“We don’t want to win this. We need to.”
It’s what Jake Guentzel had told me a couple days back in Philadelphia, and he was referring, of course, to Game 5 of this Stanley Cup series Friday night at PPG Paints Arena. He spoke it with a passion, too. So did several of his teammates, stressing how seriously they’d embrace this challenge, how much it always means to finish off a round at the first opportunity, all that good stuff.
Oh, for real.
Another charter to the wrong end of the commonwealth.
Another couple days without the extra breather every champion needs along the course.
Another chance for more bumps, bruises and injuries.
And wow, I haven’t even begun clearing my throat about everything there was to hate about this Game 5 performance from the home team’s perspective, so let’s load up five bullets and fire away:
• This wasn’t taken seriously.
Which is a hell of a thing.
I mean, it was fair for Mike Sullivan to assess afterward that the Penguins had some positives to their play, particularly in the second and third periods:
But implicit in the assessment was that they didn’t do nearly enough in the first. And that storyline started getting stale by, oh, mid-October.
In the latest chapter, they waited seven full minutes to put a single puck on a backup goaltender, Michal Neuvirth, who hadn’t started an NHL game since Feb. 18. This despite having buzzed the Philadelphia zone for the better part of that time. By first period’s end, Neuvirth was tested exactly five times.
“I don’t think it was there in the first,” Sidney Crosby bluntly stated, with the “it” being urgency. “I think we took a while to get into it.”
“I don’t think we shot the puck enough,” Sullivan would reply, with more specificity, to a general question about that period. “We had a number of opportunities, right above the circles, and we’re looking for a next play. A lot of times, that play doesn’t materialize.”
What if Derick Brassard had just hacked at that thing?
Add all those dubious decisions to the Penguins missing the net 14 times and having 14 other shots blocked, and it’s safe to say the total number of botched chances overwhelmed the 32 shots they officially registered.
When they did shoot, Bryan Rust was able to bank a puck off Neuvirth on a slow-developing backhand wrap, a visible sign of his own rust …
… and Guentzel slipped this long-range wrister through a five-hole big enough to have added an HOV lane:
Funny how that works.
Not shooting at anywhere near the rate of chances created is precisely what went wrong for the Penguins in that weird Game 2 when they managed the near-impossible in making the current edition of Brian Elliott look competent. And it’s happened throughout the season. It’s as if they adopt one of those four-pass rules to take it easy on the opponents’ JV.
“Especially early, I thought, we passed up some shots,” Justin Schultz said. “We’ve got to learn.”
That last line was accompanied by an audible sigh. I’ll bet the sentiment was shared by roughly 18,632 others in the building.
Seriously, guys, this isn’t complex: The Flyers can’t tend goal. But that doesn’t matter if they aren’t tasked with doing so.
• The Flyers might now think they can.
Meaning tend goal. They’ll ultimately be wrong, but even being able to believe that allows them to play a lot closer to their norm than they did in Games 1, 3 and 4, when Elliott’s flops would visibly deflate them.
To be sure, the Philadelphia locker room was overflowing with toasts to Neuvirth after this one, Shayne Gostisbehere going so far as to gush, “He’s a phenomenal goalie, a great player.”
Right. Which is why a franchise currently being run by its last great goaltender, Ron Hextall, kept him on the bench for four games while the starter was giving up flicks from Harrisburg.
Still, Neuvirth’s sprawling glove save on Crosby with 50.3 seconds left was breathtaking:
“Reaction,” Neuvirth explained in a single word.
“I got it up, too,” Crosby said.
The Flyers were rarely as bad through the regular season as they’d been in the first four games of this series, but they probably won’t be that bad from this point forward, in large part because they believe they’re better in goal. That’s a real factor.
• They’ve found a narrative, too.
As heroic athletic achievements go, Sean Couturier scoring the winning goal on a bum knee won’t rate up there with Willis Reed, Jack Youngblood, Bobby Baun or Kerri Strug’s golden vault on a broken ankle …
… but again, what counts is the effect on the Flyers themselves. And the mere sight of Couturier hitting the ice again after teammate Radko Gudas accidentally collided with his knee in practice Tuesday, never mind the exclamation he put on this game, that went over even bigger than Neuvirth.
