For all those Christopher Walken fans who remember him as the angel of death in Prophecy, watching Penguin Mad Max Talbot put an index finger to his lips, with a little knowing smile to the Philly fans as he said “shhhhhhh” was the the kiss of death for the Flyers.
On the heels of a fight with Flyers’ tough guy, Dan Carcillo, Talbot’s atonement for a goal-costing mistake earlier in the game proved to be the wake-up call for a team that had played hard, but found themselves down 3-0 barely five minutes into the 2nd period. Coach Dan Bylsma said of the fight, “I think Max Talbot really changed the momentum with that,” referring to the fact that the Philly fans were really into the game and extemely loud. Defenseman Sergei Gonchar concurred, “Yeah, it’s one of those things. Fight starts and things start going your way.”
Entering the first intermission, the Penguins were down 2-0 and having to start the 2nd period on the penalty kill. Danny Briere found the back of the Penguin net as Evgeni Malkin looked on from the sin bin to make it 3-0. Enough was enough. If Penguins fans were scanning their team’s bench looking for a hero, Mad Max might not have been their first choice, but here’s a guy who has a lot of heart, a lot of drive, and he lays it out, all out, on the ice every game in any way he can. Carcillo was due anyway. He was the one who received the 1-game suspension earlier in the series on a shot to Talbot’s head in the final seconds of that game.
When asked about the timing of the fight, Talbot replied, “I think it was the right time. The crowd was into it. Sometimes it’s gonna work. Sometimes you lose momentum. This time it gave it a little bit of momentum.” The momentum started with Ruslan Fedotenko breaking out of his 5-year playoff goal-scoring slump with his net presence on some hard work by linemate Malkin.
Not to be outdone, just a shade under two minutes later, Mark Eaton scored on a screamer of a shot through a collectively strong shift, joining the rush with linemates of the moment Tyler Kennedy and Fedotenko during a 4-on-4 situation that happened as a result of the earlier goal and a melee in front of Biron’s net. The crowd was no longer into it. All the energy was coming from the Penguins bench, and they were cyphoning it off the Flyers bench.
Captain Sidney Crosby evened it up, and it was clear that the Penguins were steam-rolling. Coach Bylsma’s mantra to his team throughout the game was an admonishment of patience, “Keep playing the right way. Stay focused for 60 minutes.” For Sergei Gonchar, he got the monkey off his back, scoring what would end up being the game-winner, his first goal in 29 playoff games. The collective sigh of relief could be felt on the Penguins bench comingled with the rejuvenation of the team.
Crosby’s empty-netter after Philly pulled Biron to add the extra attacker was a thing of beauty. His first attempt did not go as he was in hot pursuit by a back-checking Flyer, but the puck bounced his way as he buzzed around the net and laid it in on the second chance, leaving 28 seconds on the clock.
The biggest element–character. That’s according to Max Talbot, “a lot of character.” It’s no surprise to Penguins fans, particularly in the last two seasons. Last year, they battled through an unbelievable number of injuries, including lengthy ones to Crosby and Fleury around mid-season. The talking heads said the team would be lucky if they could manage to stay around.500. In Malkin’s mind, that was unacceptable because he literally took the team on his shoulders, and his drive was infectious. The team pulled together and put themselves high in the playoff rankings. And then they battled the Giant Detroit Red Wings. No one expected them to be there.
The character of that group of guys, their never-say-die attitude even when things look bad is a testament to their heart. There’s no quit in them. Certainly not in Philadelphia on Saturday as they came roaring back with 5 unanswered goals. Coach Bylsma said of this series and of his team, “Huge test. Huge character for our team. Down 3-0 in this building. I think that says a lot about our group…When the team plays the right way, it gives different guys an opportunity to score.”
- The right fight at the right time. Something like that in a high-stakes game is always a gamble, but for those supporters of taking fighting out of the game, if they are honest in their assessment of how the game subsequently unfolded, they would be hard-pressed to disagree with it.
