The similarities in Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan’s postgame comments throughout the Round 1 series and Philadelphia Flyers boss Dave Hakstol have been striking. Each coach believes their side had good chances to win and if only a bounce had gone their way, the game would have been different.
“Special teams was the difference,” Mike Sullivan sternly said after the Penguins Game 2 loss in which the Flyers scored a pair of power-play goals.
“It centered around penalties,” said Hakstol after the Flyers Game 3 loss in which the Penguins scored three times with the man advantage.
In each game, the team which lost believed they had the better 5v5 chances.
Sullivan said, “There was a lot to like,” after Game 2.
Hakstol said, “We were playing well,” after Game 3.
The advanced statistics bear out each coach’s belief their team played better at 5v5. In Game 3, the Flyers had 16 of the 28 5v5 scoring chances. They had eight of 13 high danger scoring changes. In Game 2, the Penguins had seven of the nine even strength high danger chances.
Goaltending has been the other deciding factor. The Penguins blitzed Flyers netminder Brian Elliott in Game 2, just as the Flyers swarmed Matt Murray in Game 3.
In a broad perspective, or the new corporate term–from 30,000 feet–the series has been a gong show of penalty killing, penalties, but fantastic goaltending. Whichever team has the better goaltender has won. Whichever team has killed penalties and visited the penalty box less has won.
It’s impossible to say the series is even or being well played. 7-0, 5-1 and 5-1 are not tight hockey games. The amount of special teams play required by each side also points to an undisciplined, sloppy brand of hockey without enough systemic structure.
Sullivan said, regarding attention to details, “That’s not the case in this series.”
The Penguins will most likely win, and do so quickly. The Flyers cannot hold off the more talented Penguins. Elliott was as good in Game 2 as he was in bad Game 3. The inverse is true for Murray.
After three or four games, coaches are out of substantial tactical changes, and it comes down to micro-tweaks. After a few games, it’s time to play hockey. Perhaps the Penguins will clean up their game and dominate in Game 4. If they do not, the Flyers will have every chance to win.
Don’t assume otherwise.
In Game 4, perhaps Haksol will make another change or two, which will confound the Penguins power play. Maybe the Flyers will convert one or more of their first period chances, and the Wells Fargo Center will descend into frothing madness which will propel the Flyers.
It should be obvious by now this writer differs from others at the site (*ahem, Matt Gajtka) and doesn’t believe the Flyers are lucky to be in the series. A bounce or two in Game 3 could have meant the Penguins were in a 2-1 series deficit, as the Penguins were hanging on for dear life until their three-goal outburst.
The Penguins have long-range plans again this postseason. The flipped the switch in Game 1. The team clearly has purpose and intensity after a long winter. However, they still haven’t played two clean games in a row.
The Flyers will be happy to advance past Round 1. This season and series is the start of their journey. In Game 4, the Flyers will have everything yet nothing to lose.
Perhaps both teams will finally belly up to the bar with their best shot. Perhaps we’ll finally see both teams at their best and get the figurative heavyweight fight this city is famous for producing.
Until then, special teams and goaltending will be the difference.