Dazed and confused, the Penguins seemed to be stumbling toward a monumental first-round collapse.
Philadelphia had outplayed Pittsburgh in four straight games. If not for the stellar play of Penguins goalkeeper Marc-Andre Fleury, the Flyers would already have locked this series up and been awaiting their second-round opponent.
After embarrassing the Penguins on their home ice in Game Five, the Flyers continued to physically dominate and outplay the Penguins in front of a record crowd of 20,072 screaming Wachovia Center faithful dressed in orange giveaway t-shirts.
After weathering an opening surge from Pittsburgh, the Flyers began to take over.
Mike Knuble (17:48) and Joffrey Lupul (18:39) scored 51 seconds apart towards the end of the first period, sending the home crowd into mass hysteria.
Knuble’s first goal was set up on a brilliant strip by captain Mike Richards, who made Maxime Talbot look foolish as Talbot the puck through the neutral zone.
Daniel Briere scored what seemed to be the killing blow only 4:06 into the second period, and the overly caffeinated fans in the Wachovia Center were on the verge of rioting.
The sea of orange found more reason to continue their frenzy when, just 29 seconds after Briere’s third goal seemed to seal the outcome, Talbot and Dan Carcillo dropped the gloves.
For anyone keeping track at home, it was a unanimous Carcillo decision. He leveled Talbot with several solid right hands that dropped the Pittsburgh forward to the ice.
"I played with him in the minors," Talbot said. "I know he's a tough cookie. But I felt responsible for that first goal and I knew I was not going to score three goals after that, so I had to do something to make up for it and help my team. I thought a fight could be something."
That something was well-received by his teammates: You will never see a guy receive more credit for getting his butt kicked than Talbot got from the Pens after his scuffle with Carcillo.
"Max Talbot. I've been talking about him since the game ended. I can't say enough about what he did," veteran Pittsburgh forward Bill Guerin said. "You know, he fought a tough kid, and he knew that, but it's not the win and the loss of the fight, it's the willingness to jump in there and do what you have to do for your teammates. That's a win."
Under these circumstances, a fight can be seen as a meltdown. In Talbot’s case, however, it was the turning point of the game.
"It seems like it's what got us going," Sergei Gonchar said.
Carcillo’s victory would be the last for the Flyers, as Pittsburgh’s two-headed monster of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin took it upon themselves to take over the game.
"I just thought Malkin and Crosby almost looked like they took the game over, to be honest with you," Philadelphia coach John Stevens said. "We capitalized on a few opportunities there, and if you get a 3-0 lead, it should be over."
Should be—yes. Was—no.
14 seconds after the gloves and sticks were cleared from the ice, Malkin bulled his way to the Philadelphia net, creating a rebound that Ruslan Fedotenko banged home to make it 3-1.
Does anyone know the last time Fedotenko scored a playoff goal?
It was the Stanley Cup winner—not just a game winner—in 2004.
One minute and 57 seconds later, Mark Eaton brought the Penguins within a goal when he bunted a loose puck past Flyers goaltender Martin Biron at 6:32.
"That's where youth baseball came in handy," Eaton joked after the game.
Biron, who performed so majestically in Game Five, fell apart when the Flyers needed him most. The Philadelphia fans needed something to help them get back into the game, as they were absolutely baffled by the car wreck that was unfolding in front of their eyes. Usually, a big save that does that.
Instead, it was a big gaffe by Biron that completely deflated the crowd.
Biron fumbled a Billy Guerin backhand that deflected off of Kimmo Timonen to Crosby, who was waiting at the doorstep to bat it into the net, out of mid-air, at 16:59 to tie the game.
This is not a goal to be glossed over. The ability of Crosby to stop on a dime at the corner of a net and bat a wobbling puck out of mid air in qualifies as one of the most miraculous goals scored in the entire season.
As the second period ended tied at three, the emotion, momentum, and bounces were all in Pittsburgh’s corner.
Not only had the Penguins taken the crowd out of the game, they had completely crushed the psyche of a Philadelphia team that might have been caught looking ahead to a game seven.
"We seemed to lose our focus and it's not the first time that it happened," Briere said. "I don't know. I'm not sure exactly, we definitely lost focus and I don't know if it was looking ahead or just thinking that we had it won at that point, but this change in momentum just hurt us."
The Flyers, and their fans, were never able to recover.
"You're not going to get away all the time with losing your focus for periods of time," Briere said. "It can happen for a goal. It just seems too many times it happens for too long."
Pittsburgh has been able to capitalize on Philadelphia mistakes more than any other team.
It was Pittsburgh who capitalized on Philadelphia losing focus down the stretch to steal home-ice advantage from the Flyers for the first round. Then, they capitalized on Flyer penalties for an all-important overtime win in Game Two.
The mental lapses continued for the Flyers just 2:19 into the third period as Gonchar launched an absolute rocket past Biron to put the Penguins ahead for good, 4-3.
Crosby, who may be the most despised person in Philadelphia outside of Santa Claus, was berated with verbal assaults every time he stepped onto the ice, and sometimes even when he was sitting on the bench.
There could have been no greater satisfaction for “The Kid” than giving a metaphorical middle finger to the crowd when he buried an empty netter at 19:32 that clinched it for Pittsburgh.
Crosby allowed the scoreboard to do the talking for him as fans continued to heckle him after the game as he talked to reporters on ice.
Pittsburgh will go home to nurse some wounds from this extremely physical series, and await notice of their second-round opponent.
While there is jubilation in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia is left scratching their heads for a second season in a row, as they were once again defeated by the Penguins.
"I'm extremely disappointed," Flyers coach John Stevens said. "I really thought we could get this game back to Pittsburgh and then anything can happen. Every year, you want to make steps as a team and I thought we made big steps last year and I really think we made big steps this year.”
There is no question that Philadelphia made huge strides as a team this year, and put up a better fight against a Penguins team that may be just as good as they were last year.
While Biron will be looked at as the weak point (and most likely let go when he becomes a free agent this summer) the Flyers were really hurt by the lack of production from Jeff Carter.
"It's tough. I had a pretty good regular season, and coming in, I had high hopes for myself," Carter said. "I'm looked upon to put the puck in the net and one goal just really doesn't cut it. I had some shots and some chances, but you've got to put them in the back of the net."
Carter finished second in the NHL with 46 goals, but scored only one in the series for the Flyers.
The effects of this loss will linger long into next season for the Flyers, as the Penguins will take a commanding advantage in the mental aspect of this ferocious rivalry, and are now one step closer to returning to the Stanley Cup Finals.
If the Rangers win, then Pittsburgh will get the winner of the Hurricanes and Devils.
If Washington comes back to beat the Rangers and the Devils win, the Penguins will travel to Boston for the second round. If the Canes win, the Pens will be off to Washington.
As only the second Stanley Cup loser to proceed to the second round in the last 12 years—Dallas was the other in 2001—Pittsburgh has to be a heavy favorite to come out of the Eastern Conference along with Boston.
Malkin (9 points) and Crosby (8 points) are the top two scorers in the playoffs so far.
The Penguins are now 14-15 all-time against Philadelphia in the playoffs.
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