You have to credit the Philadelphia Flyers. No matter how poor the overall roster, they always find ways to turn games against their biggest rival into must-see-TV.
Tonight's game had it all for Flyers fans - end-to-end action, tons of fights, unexpected offensive contributors, and an overtime victory courtesy of Claude Giroux. The team was even able to overcome a mess of a first period, during which they were outshot 17-3 and saw agitator Zac Rinaldo get thrown out of the game for a cheap shot on Kris Letang.
Despite exiting the first with a 1-0 lead courtesy of a Luke Schenn point shot (again, unexpected offensive contributors), it was obvious that Philadelphia wouldn't have won this game had the status quo remained the same. Pittsburgh was all over the ice, dominating in the neutral zone and pinning the Flyers deep for extended periods.
And to the Flyers' credit, they changed it up in the second. Of course, "changing it up" meant "fight and hit everything with a white jersey," but it beat getting outshot like crazy. Just like in the 2011-12 playoff series, the Penguins quickly got sucked into the physical game that Philadelphia was pushing, and the majority of the second stanza was played on special teams as a result.
Everyone got into the act. Michael Raffl fought Pittsburgh enforcer Zach Sill. Jakub Voracek took exception to a Rob Scuderi hit and decided to pummel the defenseman, earning himself 17 minutes of penalty time. Pierre-Edouard Bellemare knocked down Bobby Farnham with one punch. And in the most satisfying fight of the night, Luke Schenn decisioned former Flyer Steve Downie in an extended bout.
The fisticuffs basically ended once the third period began, but the craziness had merely changed forms. The brawls were now replaced with furious end-to-end action, as the Penguins and Flyers traded shots, chances and goals. Beau Bennett gave Pittsburgh the lead early in the period via a fantastic passing play by Evgeni Malkin, but the Flyers quickly responded, as Chris VandeVelde scored his third goal in three games, redirecting a Michael Del Zotto shot past Thomas Greiss. From there, Greiss and Ray Emery stood tall and forced the extra session.
The overtime was primarily spent with the Flyers on the power play. Pittsburgh was able to survive the first one, but after taking a too-many-men penalty immediately after, they could not hold off Philadelphia a second time. Claude Giroux was the hero, pouncing on a loose puck that Greiss never fully corralled despite his best efforts.
It's impossible to support hits like the one that Rinaldo put on Letang. And maybe guys like Raffl and Voracek really shouldn't be fighting, as they can help the team more on the ice than in the penalty box. But the second period was just a classic insane Flyers-Penguins battle, complete with sideshow attractions, crowd participation and old school brawls.
For the fans that miss that side of the game, it was a breath of fresh air. And for those who simply love watching highly skilled players at their best, there was the third period and overtime, which boasted the type of back-and-forth action that turned the 2011-12 series into such a scorefest.
Basically, this game had a little something for each type of Flyers fan. But most importantly, it includes the one thing that all fans can agree is the best part of every "fun" game - a victory.
Some more observations on the game:
- Ray Emery has rightfully been criticized this season for poor overall play, but he played out of his mind tonight. The only thing that kept the game from finishing with a 8-5 score like the 2011-12 playoffs was the play of the goalies, and Emery was just a bit better than his counterpart.
- The narrative is almost definitely going to be that the Flyers turned the game due to their physical play. While it's ridiculous to think that Rinaldo's cheap shot somehow "inspired" the team, there may be something to the theory that the second period threw the Penguins off their game. When Pittsburgh played their skill game in the first, the Flyers could not keep up. Once they started trying to match the Flyers hit for hit, Philadelphia started closing the possession gap at even strength. I think you can make a real case that the Flyers essentially goaded the Penguins into playing a style that limited their strengths, and that Pittsburgh fell for it.
- Speaking of Rinaldo, that hit on Letang was indefensible. He's going to be gone for at least five games, and at this point, good riddance. It's not like he provides any measurable on-ice value anyway, and that's before you account for the cheap shots. The Flyers were playing on the second night of a back-to-back, and Rinaldo's dumb play forced the team to roll with only 11 forwards for two periods. Smart move Zac.
- After a couple pretty awful shifts to kick off the game, Sean Couturier and his linemates (which changed throughout the game) ended up putting together a really nice showing. By the end of the third period, they were the team's most dangerous line, and even drew a penalty right before the end of regulation that would carry over into the OT. Couturier saw a lot of Sidney Crosby, and at the very least, fought him to a draw. Nice bounceback game for Couturier.
- How about the Flyers' penalty kill tonight? If you had to point to the biggest contributor to the win, I think you'd have to go with the PK (and Ray Emery, of course). Pittsburgh went 0/7 on the man advantage, and that includes the five-minute major on Rinaldo that could have broken the whole game open. I haven't given up hope for a PK resurgence to conclude the season, and this would be a great way to kick that off.