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Flyers 5, Penguins 1: Just when you thought you were out...

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That was more fun than the first game. Can we do that again?

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Philadelphia Flyers at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Come on. They were always going to win this game.

Not because anything in particular in the matchup dictated that the Flyers were due for a win against Pittsburgh, if the two teams’ first five games played against one another this season were enough of a clue. Not because it was a given that they would just show up for this one fired up about the ass-kicking they received two days earlier. Not because of any reason that really makes sense if you think about it enough.

No, the Flyers were always going to win this game because the 2017-18 Philadelphia Flyers are always going to win games as soon as they’re left for dead. As much as we all know that playoff series are seven games long and can go through wild swings in different directions over those seven games, there’s something particularly deflating about the tone that’s set when you get utterly annihilated in Game 1. There’s a fatalistic air that sets over a team when it gets pantsed like that on the biggest stage it’s stepped on all season.

In other words, you could be forgiven a bit if you started to think the series may have been over before it really got started. Of course, a team that lost 10 games in a row back around Thanksgiving and still made it into the playoffs is used to doing things that no one really thought it was capable of. A 1-1 series tie after two games is nothing that far out of the ordinary, but leave it to the Flyers to get there in the most Flyers way possible, giving us all as much reason to doubt them as humanly possible before pulling itself back on the right track in grand fashion.

And credit to the team on this one. Even if we were running around with our heads on fire, they seem like they’re both confident and level-headed about how things have gone so far. Dave Hakstol, much like most hockey coaches, rarely says much interesting in his post-game media availability, but if this quote from last night is an accurate barometer of how the team is feeling right now, it’s an encouraging one:

Of course, now that we’ve all bought back in, we should probably prepare to have our hearts stomped on. But for now, let’s enjoy the first win over the Penguins this season and the first win of the playoffs.


Five big questions

1. Who controlled the pace of this game?

A quick glance up at the shot counter may lead one to think that the Penguins largely controlled the flow of this game. Overall, Pittsburgh outshot the Flyers 35-20; at 5-on-5, shots on goal were 24-12 while total shot attempts were 37-19. Even accounting for score effects that would naturally push the flow of the game in the Pens’ favor, one wouldn’t be totally out of bounds to call the Flyers something between “opportunistic” and “lucky” to get the win in this one.

Yet during the time where the game was still in doubt (boy, isn’t it nice to be the team that’s winning when the game’s not really in doubt?), which is to say in the first 45 or so minutes of the game, this one felt like a slog. And given the matchup at hand, the Flyers will take a slog any day of the week.

Neither team could get much going through the neutral zone in the game’s early going, as a lot of offensive chances were created at both ends of the ice on the forecheck. When you consider the skill on the other side of the ice, a grind-it-out game will suit the Flyers just fine. While the Pens certainly had the puck more than the Flyers did, the Flyers didn’t make it easy for them to get legit scoring chances on Brian Elliott at 5-on-5.

Was there some uneasiness through the first two periods? Absolutely. Pittsburgh pushed hard for most of the second after Sean Couturier made it 2-0, and you’re never going to feel totally safe with the firepower they’ve got out there. But the Flyers did what they had to do defensively, and got some help where it was needed (from both Elliott and his goalpost). Can’t ask for too much more than that.

2. Did the Flyers get the game they needed from their best players?

Among the many disappointing things about Game 1 was the fact that the guys who got most thoroughly dunked on in that game were the ones that the Flyers need the most from. The top line of Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier, and Michael Raffl may have been given one of the toughest matchups imaginable (Sidney Crosby and his two friends, whoever they may be at a given time), but one still has to acknowledge that they failed said matchup miserably on Wednesday. The top pair of Shayne Gostisbehere and Ivan Provorov also had a lot to prove after a similarly rough Game 1.

It’s maybe not fair to say that everyone’s all the way back, but the bounce-backs were there for many of the big guns on Friday night.

Couturier, in a ridiculous 27:15 of ice time (that’s nine more minutes than any other Flyers forward! Nine more minutes!), scored the team’s second goal, had two assists (including this staggeringly pretty one to Nolan Patrick on the power play), fought to a draw in 5-on-5 possession, and anchored a penalty kill that shut Pittsburgh out. Giroux had one assist and a team-best mark in possession at evens, and looked much-improved outside of a rough second-period turnover that gave Crosby a breakaway that Elliott would put aside.

