When the Philadelphia Flyers fell behind 3-0 to the Pittsburgh Penguins in a somewhat nightmarish first period Wednesday night in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, one had to wonder if the Pens' season-ending 4-2 win had finally reversed Pittsburgh's Philly Phobia at the CONSOL Energy Center. Sure, Peter Laviolette had rested leading-scorer Claude Giroux and starting goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov in that game, but Pittsburgh seemed to try and feed off their new-found home momentum.
The cross-state rivals from the East had won the first five meetings since the Penguins' unveiled their new state-of-the-art digs to begin the 2010-11 season. Anytime you can go 5-0-0 in an arch-rival's barn like the Flyers had done, it gives you a decided advantage. Especially when you have to open a playoff round in that very building.
But after the way the remainder of the night played out, it appears Pittsburgh is still wrestling with their confidence at home when the Orange-and-Black pay a visit.
After two Danny Briere goals and another from rookie Brayden Schenn incredibly tied the game after regulation, Jakub Voracek shocked the home crowd by knocking a loose puck from the slot past Marc-Andre Fleury just 2:23 into overtime to cap off a frenzied Philadelphia comeback. It's almost as if you could see the demons the Penguins have battled regarding the Flyers and CONSOL quickly began to dance in their heads again.
The situation really has to have become something of a mental block right now for Pittsburgh, much the same way it was in reverse order a few years back for the John Stevens-led Flyers. They bowed out to the Penguins in successive postseasons in 2008 and 2009, the last times these two teams met in the playoffs.
The Philadelphia win also squarely placed the pressure for Friday night's Game 2 on the Pens, who obviously do not want to head to South Philly for Sunday's meeting down 2-0 in the best-of-seven series.
Some key observations from Game 1:
It's actually a shame this is a first round matchup. These are two of the best teams in all of hockey, and to think one of them will be going home this early in the spring is a travesty.
The Flyers have shown they just do not know when to quit. Literally. The club has gone 52 of the past 56 games without having a lead in the game's first 10 minutes, yet somehow they've shown the resiliency to come back and get the job done in the end. Philadelphia had overcome a 3-0 lead and picked up at least a point on four occasions during the regular season -- December 2nd at Anaheim (4-3 OT Win), December 7th at Buffalo (5-4 OT Win), February 25th at Calgary (5-4 OT Win), and March 31st at home against Ottawa (4-3 Shootout Loss) -- the most times to come back from 3-0 deficits by any team in the League, and now they've done it in their first playoff contest. Huge confidence-builder moving forward.
In his first game back from an upper back injury courtesy of a Joe Vitale hit on April 1, Briere continued to live up to his reputation as being a big game-type player. Yes, he was clearly offsides on the first goal in which he beat Fleury up high on a breakaway, but as he had done late in the regular campaign -- Briere had two goals and nine points in the five contests before his injury -- he brought his A-game for the postseason. That's huge for a Philly team that, after a few veterans who have won the Stanley Cup, has some shortcomings in postseason experience.
The Flyers' slow start in Game 1 could have been for any number of reasons, but the fact that Philly possesses six rookies (Schenn, Matt Read, Sean Couturier, Eric Wellwood, Marc-Andre Bourdon, Zac Rinaldo) and many new faces -- 12 of the 19 players to suit up last night were not on the Flyers' roster last year -- may have something to do with it. Big contributors like Voracek and Wayne Simmonds have very little playoff background -- just four and 12 career postseason games, respectively -- but the fact they were able to withstand the nerves and supply the club with play that far exceeded their ages shows much about the way this team is gelling and coming of age. There is a lot of the mid-1980's Flyers in the current version, and those teams twice were on the very cusp of adding a third Cup victory to the proud franchise's rich history. Will this year's Flyers start a similar trend?
He had allowed three goals in the first, but Bryzgalov hadn't played badly. Sidney Crosby beat him with a perfectly place backhander to the top corner, Tyler Kennedy's quick release on an odd-man rush with Jordan Staal was basically unstoppable, and Pascal Dupuis' fluky squibber in the opening period's final minute was akin to some of the crazy goals scored against the Flyers' number one netminder earlier in the season. Bryzgalov settled down and looked like the dominating force he proved to be from the start of February through the rest of the year. He stayed with the puck, kept his shoulders square to the shooters, and gave up no rebounds on the 15 shots he faced in shutting down the NHL's top regular season offense over the last two periods and overtime. He even made a difficult arm save in the third period on a deflected shot just in front of him. As written here early Wednesday, this is Bryzgalov's time to make his mark as a successful postseason starting goalie, something he had not been able to establish while with the Phoenix Coyotes. To that end, he got off to a good start in doing so Wednesday night.