“The guys know what Sean means to our team,” Dave Hakstol, the coach, would say. “So to have him score that goal means even more.”
The goal itself was unremarkable, aside from who scored it and when, with 1:15 left:
There isn’t much of a case for credit or blame on that odd sequence. It begins with the puck vanishing in Rust’s skates on the breakout — “I didn’t really know where it was,” he’d explain — and it was followed by Couturier trying to pass to Scott Laughton near the crease, only to have his feed change directions off Brian Dumoulin’s left skate and past Matt Murray.
“Yeah, they had a guy in front, so I kind of shifted over there,” Murray would say of Laughton. “It happens. That’s hockey.”
So is losing like this when a lesser opponent is allowed to hang around.
“It’s a close game, so anything can happen,” Crosby said. “They got the bounce.”
I’m guessing you’ll recall that the last time the Penguins blew a 3-1 series lead, to the Rangers three years ago, New York’s players rallied around Martin St. Louis losing his mom. Not to make light of that, but it’s common through the playoffs. Coaches, players and fans embrace a cause.
I’m not suggesting Couturier will become a force in this series. The man could barely move, even in warmups. But I’ll repeat: Nonetheless.
• A clinching game was handed to the NHL’s No. 1 power play, then thrown away.
Sullivan worded it this way: “I thought our power play had an opportunity to be the difference. It wasn’t.” But a solid counter could be that it actually was the difference. Because the Penguins had five power plays to the Flyers’ one, they generated zero goals and four total shots and, as ketchup on that hot dog, they gave up this silly short-handed goal by Valtteri Filppula late in the second period for a 2-2 tie:
I’d love to have found out what Phil Kessel could have been thinking with that lateral pass inside the Philadelphia blue line for the giveaway, but he doesn’t like facing cameras and microphones in the best of times, never mind when it’s a negative.
That left others to answer for him:
Sullivan sounded less displeased with the giveaway than what followed. Because, as the coach underscored, “That was a two-on-two coming back,” until it wasn’t because Kessel was out of gas. And that was because the top unit had completed only one change a minute into that power play, with Schultz going off for Kris Letang. Everyone else was gassed, and it’s not like Letang handled it masterfully, either.
“I’d have liked to have seen some fresher bodies out there,” Sullivan continued.
The extended stays for the top unit have become the norm. They were out for nearly the full two minutes for one session in Game 3.
The giveaways are common, too, more on this night than most. Guentzel had one on the power play, too. So did Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. And in every case but one — Guentzel’s could be forgiven because it was a miscommunication and because he’s filling for injured Patric Hornqvist — the body language all-around betrayed them.
That’s been my gauge for this power play all season, by the way: When they’re bearing down, strong on the stick, authoritative in their passes and moving, moving, moving, they’re close to unstoppable.
And when they aren’t doing those things …
“I just didn’t think we had a lot of movement,” Sullivan observed. “I thought it was stagnant.”
Exhibit A was the four-on-three power play in the second period that might as well have been an audition for ‘Frozen:’
If you’re not seeing movement in that GIF, don’t adjust your app.
The power play has been an extraordinary plus for the Penguins. It will be that again. But it can still be so much smarter.
• Another game adds to the attrition.
Malkin is “fine,” Sullivan insisted after Malkin was briefly knocked out of the game late in the first period by Jori Lehtera falling on his left leg, and that appeared to be the case as he returned for the second and soon resumed skating in peak form.
Back to breathing, everybody.
But one of the biggest losses within this loss is that another guaranteed 60 minutes amplifies the risk of injury for everyone. As opposed to, you know, taking the weekend to put the feet up, relax and mend. Malkin could have used it. And Kessel. And undoubtedly a bunch more. And if Hornqvist ends up hurrying back — he was skating in a non-contact sweater earlier in the day — that’s a risk, too.
Also, so much for that extra edge in the next round.
The Blue Jackets and Capitals, the next opponent in this bracket, have their own Game 5 Saturday night in Washington and are bound to keep beating each other senseless, on top of having had the first three games going to overtime.
The Penguins could have been munching on popcorn and enjoying it all.
“We have to go out there and get another win,” Dumoulin would say with a slight shrug. “That is what it is.”
Not close to what it could have been.
MATT SUNDAY GALLERY