The team’s two top defensemen were back on their game as well. Gostisbehere had the team’s first goal, a long bomb on the power play that snuck through thanks to a Patrick screen. Provorov, in a team-high 27:30, did everything that could reasonably be asked of him, essentially replicating Couturier’s efforts in terms of work at even-strength and the penalty kill while tallying a pair of assists at 5-on-5 and playing positionally sound hockey all over the place.

There are still some questions about depth. Jakub Voracek’s line, in particular, was pretty quiet, and they’ll need to step it up pretty soon if the Flyers are hoping to win three more games. But the Flyers got the rebound game that they needed from most of their top guys on Friday.

3. Did Brian Elliott quiet the doubters?

The decision to send Brian Elliott back out after his nightmare of a game on Wednesday, while defensible, was not one that was universally approved of. The Flyers’ top netminder was legitimately bad in Game 1, has something of a troubling career resume in the playoffs, and may not be totally healthy. It was likely only a lack of superior alternatives that kept Elliott in net for Friday’s game.

And through most of the first period, Elliott’s doubters (and his supporters, for that matter) were surely uneasy with what he was doing in net. He seemed very uneasy, making potentially routine saves look like adventures. He was lucky that the scoring didn’t open up midway through the first period, when a long shot by Patric Hornqvist made it past his glove but rang off the left post and out of harm. Pittsburgh had clearly been looking to run a few of those deflection plays down low that worked so well in Game 1, and had they not been just a bit off in their passing on those plays, Elliott could have been facing another multiple-goals-against first period.

But as the game progressed, so did Elliott. He was much cleaner in tracking loose pucks in front of him in the second and third periods, and there weren’t as many rebounds being left out for hungry Pens skaters. His aforementioned second-period breakaway save on Crosby preserved a two-goal lead for the Flyers, keeping Pittsburgh from getting anything significant going at a time where they could’ve used it. And his only goal against, early in the third period right after the Flyers had picked up a four-goal lead, was in a one-on-one situation with Patric Hornqvist, who beat Brandon Manning in a race down the ice.

As someone who fully supported Elliott starting in Game 2 — if you believed in the guy enough to make him your playoff starter, do you really want to park him on the bench after just one bad game? — I wouldn’t go as far as to guess that those that were on the fence (or worse) about him are that much more confident after Friday’s effort. There was a lot to feel iffy about, a number of near-misses that could’ve changed the whole complexion of the game had the Pens been a bit sharper.

But even with that acknowledged, last night has to be seen as something of a victory (and not just a literal one) for Elliott. For one, it was really the first time since his return from core surgery that he was tested thoroughly in a game and actually fared well against those tests. On top of that, this was Elliott’s first postseason win since his final run in St. Louis, two years ago. He suffered through a disastrous four-game sweep at the hands of the Ducks last year, and his Game 1 effort on Wednesday was abysmal. Those kinds of repeated failures can probably build on a guy, and getting back in the win column has to be a nice little boost for a goalie that really needed it.

4. Is the special teams gap not as big as we’d thought?

The thought of the Pens’ power play, loaded with talent top-to-bottom, going up against the Flyers’ routinely-bad penalty kill was a terrifying one coming into the series from a Philadelphia standpoint. And while the matchup between the Flyers’ fairly average power play and the Penguins’ fairly average penalty kill felt fairly even on paper coming in, it was anything but in Game 1, in which the Flyers failed to register a single shot on goal across four power play opportunities. The gap between the two teams here was probably already big enough at 5-on-5 that this big of a gulf in special teams talent could prove to be fatal.

That presumed disadvantaged turned hard last night. For one night, at least.

That the Flyers broke out for two power play goals last night is not terribly surprising. We have seen the top power play group slump for brief stretches before, and we probably all collectively overreacted to what was admittedly a pretty horrendous game from them on Wednesday. They weren’t perfect last night, and Pittsburgh’s pressure-based penalty kill does pose some challenges to them, but the talent and chemistry that that group has means none of us should be surprised when they light it up like they did last night.