The 20-year-old Schenn was a force, not only scoring the all-important game-tying goal with just 7:37 remaining in regulation, but also assisting on both of Briere's goals -- all while providing a physical presence. On two seperate occasions, Schenn was run at by Pittsburgh forwards -- in the first period by Matt Cooke, and in the third by Craig Adams -- and both times, the Pens' player was the one who ended up on the ice, having bounced off of Schenn's balanced frame. There's no doubt the 'Burgh is still steaming over Schenn's retaliatory shove to Crosby's back on April 1, but it appears they will be looking for any to take a shot at the Flyers' rookie.
Concentration spent on that mission seems to play right into the game plan that Scott Hartnell had described recently about making the Pens concentrate on things other than scoring goals and winning games. That seemed to be part of the situation for the turnaround in play Wednesday, as the physical aspect of the game was off the charts. The final hit parade count ended at 39-35 in favor of the Flyers, who are basically looking to wear down the skilled Pittsburgh squad. Hartnell led all skaters with eight hits, while Simmonds had seven. Chris Kunitz recorded a team-high six for the Pens.
The officiating...well, let's just say it left something to be desired. The game's opening moments produced what appeared to be a missed Penguins' offsides play that nearly ended up as a Pittsburgh goal; a blown icing call, apparently waived off at the last moment for some unknown reason, directly led to Dupuis' tally; Briere was at least a foot offsides when he took Schenn's pass for a breakaway to give the Flyers some kind of a heartbeat, precipitating the comeback.
There were missed penalty calls both ways as the officials appeared to be letting them play, only to blow the whistle on marginal (at best) calls to Giroux (called boarding when Brooks Orpik fumbled the puck and turned his back at the last second), Jaromir Jagr (Crosby-initiated contact from Jagr's back, laced with the superstar's patented embellished head whip that leaves Flyers fans irate and officials desperately reaching for their whistle), and Rinaldo. Rinaldo's penalties over the past two games against the Pens have wreaked of the officiating crew looking for any opportunity to get him off the ice in some type of paranoid frenzy. Laviolette may need to assess whether the benefits of having Rinaldo and his physical play in the lineup outweighs the growing detraction as this series progresses, as the animosity undoubtedly grows for both teams with each passing contest.
It was only when Orpik attempted to drill Briere through the outer CONSOL Energy Center wall with a hit -- where he appeared to be launched out of a cannon as the unsuspecting centerman came around the net -- did the Pens finally get nailed for a penalty, the only transgression called during the rough and tumble 62+ minutes of play. The determination? Two minutes for interference. The good karma came when Schenn potted his GTG on Philly's only power play of the tilt.
The Flyers' special teams came up with a perfect showing on both their only power play opportunity, as well as killing off all three Pens' man advantages.
Fleury made just 22 shots in dropping yet another decision against the Flyers. The netminder was a poor 1-3-1 versus Philly this year, and the Penguins' defense didn't give him too much help last night, allowing the Flyers to have several breakaway chances.
Looking ahead to Friday's Game 2, it's not an absolute must-win game for Pittsburgh, but it is very close. The Flyers proved against the Pens they could lose the first two games at home then come back to win a series during the 2000 Eastern Conference Semis. If you recall that one, Philadelphia managed a meager one goal in the two contests. The turning point came late in Game 2, when four of the Flyers on the ice -- Rick Tocchet, Craig Berube, Daymond Langkow, and Luke Richardson -- engaged the Penguins in a fight that would shift the momentum. The Flyers won the next two games in Pittsburgh (both in OT, including Keith Primeau's five-OT classic in Game 4), then took Games 5 and 6 to clinch the series.
If Philadelphia is able to grab a lead in Game 2, don't be surprised to see the Pens attempt a similar tactic.
This Penguins team is much deeper and better than that Flyers squad, and for anyone to think Philly locked up its ticket to the second round with one exciting come-from-behind victory is sadly mistaken. This looks like it could be a marathon series, and all Philadelphia has accomplished thus far is win the first leg.