While it has often been special teams that have decided the course of this series, Pittsburgh is decidedly winning the battle at five-on-five and that dynamic was on display again Friday night.
Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and a reconfigured seven-man defense have gotten the job done for Pittsburgh in consecutive matches, injecting life into a team which many had rightfully left for dead.
“It was nice to make some saves, just preserve the one-goal lead,” Fleury said. “Coming into tonight though, they got some quick goals on the power play and nobody quit. I think everybody kept fighting all night and it paid off.”
Pittsburgh has now sent the series back to Philadelphia for another elimination game Sunday afternoon.
Fleury Dialed In
The Penguins' netminder was the lightning rod for the first three games of the series, and a good bit of the criticism was warranted. Pittsburgh's defense allowed countless odd-man rushes and power play opportunities against, and the Philadelphia attack finally got into Fleury's head.
After two games in which Fleury has been money at even-strength and has allowed no goals in the second and third periods, his confidence seems to be back.
A raucous crowd also seemed to help Fleury, with chants of of "Fleu-ry! Fleu-ry!" breaking out nearly a dozen times throughout the game, many of which were unprompted by a save or scoreboard graphic.
“Yeah, it was a little bit of action there,” Fleury said. “I still thought our guys did a good job. They blocked some shots and took guys at the backdoors and stuff. The crowd was awesome, too. Being loud and giving us the energy throughout it.”
Fleury's shining moment came during a penalty kill in which the Flyers gathered seven of their 14 third-period shots on goal.
“Well, the two on Briere, I think it’s three—I don’t even know,” Letang said. “I couldn’t even really count anymore. The one on Hartnell, too, at the end, was unbelievable.”
After allowing goals on Philadelphia's first two power plays of the game, Pittsburgh killed the final three. The (relatively) successful night for the penalty kill brought Philly's PP down to 55 percent from 60.
It's a start.
Defense Taking Steps
For the second straight game, Pittsburgh's seven-defense configuration held the Flyers in check, even if Philadelphia still created a number of high-percentage chances.
And after allowing 20 goals (6.7 per game) over the first three contests, the Pens have held the Flyers to five goals in the last two (2.5 per game) and have not allowed an even-strength goal in six straight periods.
“It’s execution, details,” Deryk Engelland said. “I think we’re retrieving pucks well, getting them up to our forwards and letting them go on the rush.”
Pittsburgh has outscored Philly 13-5 in the two victories.
Part of the change has come in the pairings. Letang has played the last two games reunited with longtime defensive partner Brooks Orpik after playing the first three with Paul Martin, who has been injured and absent for the two victories.
Matt Niskanen, Zbynek Michalek, Engelland and rookies Brian Strait and Simon Despres have rounded out the bottom-five of the D corps.
Together, the five were a combined plus-11 in Game 4 and had an even rating in Game 5.
Overall, Pittsburgh's compete level has been great across the board since being embarrassed in Game 3, and the individual battles won and desperation for the puck have manifested themselves in a pair of must-have victories.
Staal Huge Again
Jordan Staal has always been one of Pittsburgh's biggest defensive presences. Now he's proving to be one of their biggest offensive performers.
Staal scored on a lightning-quick stretch breakout Friday to even the score at two and awaken the Pens from a lull that had seen Philadelphia set the tone for the first half of the contest. His short-side wrist shot was reminiscent of a goal he scored Wednesday in Philadelphia.
His six goals lead all NHL playoff scorers and his nine total points lead the Penguins and are second only to Philadelphia's Claude Giroux.
Staal has at least a point in every game of the series and all six of his goals have come in the last three games. He also netted a hat trick during Wednesday's 10-3 win in Philadelphia.
Pittsburgh is loaded up the middle and Staal spot on the depth chart follows the league's leading scorers in terms of total points (Malkin) and points per game (Crosby), but he has eclipsed them and everyone else on the roster during this series.
If Malkin and Crosby can match the output of the "third" center, Pittsburgh's unlikely comeback will become a little more believable.
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