The strong performance by the penalty kill was a bit more noteworthy, given that we’re not exactly used to any sort of real success from the Flyers’ penalty kill. But they were positively on point last night, letting four Pittsburgh power plays come and go without a goal. The group particularly shined on a late second period kill on which they repeatedly turned aside the attacking Penguins and actually got more shot attempts (two) than the Pens did (zero), and again on a kill in the third period where Pittsburgh once again failed to really get set up at all in the offensive zone. Couple all of that with some good fortune (Crosby whiffing on a wide open net in the waning moments of the second period comes to mind here), and you’ve got a successful night for a much-maligned penalty kill unit.

Through two games in this series, the Flyers are now 7 of 8 on the penalty kill, with the one goal coming in the final seconds of a kill in Game 1. At a man down, the Flyers have held up about as well as one could reasonably have expected them to, in both results and process. It’s too early for us to say that the Flyers may have turned what looked like a clear mismatch of a special-teams showdown into one that’s going in their favor, but it’s not as crazy of a thought as it surely would have seemed at this time two days ago.

5. Is this series going to get ugly?

After a Game 1 that was too laughably bad for anything real noteworthy to happen in terms of on-ice confrontations, Game 2 featured some shenanigans perhaps more in line with what you would expect from a Flyers-Penguins playoff game. Flyers fans were abuzz all game about Patric Hornqvist, whose resume on the night included an embellishment call in after selling a shove into the boards by Andrew MacDonald, multiple shoves to the head of Nolan Patrick while the two got tangled up on the ice, and a misconduct after a late mini-scrap with Brandon Manning. Meanwhile, Pens fans seemed to most strongly object to the aforementioned shove by MacDonald, as well as a hit laid by Giroux on Kris Letang in the second period that sent him to the locker room for much of the middle stanza.

In all, 11 minor penalties were called, and there probably could have been more called in both directions in the first period.

Look, I have my own views on what happened on those given moments as well as others on the evening. (Those views, if you’re at all curious: Hornqvist clearly threw his arms up to try and draw a call on the AMac hit and deserved every penalty he got on Friday and probably more; meanwhile, Giroux’s hit clearly was not on purpose since he was more or less shoved into Letang by Crosby.) My guess is most of our audience on this particular website will probably agree with those views. My guess is that our friends over at Pensburgh likely have a slightly different outlook on the various incidents I’ve referenced here as well as others. All a matter of personal preference (which is to say, I’m obviously right) that is not really the point.

But let’s be blunt here, because this is the point: no matter who Started It, if one team is benefiting from frequent on-ice altercations and dumb crap happening after the whistles, it’s the Flyers. The Pens are the ones who have Been Here Before, having won the last two Cups and all. They’d swept the Flyers on the season up until last night. And few would probably deny that the Penguins have a better lineup than the Flyers do. Hornqvist, Evgeni Malkin, and the Pens really have nothing to gain from being like this, which is to say that if the Flyers are able to get them to do it without taking excessive penalties and/or clearly crossing a line, more power to them.

And Pittsburgh knows this. Sidney Crosby (directly) and Mike Sullivan (slightly more indirectly) both essentially called Giroux’s hit on Letang dirty, with Crosby implying the Department of Player Safety should look at it closer. Those two both know that Giroux isn’t getting suspended for that hit (nor should he), but if they can get the refs in Games 3 to 7 paying a little more attention to whatever Giroux and the Flyers are up to, they’ve done all they need to do by bringing it up.

That may well work out for them. Maybe the refs will start seeing every scrum or big hit through yellow-colored glasses and hand out an extra two to the guys in orange. But if that balance of borderline calls isn’t tipping the Pens’ way, then every one of those scrums and big hits (things that, by the way, will inevitably happen in a playoff series between two teams that don’t like each other very much) that turns into something bigger is one that the Flyers will take running.


Stray thoughts:

  • Travis Konecny is good. That’s a hell of a way to tally your first playoff point.
  • Some other playoff firsts: Patrick’s goal was his first playoff point, as was Provorov’s first assist.
  • The numbers didn’t love them, but I thought that Sanheim and MacDonald had a pretty good evening.
  • The numbers also didn’t love Brandon Manning and Radko Gudas, which makes sense, because I did not think they had a pretty good evening. What was the deal with starting that pair when you know Sullivan’s going to roll out Crosby’s line? I’m not the world’s biggest Robert Hagg fan, but I would like to see him draw in for one of those two at some point in this series.