With Philadelphia jumping out to a 2-0 lead against Pittsburgh in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, Game 3 was the Penguins best chance to flip the script and steal momentum. Instead, they grasped at straws and came up empty-handed.
First, let’s start by acknowledging the dirty little secret everyone has apparently ignored in all the excitement of this series: the goaltending is atrocious. Regardless of which team advances out of this series, they’ll end up going home in the next round unless their goalie removes his head from his butt.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s examine the exact moment the Penguins accepted that they couldn’t beat the Flyers.
There were just under eight minutes remaining in the 1st period. Danny Briere had just scored his second goal of the period to give Philadelphia a 3-1 lead; a lead that came after the Flyers erased another early deficit. Trailing by two with over 45 minutes of game time remaining, the Penguins inexplicably got desperate. Toward the end of a fracas that was dying down, NHL superstar and world-class princess Sidney Crosby pushed a glove away from Jakub Voracek just as he leaned down to pick it up. More fights ensued. Crosby and Claude Giroux went fisticuffs and Kris Letang pummeled Kimmo Timonen. As someone who’s watched playoff hockey for my entire life, the Penguins actions were clear: We can’t beat you, so we’re going to take you off your game.
We’ve all seen it before. Sometimes, it even works. Shift a team’s focus to retribution and violence and they’ll lose sight of the things that made them so successful; discipline, hard work, capitalizing on opportunities. Personally, I didn’t have a problem with Pittsburgh’s approach.
However, it was too early for Pittsburgh to lose hope and get that desperate and here’s why: 1. The Flyers defense has been less than stellar throughout the series. More importantly, Ilya Bryzgalov has been downright awful. Anytime Pittsburgh gets the puck on net, Bryzgalov looks panicked and completely out of whack. He’s surrendered easy goals and made simple saves look complicated. At no point should Pittsburgh been worried about the Flyers running away with the game. Second, and most important of all, this Flyers team LIVES for the UFC style atmosphere. Why on earth would a finesse team like the Penguins ENCOURAGE the Flyers to engage in a chippy style of play… in Philadelphia no less? It’s absurd.
(In case you’ve never been to a Philadelphia sporting event or never lived in the Philadelphia sports culture, you should know there’s only one thing that gets a Philly crowd more revved up than winning; Violence. It’s true. When Flyers games get chippy, the crowd is at its best. When the Phillies clear the dugouts, The Bank rocks like it’s the World Series. The only time the 76ers get a raucous crowd is when elbows are flying and bodies are hitting the floor. And Eagle fans? They don’t even need the violence on the field to stir the pot. They provide their own in the stands. So again, the dumbest thing Pittsburgh did yesterday was invite the Flyers and 20,000 rabid fans to join them in a game of ice hockey – Broad Steet style.)
In addition to foolishly playing to Philadelphia’s strengths, the Penguins couldn’t get into any kind of rhythm. Each and every time the Penguins cut the Flyers lead back to a goal, the Flyers responded. When James Neal scored to make it 3-2, Matt Read scored 23 seconds later to bump the Flyers lead back to two. After Neal again cut the lead to one, Read scored less than four minutes later. And finally, after the Penguins trimmed the score to 5-4 on Jordan Staal’s score, Wayne Simmonds responded with 46 seconds left in the 2nd period to regain a two goal lead. The Penguins never recovered after that. For every punch Pittsburgh landed, they were met with a more devastating counter punch. The Flyers figuratively and literally beat the life out of the Penguins in every facet of the game. When the Penguins found a little momentum, the Flyers squashed it.
In their failed and desperate attempts to get the Flyers off their game, the Penguins were the ones who lost focus, resorting to cowardly buffoonery instead. First came the cheap shot to the neck of Sean Couturier from Arron Asham. Then James Neal delivered a suspension-worthy hit against a defenseless Brayden Schenn. And finally, it was Craig Adams jumping Scottie Hartnell from behind while Hartnell was engaged in a wrestling match with Sidney Crosby. Seriously, nice job Pittsburgh. You redefined “gutless.”
Sunday’s Game 3 was the testiest game in what has propably been the Flyers testiest playoff series since Eric Lindros was mugged, beaten, and battered by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the ‘90’s. But what’s even more enjoyable than the excessive goal-scoring and the flying fists is that whatever the Penguins do in hopes of gaining an edge not only fails, but they find themselves getting beat in a different fashion as well. And at this point, I’m not even sure they know how badly they’ve been dominated.
Case in point: After Kris Letang finished beating down Kimmo Timonen (who is by no means a fighter), Letang was escorted off the ice but not before he looked at the Flyers crowd and put his index finger to his lips. Uhh, what? Someone needs to remind Mr. Letang he only won a minor battle in a war dominated by the Flyers. So shhhhh, Kris Letang. Shhhhh.
1. I think the Flyers respond to Pittsburgh so well because they absolutely, unequivocally hate the Penguins. The Flyers are just as focused on making the Penguins suffer as they are on winning. It just so happens that completing one objective accomplishes the other.
2. As bad as Bryzgalov has been, he’s been relatively solid in the 3rd period, surrendering only one goal in three games. Perhaps Bryzgalov is saving his best stuff for when he thinks his team really needs it? That makes complete sense, right? Right?
3. Perhaps my favorite moment from Game 3: Craig Berube coaching Wayne Simmonds on exactly how to handle James Neal after Neal took a run at Brayden Shenn. It was a terrific exchange and NBC did a great job of capturing it. Sadly, Berube wasn’t eligible to deliver the message himself.