However, no one expected to see the Penguins lose both of the first two games on home ice in the fashion that they did. The Flyers now head to their home ice on the strength of two great comebacks, leading the series 2-0. Why has this happened and what can the Penguins do to get better results?
The Flyers have been outscored 6-1 by the Penguins in the first period thus far in the series. However, the Flyers have outscored the Penguins 4-1 in the second period and 6-1 in the third period. This has largely been done on the strength of Claude Giroux with his three goals and three assists through the first two games.
Other key performers for the Flyers have been Jakub Voracek with a goal and two assists; he has been using his speed and skill to cause havoc on the rush for the Penguins defense. Rookie Brayden Schenn has contributed on the score board with a goal and two assists, but his real value has been shown elsewhere. With six hits in the opening two games, Schenn has been a physical force for the Flyers and has clearly got under the Penguins' skin.
Perhaps the best and most valuable performer for the Flyers thus far has been Sean Couturier. He has three goals, one assist, a plus-three rating, five hits, one blocked shot, no giveaways and two takeaways. He has done this while largely playing a shutdown role against one of the best lines in the NHL this season in James Neal, Evgeni Malkin and Chris Kunitz.
Couturier has effectively neutralized both Malkin and Neal. Malkin has two assists, two giveaways, five shots and a minus-five rating, while Neal has two assists and a minus-four rating through the first two games. Both Malkin and Neal are losing the battle with Couturier and his linemates Max Talbot and Zac Rinaldo.
While Sidney Crosby has been effective on the score sheet with two goals, two assists and a plus-one rating, he has three needless giveaways in the offensive zone that have led to offense in the Penguins zone for the Flyers. He needs to play a simple brand of hockey to help his team win Game 3.
Overall, the Pittsburgh Penguins have strayed from playing their style of hockey that has kept them at the top of the heap the last couple seasons without their stars in the lineup for extended periods of time. Currently the Penguins are averaging four goals for per game and six goals against per game. During the regular season they averaged 3.33 goals per game and 2.66 goals against per game.
Some may blame Marc-Andre Fleury and he should share a measure of the blame for his performance, but the Penguins need to get back to their game. Thus far they have been playing much more of a run-and-gun style of game, while their bread and butter the past couple of years has been a tight defense, cycling in the offensive zone game. Most of the Penguins' goals have come off the rush during the first two games, which is uncharacteristic for this team. They play best when they get the puck deep in the offensive zone and cycle it, waiting for an opening to go for a goal.
The Penguins' cycling game in the offensive zone would serve them well against the current Flyers defense. Nicklas Grossmann, Pavel Kubina and Andreas Lilja are not the most mobile defenders in the league. This weakness could be exploited by making them try to defend the Penguins' speedy forwards on the cycle.
The Penguins also need to tighten up their special teams play. The Flyers have two shorthanded goals thus far and these types of goals can help to demoralize any team in the league. Claude Giroux and Max Talbot have formed a very effective penalty killing unit for the Flyers, and Pittsburgh will need to be very aware of Giroux's speed as he has used it to burn them shorthanded thus far.
If I were Dan Bylsma, I would take Ben Lovejoy out of the lineup and insert Brian Strait. Strait is a more physical defender that can still move the puck, and with the regularity that the Flyers are getting in on the forecheck and laying hits on Pittsburgh's defense they could use a more physical presence back there.
While the Pittsburgh Penguins can still see the light at the end of the tunnel, it could quickly become an oncoming train if they do not win Game 3 in Philadelphia. Give the Flyers credit—they have stuck to their game plan in the face of being down early in both Games 1 and 2. However, if the Penguins can get back to playing their own brand of hockey and not trading chances with the Flyers, Pittsburgh still has a chance to take this series.