PHILADELPHIA -- "Jake!"
The captain called out to the kid.
Dominik Simon, one of the two kids flanking Sidney Crosby on this Wednesday night, had just dumped the puck into the Philadelphia zone. The callout wasn't for him, obviously.
"Not me," Simon would clarify for me later. "All I did was push it ahead."
Crosby hightailed it after that puck like a hyped-up teen, reaching the end boards before any Flyers and tapping it into the trapezoid. And upon seeing Jake Guentzel shove his way through, he made that call.
"When Sid wants your attention," Guentzel would tell me, "he gets it."
Meaning both the attention and the puck. Guentzel had been knotted up with the Flyers' Ivan Provorov, so he gave a kick with the outside of his right boot to send it Crosby's way.
No one saw what was coming next. And by no one, I mean Crosby, who not-at-all-coincidentally slipped to the side of the crease and, with everyone else fixated to the left, he coolly collected and deposited from the right:
I swear, if Crosby hadn't casually raised his left arm in an attempt to help the referees realized he'd scored, that play might still be unfolding.
"Did you see that?" Guentzel would ask back. "So Sid. Like it was nothing."
It wasn't nothing, though. Or at least it shouldn't have felt that way.
It was smart and skillful at the level we should expect, if never take for granted, from this extraordinary athlete.
It was accompanied by humility to match, also never to be taken for granted, as he'd speak before the cameras and microphones: "I was just lucky the puck was kind of laying there on my side of the net."
It was a milestone, and a major one at that. He'd just passed Mario Lemieux as the franchise's all-time top playoff scorer with 173 points. Even he hadn't realized that in the moment, saying almost apologetically, "Honestly, I was thinking about the game."
The game should have felt most significant as related to this goal, right?
It shored up a 5-0 shutout that put the Flyers on the precipice of planning yet another April on the local links. It was a Game 4, which everyone loves to call the most pivotal of any Stanley Cup playoff series. It happened in Philly. It happened to a franchise that's forever employed miscreants and endorsed misbehavior like Matt Read's blindside slash on the back of Derick Brassard's knee in the waning minutes of the third period:
One former Flyer witnessed this from the press box, laughed slightly and labeled it "a love tap."
So yeah, I'll go ahead and blurt this out, too: That Crosby goal also took a symbolic leak all over the fans who booed or cussed at his every possession, never mind those who planted pictures of him in arena urinals before Game 3.
All told, my goodness, this should have have been glorious.
But it felt like nothing of the kind. And that, my friends, is because this series is a colossal dud. One that deserves to die the earliest death possible.
There's nothing left but the handshake line. The Penguins can't say that, but I sure can.
For one, they're firing it back up on so many fronts right now. Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are at simulcast-superstar level. Phil Kessel appeared to rejoin them for Game 4, so confident and back to shooting. Kris Letang, his backbreaking goal aside, is back to being a 25-minute beast. Matt Murray's 26 saves brought his fourth shutout in the past six playoff games, and he just became the fastest goaltender in NHL history to 25 victories. The power play is back. Even the penalty-kill is back. And at five-on-five, Philadelphia's star counterparts have been reduced to arena vendor level.
For another, the intangibles are just oozing. Check this out from Mike Sullivan at the postgame podium, even if it's a little long: "We have a battle-tested group. We’ve got great leadership. There hasn’t been much that they haven’t been through, so they have that experience to draw on, and it gives them that perspective. Usually, if we need a momentum change or something of that nature, it’s our leadership group that goes out there with a second-effort shift. It’s an important part of winning, The resilience at this time of the year and your ability to handle the adversities, the ebbs and flows of not only the game but of a series, is such a critical part of learning how to win in a pressure environment like the playoffs."
For yet another, these guys are about to take their ninth consecutive series over these past three seasons, and this will have been the most lopsided, the least competitive of them all. In fact, in flipping back through franchise history, I couldn't come up with a single series that I recalled as appearing easier on the road to a championship.
Sure, there were three sweeps among those 20 series: But the Bruins and Blackhawks were swept in the final two series of 1992 and both, particularly Chicago, were as competitive as one would expect in those late rounds. Same goes for the sweep of the Hurricanes in the Eastern final in 2009.
None of those were like this.
Set aside a bizarre Game 2 in which every conceivable bounce and break went the Flyers' way, and the Penguins have stampeded through the other three games by a combined score of 17-1. They've dominated possession at a 61 percent rate, they've amassed a 124-97 edge in shots even with the Flyers stressing shot quantity above quality, they've outmatched the Flyers in every positional and special teams facet, and the goaltending ... let's just say the Flyers' cumulative goaltending has been embarrassingly, historically incompetent.
