The rookies stepped up, the stars shined bright and the goaltending held. The Philadelphia Flyers are moving on to the next round of the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
All-Star center Claude Giroux didn't hide his frustration after the Flyers' Game 5 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins when he smashed his stick on a goal crossbar and stressed the importance of finishing off the series that the Flyers once led 3-0. "We've got to find a way to get that fourth one," Giroux said. "It's probably the hardest game to win. We've just got to get it done." With the series shifting back to Philadelphia for a pivotal Game 6, it was Giroux who set the tone and his teammates followed suit.
With a 3-2 series lead against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Giroux sent a message to the visiting team by flattening their captain, Sidney Crosby, just five seconds into the contest. The star forward followed that statement up with another when he scored the first goal of the game 27 seconds after the hit. Following the goal, Giroux slammed the glass in sheer excitement and gestured toward the screaming 20,000 fans in the Wells Fargo Center. From the expression on his face and the sound of the crowd, one could almost feel the series would end in that building.
In a series where the team to score first has always lost, the Flyers made sure their early lead would not falter. This is where the Philadelphia defense stepped in with goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov delivering his best game in the series. The big Russian turned away 30-of-31 shots while the men in front of him blocked another 40.
Bryzgalov finally stepped up in the series and became the goaltender the Flyers were hoping for when they signed him in the offseason. Until Game 6 he had allowed 22 goals in the postseason and with the defense lacking in efficiency, the series had become an offensive shootout to say the least. But Game 6 changed all of that, on the Flyers' side at least. "Guys were sacrificing their bodies to block shots and were paying the price taking hits to make plays," said winger Scott Hartnell. "It was awesome to see."
It was Hartnell who scored the goal that put the Flyers up 2-0 followed by Eric Gustafsson firing a furious (but savable) shot past the catching glove of the bewildered Marc-Andre Fleury to make it 3-0. Evgeni Malkin's power-play goal brought the deficit down to two, but Daniel Briere restored the Flyers' three-goal lead and reduced the fans' fear of a possible comeback when he scored 34 seconds later to make the score 4-1. From there, Bryzgalov and the defense went into lockdown mode until Brayden Schenn scored an empty net goal at the end of the game to send the Flyers into the next round of the playoffs.
Before this series began, the hockey world was abuzz with questions about how the young members of this Flyers squad would react to a playoff atmosphere and how they would perform against the battle-tested stars of Pittsburgh and their great head coach. Flyers coach Peter Laviolette never doubted the mettle of his young players all season and they returned the favor in this series.
The big-bodied Sean Couturier stuck to Evgeni Malkin like glue in every game of the series, hounding him whenever he had the puck and taking him out of plays when he didn't. Couturier was also crucial earlier in the series putting up a hat-trick in Game 2.
Brayden Schenn continued to bully Sidney Crosby whenever the two matched up against one another. He also recorded six points in the series and set up a number of beautiful scoring chances.
Matt Read, the right-winger who led all rookies in goals this season, had a quieter series but assisted on Jakub Voracek's overtime goal to give the Flyers a 1-0 series lead.
Had it not been for the play of these young forwards, the series may have ended in a different way.
Giroux, the leading point-getter for the Flyers in the regular season, continued to shine in the playoffs. His 14 points in this series marked the most accumulated by any Flyer in a postseason series. But perhaps the most exciting part about Giroux's play over these six games has been his emotional impact for both his team and Flyers fans. Game 6 alone was a testament to that.
"When the best player in the world comes up to you and says, 'I don't know who you're starting tonight, but I want that first shift,' that tells you everything you need to know about Claude Giroux," Laviolette said. The 24-year-old superstar has emerged as the undisputed leader of this team and fans will probably be looking at a "C" on his black and orange sometime soon.
For now however, the Flyers won the war of Pennsylvania. They await their next challenge while getting some much needed and much deserved rest.