- The Staal line. While their offensive numbers are not earth-shattering in this series (2G, 4A collectively), they have become a forechecking nightmare. Consistently throughout this series, with the exception of Game 3, they have kept the Flyers in their end for seemingly interminable chunks of time, wearing players down. These three have accounted for 58 shots (29% of the team’s shots) and 33 hits (20% of the team’s hits). Jordan Staal remains strong on the face-off averaging 57% in this series, ranging from 50%-79% for five of the six games. More consistently than the other lines, they have been able to start and sustain cycles. On special teams, Cooke and Staal have been solid on the primary penalty kill, and Staal is overdue for a few short-handed goals.
- Other intangibles that boost a team. Gonchar and Fedotenko breaking out of their slump. Rob Scuderi’s gutsy continued play on a PK with what at first looked like a useless left arm, later determined to be a shot taken to the body with the left arm protecting. Goals from two defensemen. A power play that had a pulse and some chances on the net.
- Defensive Corps. Really, with a few exceptions in this series, the Penguins defensive corps of Brooks Orpik, Sergei Gonchar, Hal Gill, Rob Scuderi, Mark Eaton, and Kris Letang has been about as solid, unit for unit, as they have been all year. They have improved greatly from early to mid-season play when they looked slow, out of sync, and at times, uninterested. Orpik has always been a solid hitter, but he’s found another gear and the “pounding” per square inch is well nigh incalculable. Scuderi thinks nothing of giving up the body to block a shot, and the others have followed suit, particularly Letang and Eaton. Scuderi also shines as the lone defenseman in 5-on-3 situations. Gill has shown more speed and is gaining offensive confidence.
What Still Needs to Happen–Lessons for Round 2:
- Consistency. 60 minutes of focused play that “sticks to the plan.”
- Score First and Score Often. The Penguins do themselves no favors by getting behind in a game even if they are one of the top teams in the number of come-from-behind wins. Those kinds of games are psychologically as well as physically draining. The Flyers proved to be tough to beat when they get a lead, and other teams in the playoffs will be just as tough if not tougher. With a lead, teams will lock down in their zone with very agressive “outriders” in the neutral zone as the Flyers showed in this series. The Penguins need to keep the pedal to the metal no matter how many goals they score. They themselves proved that no lead is safe.
- Keep the Hits Coming. The Penguins are as physical a team as any when they decide to be, and when they knock bodies off the puck, they do so effectively, winning the majority of the battles on the boards. Another thing they started to do in the playoffs but got away from again are good, clean, crunching open-ice hits. They are not known for it, but they are good at it. If the opportunity presents itself, they should take it. Hits are just as exhausting to receive as they are to give, and the receiver usually finds himself hesitating a little too long, expecting a hit to come. Hits get in a guy’s head. This provides the perfect opportunity to win the puck and further punish the opponent through extended cycles.
- Drop-pass Sparingly. The Penguins became too predictable with the drop-pass. It wouldn’t hurt to fake a drop and then deke around a defender, and the Penguins have enough stick-skill to do this. Not only should the drop-pass be used sparingly, but it can’t happen high, dead-center inside the offensive blue line because it’s off to the races for the other team. If it has to happen there, the forward dropping the pass needs to linger on angle just long enough to screen without interfering, thus deterring a pick-off.
- More Net Presence. Of course, this requires someone to shoot on net in order to be effective. Net presence should come in any combination of standing up and screening the goalie, to buzzing around the net, to criss-crossing in front of it, all of this with shots, shots, shots.
- Power Play, Please. If the power-play does not improve, the Penguins will not get far. Given their strong cycling at even strength, it would be interesting to see what Jordan Staal and Tyler Kennedy could do with Geno, or even Guerin or Kunitz coming out as the first unit. This would give a different look and throw teams off. Keep the defensive pairing of Gonchar and Letang. Bring Crosby out with Kunitz and either Talbot, who can manage a winger spot, or Satan, who looked better in Game 6.
Finally, a word needs to be said about the Philadelphia Flyers. While Pittsburgh and Philadelphia fans love to hate each other and their respective teams, it cannot be disputed that any time these teams match up, people will get their money’s worth. Biron is a tough customer between the pipes. The likes of Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, the up-and-coming Claude Giroux, and tough guys Scott Hartnell and Dan Carcillo provide a gritty, hard-hitting force to be reckoned with. They should be commended for giving the Penguins early adversity, something they did not have to face in last year’s playoffs until the finals, showing that they truly are one of the top teams in the East.