Goaltenders used: 3
Goals-against average: 4.52
Save percentage: .854
Sergei Bobrovsky would blush at those figures.
But storyline context paints an even crueler picture because, to fully appreciate the impact of Brian Elliott alone conceding 14 goals on 97 shots, including three more on 17 shots in Game 4, it's critical to know that his teammates had been buzzing the Pittsburgh zone for several minutes like starving piranhas, only to lapse the other way:
"That was during a stretch where we’re pushing and doing a lot of good things," Philadelphia's coach, Dave Hakstol, fairly observed. "They have that ability to come back and sting you real quick when you give them a puck in that area of the ice.”
Sure. Unless the goaltender comes up with a playoff-level save, like the one Murray produced on Travis Konecny's breakaway late in the first period. In the regular season, those are welcome. In the playoffs, they're more mandatory than not.
Malkin and Kessel made a "good play," as Hakstol credited. But to give up that goal at that time after the Flyers had finally built up real momentum, by far their best of the series ... that's a soul-crusher.
Elliott appeared to recognize that in saying, "We had some pressure there and then, you know, they end up with kind of a two-on-one. Obviously, I want to make that save and keep us in the game there, but I didn’t."
But then he sounded borderline delusional when answering if he approved of Hakstol pulling him after the third goal, Letang's short-side snapper in the second: "I mean, definitely, I felt like I was playing pretty good."
Well, at least the garbage goaltending was a given entering the series. Some of the rest has been a genuine surprise. Claude Giroux, a 102-point Hart Trophy candidate in the regular season, has one assist and a minus-7 rating to show for four playoff games. Jakub Voracek, an 85-point producer, has two assists and has seldom been seen near a puck. Ivan Provorov, one the NHL's most prolific defenseman with 17 goals, has none in the playoffs and -- get this -- just six shots.
That list runs as long as the stripe down Broad Street.
Hakstol, much more the cerebral type than many of the bench bosses here over the decades, tried after this to analyze with depth and detail. But he, as I'm guessing applies to most of us, didn't get far.
"We haven’t been able to sustain any momentum pushes," he'd say, probably referring to the two they've had through all four games. "We haven’t been able to sustain that through a 60-minute game."
Nope. Fishing the puck out of one's net is a miserable momentum-killer.
Seriously, man, end this farce. As in Friday.
I'm done picking on the Flyers. This is about the Penguins, inasmuch as they have everything to gain by attaching hard urgency to Game 5 and more to lose than one might think should they blow it.
Again, they can't say this, but I sure can: The Capitals or Blue Jackets line up next in the bracket, and they're currently busy pounding each other to dust, with all three of their games having gone to overtime, the third of those at double-overtime, and with both being among the NHL's most physical teams.
Everyone inside hockey watches the playoffs. The Penguins have noticed, and I'll bet the Flyers have, too. Whoever emerges from this series could do so with a significant edge, but doubly so for the Penguins if this can end sooner.
As in Friday.
Which sure sounded like the mindset Wednesday when I brought it up with Jamie Oleksiak and Carl Hagelin:
All of that sounds good, but that same flip back through franchise history shows the Penguins haven't been great at this in their two most recent championship runs: They're 8-6 when there's a chance to put away an opponent, including 4-4 last year and, most conspicuously, losing a Game 6 to both the Capitals and Senators that made winning Game 7 a must. Even in the first round, after they'd taken the first three from the Blue Jackets, they lost Game 4 and had to pour it on in Game 5 to advance.
"Wow, no, we have not been good at this, have we?" Tom Kuhnhackl replied to my bringing this up. "That's got to change."
It does, but none of those cases is like this one. This series is awful. There's no telling what lies ahead, but it's a rock-solid certainty at this second that gaining additional rest -- not to mention recovery for Patric Hornqvist, Kessel, Brassard and others with injuries -- would be quite the coup. While at the same time, wasting 2-3 more days on the wrong end of the commonwealth would be silly.
The late Bob Johnson, coach of the Penguins' first championship, had all kinds of pet phrases he'd repeat almost daily to his players. One of those was that, to win the Cup, somewhere along the way, there had to be at least one short series. And sure enough, that team had a five-game second-round set with the Capitals. In 1992, the sweep of the Bruins in the conference final led into the sweep of the Blackhawks in the final. In 2009, the sweep of the Hurricanes in the conference final led into the seven-game outlasting of the older Red Wings. In 2016, it was the Rangers in five. Last spring, it was the Blue Jackets in five.
I asked Guentzel how much the Penguins would want to end this in five.
"Want?" he came back. "No, we need to."
MATT SUNDAY GALLERY
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