic-tac-toe goal and Matt Murray shined when the game was still in the balance early.
“We’re certainly pleased with the start,” said Mike Sullivan, understated as usual. “It was a real good effort.”
Winners of eight consecutive playoff series under Sullivan’s direction, the Penguins blitzed the Flyers in the opening minutes, with Bryan Rust finishing the long rebound of Kris Letang‘s right-wing rip just 2:38 in, beating a beleaguered Brian Elliott to the blocker side.
“That was really big,” Rust said. “Our crowd was loud and into it and that just allowed us to feed of it a little bit more.”
That’s when Murray came through, stealing what appeared to be a sure goal from Scott Laughton. The Flyers fourth liner was on the receiving end of a fine feed by Jori Lehtera, but Murray dived across the crease to deny Laughton’s along-the-ice shot with the bottom edge of his glove.
“When your goalie makes an unbelievable save like that, it lifts your bench,” said Brassard after playing 13:44 in his Penguins playoff debut.
With that potential turning point successfully navigated, the Penguins poured on the forechecking pressure and scored twice more before the end of the first. Carl Hagelin polished off a Patric Hörnqvist pass from the lip of the tease at 10:07, following up a strong offensive-zone shift by Riley Sheahan and the fourth line.
“That’s what that line can bring to our team,” Sullivan said of the Sheahan unit. “That’s a line we can use against anyone and can help us get momentum.”
Four minutes later, Malkin redeemed himself. Escaping the box after taking a needless hooking penalty with the Penguins up a man, Malkin grabbed the puck at the Pittsburgh blue line, galloped past four Flyers and hoisted a backhand past Elliott’s blocker for a 3-0 lead.
“There aren’t too many guys who can make those types of plays,” Sullivan said. “Sometimes you take it for granted. Those are inspirational-type goals for our team.”
Philadelphia created some attack time early in the second, but Murray was there to gobble up every rebound, looking like the guy who helped the Penguins to back-to-back titles with his calm style of goaltending. Although he was up and down during his first season as the Penguins’ No. 1 goalie, Murray hasn’t allowed a goal in three full playoff games and counting, dating back to Game 4 of the 2017 Final.
“Every game is a chance to reset,” he said.
The Penguins’ eruptive power play raised the lead to 4-0 with 7:50 gone in the second, but not with the top unit. The second group converted after Sean Couturier‘s tripping minor, with Conor Sheary and Brassard playing catch to set up Guentzel on the doorstep.
After leading the NHL with 13 goals in last year’s playoff, Guentzel had a so-so first full season in the league, scoring 22 goals in total, but just two in his final 21 games. Seeing both Guentzel (career-high four points) and Rust (14 career playoff goals) connect brought a smile to Sullivan’s face.
“It’s exciting to watch them,” Sullivan said. “They’re guys who have embraced the high-stakes environment. They’ve done it time and time again. As a coaching staff, we’ve enjoyed watching these guys come together. They embrace the challenges.”
With the outcome no longer in doubt, the captain wrote another episode of The Crosby Show.
He added to his absurd collection of baseball-style goals when he swatted a Brian Dumoulin point shot en route to the goal over Elliott’s left shoulder. In effect, Crosby accelerated Dumoulin’s shot while also changing its direction, making it three mind-bending goals in the past month.
“It doesn’t matter who he’s playing against,” Letang said, brushing off the suggestion that Crosby especially relishes denting the Flyers. “He just wants to be the best.”
The two-time Conn Smythe winner added his second of the evening midway through the third, tapping a friendly bounce into a wide-open net behind Petr Mrazek. In a moment symbolic of Philadelphia’s night, Brandon Manning‘s attempted clear deflected right to Crosby.
“You gotta go to the net this time of year,” Crosby said. “They don’t always go in so it’s nice to see.”
Crosby’s three-spot was completed in quick succession, as he laid his stick blade flat to ramp Dumoulin’s pass into the roof of the net at 10:42.
“It takes a special skill set,” Rust said. “It’s cool to see him score those kinds of goals.”
After Crosby’s final strike, black and gold hats and rally towels rained on the ice. No. 87’s first postseason trick since 2013 gave the Penguins the league’s first 7-0 final in an opening playoff game since the 1999-2000 Penguins, who achieved the feat against the Capitals in Washington.
Meanwhile, the Flyers could only look ahead to Friday’s faceoff here. Philadelphia retained five players from its stunning six-game series win against the Penguins six years ago, led by captain Claude Giroux, but there was no veteran assistance for all the playoff newcomers wearing orange and white.
“We have to have a short memory,” Flyers coach Dave Hakstol said. “There’s a lot of things we have to do better. We stubbed our toe tonight.”
Coming up on PHN Extra … a Penguins Locker Room feature on successfully ‘flipping the switch’ as the playoff bell rings.