CRANBERRY TOWNSHIP, Pa. — The Penguins have to be glancing around the National Hockey League and wondering what’s up.
In a league known for its parity, at the most important time of the year, they’ve played nothing but blowouts in their first-round Stanley Cup playoff series against the Flyers.
After Wednesday night’s action, eight of the 30 playoff games have been decided by four goals or more. Penguins-Flyers has accounted for exactly half of those, with the defending champs’ 5-0 Game 4 victory in Philadelphia probably being the most lopsided of the series in terms of look and feel. Sure, the Penguins crushed the Flyers by seven goals in Game 1, but seeing a road team choke the life out of a playoff game is always striking.
“It’s been a really weird series, just in general,” Conor Sheary told me after a brief Thursday practice at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex. “It’s a weird series and something we’re not used to. I think we can’t expect it to be that way. We have to expect a close game (Friday), because obviously it’s an elimination game.”
Sheary’s center for Game 4, Derick Brassard, has played in 82 playoff games over the past six seasons, with this being the 14th best-of-seven he’s experienced. He can’t recall a series like this, though, when every game has essentially been decided by the final 15 or 20 minutes.
It might sound odd, but he said that comes with its own challenges.
“It’s tough when you have the lead and you have to play the last 25 or 30 minutes,” Brassard said. “You still have to do the right things out there, but at the same time, you’re going through the motions a little bit. If we’re up in the score, it’s because we did something well.”
And still, despite how the final scores have looked, there have been plenty of pivotal points in the early stages of these games, so it’s not as if the Penguins have simply cruised to the finish line by default. Matt Murray has been at his best in the first periods of these games, which has provided the opportunity to pounce on a Flyers team that’s looked fragile at times.
“It’s playoff hockey,” Sidney Crosby said. “They’ve had chances. We’ve gotten saves and big plays. You look at the game we lost, it’s 5-1 but it didn’t feel like a 5-1 game. We felt we had some chances and it could’ve gone the other way. We’ve executed well, but that could change quick if you don’t play the right way.
To the Penguins’ credit, they haven’t let Philadelphia back into any of their three wins after taking multi-goal leads.
“I think we’ve done a good job,” Carl Hagelin said. “We haven’t given up too many chances. We take pride in that. We try not to take too many stupid penalties in those moments of the game, but other than that we’ve played good hockey.”
Outside of a Matt Read slash to the back of Brassard’s leg Wednesday night, the ends of these games haven’t degenerated to a gong show, either.
Hagelin, who has played in more Stanley Cup playoff games (116) than anyone since he entered the league in 2011-12, said that’s simply a sign of the times in the NHL.
“I think the league is different nowadays,” he said. “You can’t really send messages out there or you’re get suspended. You play hard between the whistles.”
Sounds like Brassard’s composure at the end of Game 4 comes from experience, too.
“Just one of those things,” he said. “Probably some frustration on their side, obviously. It’s gonna happen. There’s whacks. There’s cross-checks. It’s part of the playoffs. I just took it. I’m fine.”
No Third Wheel
Every forward line contributed to the cause in some way Wednesday night, but Sheary-Brassard-Bryan Rust continues to show promise as a third-line option even when Patric Hörnqvist returns from injury.
That trio was noticeably tenacious on the puck, disrupting the Flyers’ breakouts with regularity to create additional possession time in the offensive zone.
“It was one of those nights where, as a line, we had our legs,” Sheary told me. “‘Rusty’ and I play a pretty similar style where we like to get in on the forecheck and create turnovers and kind of control play in their end. I think ‘Brass’ obviously plays off us. He’s probably the most skilled guy on the line and makes a lot of plays. I think we were just clicking last night for whatever reason.”
Brassard had a simpler take: “I think we’re good when we’re skating. We have a lot of guys who want to be first on the puck, so we can play with it.”
Matter of Time
Kessel‘s first goal of the series came at an opportune time, giving the Penguins a 2-0 lead late in the first, after the Flyers had come to life.
Hagelin told reporters that he predicted Kessel would score in Game 4, when Phil was reunited with Hagelin and Evgeni Malkin. Yes, he told Kessel about that premonition, too.
“It’s just a matter of him shooting and it’s going to go in,” Hagelin said. “He’s got the kind of shot that can beat goalies clean. Not many guys have that skill set.”
Got time for a Mario Lemieux anecdote? Thought so!
Crosby said his old landlord had a playful barb at the ready following the conclusion of Game 4. You might’ve heard Crosby has surpassed Lemieux for the franchise’s career playoff scoring record. Crosby has 173 postseason points after a goal-assist night in Philadelphia.
“He asked me what took so long,” Crosby said, chuckling at the memory. “It was pretty typical. I figured I was going to get something like that.”