It was called a rebuilding year back in October. With a new coach, limited defense, questionable scoring depth and a patient approach to the high-end talent in their prospect pipeline, many thought that the Philadelphia Flyers were at least another year away from returning to the postseason.
Clearly, someone forgot to tell the players.
Given the opportunity to clinch a playoff spot with a victory after both the Boston Bruins and Detroit Red Wings fell in early afternoon games, the Flyers put the finishing touches on their surprise run to the postseason, beating the rival Pittsburgh Penguins by a score of 3-1. Wayne Simmonds scored two goals and Steve Mason made 18 big saves to lead the way. With the win, Philadelphia will play the Metropolitan Division champion Washington Capitals in the first round next week.
The Flyers hit the ice looking like a team fully aware of the stakes. They jumped out to a 23-6 advantage in shot attempts through the game's first eleven minutes and thirty seconds, but could not find a way to dent Pittsburgh goalie Matt Murray. Claude Giroux nearly gave his team the early lead on a power play, but his backhanded wrist shot found the crossbar rather than the back of the net.
Then, disaster struck. A failed Nick Schultz pinch in the neutral zone sent the speedy Carl Hagelin and Nick Bonino on a two-on-one rush with just Mark Streit back on defense. Hagelin flipped the puck over a prone Streit and Bonino did the rest, beating Mason and erasing the Flyers' strong start in one fell swoop. Following the goal, the confident, attacking Flyers seemed to disappear, replaced by a hesitant squad incapable of completing even a simple pass. Pittsburgh came in waves in the back half of the period, looking to extend their lead and force their rivals into a do-or-die Sunday. Not even an apparent head injury suffered by starting goalie Murray (which forced him from the game) seemed to slow the Penguins' attack.
But Steve Mason would not allow Pittsburgh to take full control. With a little over a minute left in the period, Kael Mouillierat found himself in with the puck right in front, staring at a wide open net. Out of nowhere came Mason's glove, robbing the Pittsburgh forward and holding the score at 1-0. Given new life, the Flyers would not waste it. After Claude Giroux sprung Jakub Voracek for a clean offensive zone entry, the Czech winger slid a pass into the slot for a waiting Wayne Simmonds, who redirected the puck past new Pittsburgh goalie Jeff Zatkoff and into the net, tying the score at 1-1.
Perhaps frightened a bit by the Penguins' dangerous transition game from period one, the Flyers tightened things up to start the second stanza. The majority of play seemed bottled up in the center of the ice, and forcing Pittsburgh to generate their chances via a cycle game rather than their preferred back-and-forth rush style. But the change in pace meant that the Flyers' offense was neutered as well. At the midway point of the contest, it felt like the outcome could go either way.
But with ten minutes remaining in the second period, Philadelphia's high-end forecheck and cycle game finally reemerged. Strong shifts from the Giroux and Couturier lines put real pressure on Zatkoff, while the bottom-six kept up its ever-strong work down low. But it would be Wayne Simmonds again who turned all of that pressure into something tangible on the scoreboard. Shayne Gostisbehere found space at the top of the slot and sent a shot in on Zatkoff, which deflected off Simmonds and into the net, giving the Flyers their first lead of the game. After two periods, Philadelphia held a comfortable 27-14 shots on goal advantage, and found themselves just twenty minutes from locking down a playoff spot.
The Flyers' performance in the third period can be described best via one word -- suffocating. The Penguins could manage only seven shot attempts in the game's final twenty minutes, as Philadelphia did all the little things right. Puck battles, stick checks, crease-clearing -- the Flyers had no intention of wasting their best chance to clinch a playoff berth. Even Philadelphia's seven minutes of power play time felt more like an extended keep-away session meant to waste precious seconds off the clock. It took an empty net situation for the Flyers to finally ice it, as Pierre-Edouard Bellemare skated the length of the ice uncontested to ensure that his tip-in wouldn't miss, and that his team's season wouldn't end tomorrow.
Questions to Answer:
- Is today the last meaningful game of the Flyers' season? Last meaningful game of the regular season, maybe. But Flyers fans will get to watch at least four playoff games in 2016, and hopefully more than that.
Comment of the Night:
Dude shut up and have fun for a second. Wooooooooo playoffs.