If Pittsburgh can't get out of their own heads, Philadelphia's going to get out of the first round going away
Jakub Voracek and the Philadelphia Flyers enjoyed an unlikely overtime win in the first game of last night's quarterfinals with Pittsburgh by following a mantra the Penguins are able to execute against seemingly every team in hockey but the Flyers—relentlessness.
"They're a good team and they don't stop."
After opening a 3-0 first-period lead, Dan Bylsma's Penguins, conversely, stopped.
They stopped playing aggressively. They stopped managing the puck carefully. They stopped dictating the tone of the game. The final 40 minutes of last night's tilt belonged to the Flyers, and the lack of focus and execution will send the Penguins into Friday's Game 2 with their home-ice advantage already a thing of the past.
"We have to be better, again, with that execution and puck management," Bylsma said, "so we can play at that pace and we can get on to the areas of the game where we can be effective."
It's no secret what the Penguins have to do to even the series Friday. There are three changes the Penguins need to make to be be successful in their next game with Philadelphia:
Puck management is a misnomer. Puck mismanagement is more of the Penguins style, and it won't take much more of a sample size to say "getting to their game" includes playing puck pinball inside the neutral zone.
That sort of carelessness began in the second period and, well, you know...
There are no good excuses for a team with 70 postseason appearances in the last six years to let a three-goal lead disappear over any stretch of a game. That the meltdown took 40-plus minutes meant that Penguins coaches should have gotten twice as good a look at what they need to remedy—let's start with puck management—as the things that worked in their favor.
Mentally, there is no team who gets under the Penguins craw like the Flyers. Unlike in the regular season, however, Wednesday's game provided no fisticuffs and little scrumming to engage the Penguins in a style of hockey that doesn't suit their success.
Rather, they simply gave the game away.
The quick passes and strong breakouts that led to so many off-the-rush chances in the first period were slowly forgotten about. They were replaced with high dumps to the neutral zone, halfhearted clearing attempts and simply bad passing.
It was also interesting that, down three goals, the Flyers instituted the 1-3-1 trap defense. This was first pointed out by The Hockey Writers' Mike Colligan and is as maddeningly effective against the Pens as it is bitterly ironic.
Pittsburgh needs to play aggressively all the time. After the first period, their neutral zone play deteriorated in a hurry and it was all the edge the Flyers needed.
Did Briere's offside goal really change the outcome?
How about the focus that is sometimes called a killer instinct? It's the sort of thing that is usually best displayed by a crucial power-play goal or stout play around one's net.
Like so much else, the Penguins were plenty short of it Wednesday.
Start with special teams. I wrote this week that special teams will be a fulcrum for this series, and the teams who've won the special teams battle during the regular season have usually won those games.
Only twice did Pittsburgh win the special teams battle this season, scoring twice shorthanded in a February contest and adding a power-play goal in the final game of the year.
Philadelphia won the other four contests.
The Penguins had a number of power-play chances Wednesday, each while leading, and managed a paltry four shots on goal in those chances.
Philadelphia had one power-play chance and buried it.
Very simply, the Penguins lost the game on special teams: 0 percent on the penalty kill; 0 percent on the power play.
Is it clear yet what the Penguins need to do to win Friday's game? Pittsburgh's problems don't extend beyond the mental. It's a battle they can win.
A few people have made mention that the only team who can beat the Penguins in these playoffs are the Penguins.
Suffice it to say, the Penguins certainly won last night.
The first period was an example of this Pens team at their nightmarish best. Bryzgalov was shaken, Crosby was flying and the Penguins had what should be an insurmountable lead for any team with the postseason experience these Penguins have.
If Friday's game opens with a Flyers goal and remains tight throughout, Pittsburgh might be better off for it. Wednesday was the 14th time this season Pittsburgh has lost a multiple-goal lead to the Flyers (well, it feels like 14).
Crosby's Penguins had the killer instinct all throughout their first two runs to the Stanley Cup. They need to rediscover it soon.
The veteran presence of the locker room should be enough to take a loss in the fashion of Wednesday's nuclear meltdown and turn it into a motivator for a win Friday.
Numbers that Suck
– Pittsburgh: 0-for-3 on the PP with four shots on goal, 11 attempted shots and seven missed or blocked. Philadelphia: 1-for-1 on the PP, with only two attempted shots in 1:42 of power-play time that was spent largely in the Penguins zone. Possession and patience led to their goal.
– Pittsburgh registered 19 hits in the first period and jumped out to a 3-0 while controlling all phases of the game. They registered just nine in the second period and seven in the third. As Pittsburgh's physicality decreased, Philadelphia took control of the game and scored three unanswered goals.
– The Penguins had eight giveaways to Philadelphia's three. Tyler Kennedy and Zbynek Michalek were each tagged with two giveaways.
– Evgeni Malkin, James Neal and Chris Kunitz had zero points and a combined minus-one rating with 14 shots on goal.
Dan Bylsma Post-Game
On missed chances on the PP
"I don't think we had much zone time. It was more off the rush and within the first five, 10 seconds of zone time we shot the puck and got it cleared, so we didn't have the opportunity in-zone like I think we wanted to and needed to to have success. That was a factor, I think, in all three of the power plays."
On how Pens can keep a loss like this from lingering
"We got a game on Friday. It's one game. They did a lot of what they've done all season, or at least what they've shown they can do, which is keep coming and come back from deficits and they did that. They came back from down three and got a big goal there from Briere to get 'em back and they kept chipping away and scored a big power-play goal, which is what they've done [all year].
"They're a good team and they don't stop. And the second half of the game, we probably didn't get to our game and where we needed to play, and they got back in it and pushed it to overtime."
On why the Penguins couldn't sustain first period success
"I'm not so sure [the success early] can't be sustained, it can be. I think it's more a matter of the real conscious decision, through execution and puck management, that allows you to play at that speed and [dictate] where the game's played. We were very effective at that in the first.
"We didn't continue on that and it's not a matter of sitting back as it is the other two elements, and they're also a good team. They're not going to just let us come at them. We have to be better, again, with that execution and puck management, so we can play at that pace and we can get on to the areas of the game where we can be effective."
On how a veteran team lacked the discipline to protect a three-goal lead
"It certainly isn't understanding of how we need to play with that three-goal lead in that situation we were in [that the team lacked]. I don't anticipate every game being this same way, with jumping out to three goals and getting that lead, but I think that overtime's real evidence of how they played.
"Every puck was in deep and they went on the forecheck and it wasn't perfect every time, but they had repeated pressure in just a short amount of time, and that's something we have to continue [to do] regardless of the score or situation, up three or tied going into overtime."
On if there might be a safer way to protect a lead than Pens' typical style
"I think playing our game would be safer. They're very good off the rush, they're very good at transition offense and any opportunity to do that leads back to them being able to showcase where they're good at, and that's a game we have to stay out of regardless of the score.
"The last two periods of hockey was too much of that. Too much back-and-forth and not really managing the puck in the neutral zone the way we need to [manage it to] play our game. I thought the way we played in the first was pretty safe and that's the way we need to continue on no matter what the score or situation is.
"Going into a situation like the overtime, we allowed them to play on the aggressive side of the game and on the forecheck and as a result in the offensive zone."
On if Briere's goal, which was later shown to be well offside, was frustrating
"In the course of a game, for the linesmen, there are a lot of scenarios that are close to being calls either way. I think the linesman is going to wish it was a little closer than it was when he sees it again, but that's not why we lost the game."
Audio courtesy of Jason Seidling and Pittsburgh Penguins, used with permission.