The road to redemption began on April 18, 2012, in Philadelphia with a do-or-die situation for the Pittsburgh Penguins as they found themselves 0-3 in the #4/#5-Seed series. To be sure, this has to be one of the most bizarre series in Penguin history if not in the NHL’s history. It has left longtime hockey pundits shaking their heads.
Games 1 & 2 – “And they’re…off!”
The minute the puck dropped in the series, it was clear that something was amiss. Generally, Game 1 in a series plays out more like a careful chess match into the first two periods as each team tests the strengths and weaknesses of their opponent. Then, in Game 2, the teams open up more and settle in for the long battle ahead. This was not the case for the Pens and Flyers as it felt more like watching a high octane race at Talladega than a hockey game. Non-stop, high speed skating end to end exposed sloppy play, no gap control in the defensive end and an out and out pinball game in the neutral zone. It was a heartbreaking OT loss and would be, to date, the lowest scoring game, ending at 4-3, advantage Flyers. One reason for this could be the way the regular season schedule was constructed. These two teams played twice against each other in the previous week. With that in mind, the chess match was dispensed with in favor of a blistering pace that exposed defenses and goaltenders at both ends in Game 1. In Game 2, the scales titled heavily in favor of the Flyers as they demoralized and embarrassed in an 8-5 rout. The Malkin line was collective -13 (the team ended at a -21) despite Chris Kunitz having 2 goals and linemates James Neal and Evgeni Malkin chipping in with 2 assists each.
Game 3 – “Ding, ding, ding!!”
Shades of that New York Islander debacle of last season lowlighted Game 3 and in very unflattering ways for the Penguins who ammassed 89 of the total 158 penalty minutes clocked. Not much hockey was played, but enough to make it all sting even more as the Pens lost 8-4. As fans and Penguin analysts in town alike watched the events unfold, their mouths gaping in total disbelief, one thing was clear: the Penguins seemed to have come completely unhinged, seemed to have forgotten what it meant to be a Penguin — playing the right way, dictating play, staying above the fray while maintaining a physical presence (did I mention playing the right way, Coach Bylsma’s mantra?). Most sickening was watching Sidney Crosby engage in a quasi-fight with the bigger Claude Giroux. I don’t know about you, but all I could do was fix on Sid’s head, hoping I would not see Giroux connect. But it also immediately brought to mind that Sid’s actions and his comments afterward only seemed to validate Mike Milberry’s scathing characterization of the Pens Captain on a Philly morning radio show not too many days before. Just as disturbing were the lackluster, post-game interviews where both Coach Bylsma and team captain seemed unwilling to completely admit how wrong they were, peppered by subtle implications that the refs were somehow at fault. It was disappointing.
In all three games, the names of Couturier, Schenn, Simmonds, Hartnell, Carle, Giroux, Talbot, Jagr, Briere, and Voracek were repeated over and over and over again in the color commentary when actual hockey was being played. Like Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Bells,” those names kept ringing out louder and seemingly louder with every maddeningly painful minute that passed. The Penguins seemed to disappear.
Game 4 — We Don’t Like You Very Much Either…MORE!
Off the ice, Philly fans were rabid. They smelled the blood of a colony of Penguins, and they were hungry. The t-shirts were printed, “We Don’t Like You Very Much” and other unflattering emblems of their loathing for the team and even more so for Captain Sid erupted. The Penguins were embarrassed. The fans were embarrassed.
But if anyone has been paying attention to this group of guys over the past few seasons, they know one thing: no matter how deep the hole, how dire the situation may be, they find a way to to reach into themselves and recover.
And recover they did…in Philadelphia.
Jordan Staal has always risen to the occasion in the playoffs, and he was due. The Man of Dutch Steel played a superior game in all areas. He was physical on the puck in the offensive and defensive zones. He harried puck carriers through the neutral zones and dominated in the faceoff circle with a respectable 15 wins out of 23 (65%) to earn him the #1 Star.
Evgeni Malkin, who disappeared in the first three games and entered Game 4 at a disappointing -3, opened the Pens’ scoring with a sweet garbage clean-up around Ilya Bryzgalov, and he put an exclamation point on the night to a half-empty arena by breaking double digits, scoring the 10th and final goal, earning the #2 Star.
Marc Andre Fleury was bearing the brunt of a wide range of criticism, and while in the series, he let in a few soft goals and seemed very uneasy, Brooks Orpik manned up in interviews and told it like it also was — they had left him out to dry. Anyone who understands the goaltending position either in soccer or hockey understands that the goalie must square to the shooter on an odd-man break. That means his defender must take away the pass. In the first three games, the defender back with Fleury kept moving to the shooter and usually doing so late. The puck carrier had an easy pass to the backdoor partner, and Fleury had no chance to push off and set up high enough to cut off the angle. It was maddening. In Game 4, Fleury was a bit shaky in the first period, but he (and his team who came back to help him) weathered the early storm. With every passing minute and every passing goal (on first Bryzgalov and then Bobrovsky), Fleury grew stronger and kept the Flyers to their lowest goal production of 3.
So what changed besides their attitude?
- Coach Bylsma made the brilliant choice of going with seven D-men, which leant itself to keeping fresh legs in front of Fleury and provided the luxury of keeping Flyer Coach Peter Laviolette out of sync because of the combinations Bylsma was able to create.
- Likewise on the offensive end, going with his three strong centers, Crosby, Malkin and Staal, Bylsma was able to perpetuate those mismatches with the wingers that flanked them.
- The F3 forward, no matter who it was, made sure to hustle back to neutralize any thoughts Philly had of getting odd-man breaks.
- The return of Matt Niskanen and the addition of Simon Depres and Brian Strait really injected fresh energy and a mad eagerness to make Philly pay. Niskanen played probably his best game of the year, earning the #3 Star.
- Blueliners began scoring. Niskanen and Letang each had a goal and Niskanen figured in Crosby’s goal from his fiery shot at the blueline, tipped in by his captain.
- Where the bizarre changes made to the power play upon Sid’s return to the team in the closing weeks of the season proved to be a failed experiment, reinserting Steve Sullivan to QB the powerplay entry with Mat Niskanen or Kris Letang on the blue line was the right decision. Keeping Sid down low when Geno was on the power play with him also created nervousness for the Philly netminders who had to try to keep track of him. Thhis also opened up the ice out front, and the results are unquestionably proof that Bylsma has found a formula that works. The Pens notched a decent 4 goals on 13 power play opportunities, and more importantly, no…shorthanded…goals by Philly.
Don’t count these guys out. Philly certainly hasn’t. As those names of Couturier, Schenn, Simmonds, Hartnell, Carle, Giroux, Talbot, Jagr, Briere, and Voracek from the first three games faded to a whisper in Game 4, as Bryzgalov was chased from the net, and the raucous crowd collapsed into a whimper that night, they have only just experienced the sleeping giant that was and can be the Penguins.
The boys in black and gold need to be vigilant in tonight’s game, building off their Game 4 performance, stretching the ice, defending their space…playing the right way. It will be no surprise to see Game 5 tighten up in a latent chess match. On one hand, it could be another weird high-scoring game, but the gap could also be more like 1 or 2 goals rather than 4 or even 7.
These two teams do not like each other. That much is true. It remains to be seen how they convert that dislike into success. For the Penguins, they only have Game 5.