Pittsburgh and Philadelphia looked destined to put on another classic yesterday at the Wachovia Center. It was the Flyers, however, that showed the poise of a champion in the face of adversity, and avoided falling behind in the series 3-0.
Philadelphia was determined not to be out-muscled by the Penguins, and set the tone early in front of a raucous home crowd.
Early goals by Jeff Carter (2:59) and Mike Richards (5:14) put Philadelphia out front early, and the two teams continued to scrap, much to the delight of Flyers fans, throughout the entire first period.
The pure and utter disdain that each team has for one another was none more evident than by the swings that were thrown at will during Game Three’s opening period.
There were 10 penalties in the first period, and eight within the first 6:10. A scrum at 6:10 of the first period resulted in three Philadelphia penalties and two Pittsburgh penalties.
The physical play of the first period sent the Wachovia crowd into an absolute frenzy.
The crowd was as violent a hockey crowd as we have seen this playoff season, and chants of “Penguins suck” and “Crosby sucks” could be heard every time the traditional rally songs were played throughout the arena.
If Philadelphia goes on to win Game Four, and even this series, the series—changing moment can be traced back to the second period of this game at 4:32 when Claude Giroux, the goat of Game Two, scored to put the Flyers ahead 3-2.
With their backs against the wall, their momentum stopped, and the orange-clad crowd holding their breath, Philly answered the call of the Penguins by not rolling over and playing dead.
Much like they did in Game Three of last year’s Eastern Conference Finals, the Flyers have seized a glimmer of hope in their opening round series against Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh managed to score two goals in 25 seconds of game time to tie Philadelphia at two. Evgeni Malkin scored with 12 seconds remaining in the first, and Rob Scuderi scored his first career postseason goal 13 seconds into the second.
Philadelphia had been beating Pittsburgh to loose pucks the entire game up to that point, out-hitting the Pens, out-shooting them and playing with far more desire than Pittsburgh.
"You look at Game One, and I thought we sat back too much and let them dictate the pace," Briere said after the game. "We can't sit back and let them dictate because guys like Crosby and Malkin are going to hurt you."
The Flyers watched their two-goal lead vanish within a matter of seconds, and looked to be heading to the same kind of mental collapse that haunted them during the first two games of this series.
Philadelphia, however, continued to dictate the pace and not allow themselves to be overwhelmed by the two-headed monster that has devastated Flyer fans for over two seasons now.
Redemption is a funny thing. You never know where or when an opportunity will arise to redeem one’s self, but for Claude Giroux, that moment came four minutes after Pittsburgh looked poised to steal another game right out from under Philadelphia.
Had Philadelphia gone on to lose this series in convincing fashion, without posting a victory the likes of Game Three, it would have been Giroux that fans would have remembered for slashing Chris Kunitz’ stick in overtime of Game Two, as Pittsburgh scored on the subsequent two-man advantage to win.
Giroux went from zero to hero, as his goal re-energized a crowd that was slowly drifting out of the game; Giroux also assisted on Simon Gagne’s shorthanded goal four and a half minutes later on a fantastic effort behind the Pittsburgh net.
As if his goal wasn’t enough, he fully endeared himself to Flyer fans with his effort on that shorthanded tally. (Philadelphia led the league in shorthanded goals on the season with 16, and this was their first in the series).
"He shows a lot of composure for a young player that age in a pretty intense environment," Philadelphia coach John Stevens said.
For a team riding high on emotion this was critical, as the energy from the fans transferred to the players on the ice and Philadelphia went on handily beat Pittsburgh 6-3.
Composure is something that the Flyers have lacked in this series thus far, and Game Three’s win should go a long way for a team that has struggled against Pittsburgh for the better portion of two seasons.
Game Three was important for Philadelphia, but now that they have won, the magnitude of Game Four becomes far more important.
While the Flyers knew the consequences of falling behind 3-0, a near impossible hole to climb out of, it would have almost been understood if Philadelphia would have lost.
The emotionally draining significance of Game Two would have seemingly justified it.
"It was more than another game for us today, coming back home in the hole that we were in," Flyers goaltender Martin Biron said following the victory. “You saw the desperation that carried on through the game. The emotion was definitely there and that's the way we've been successful all year.”
Biron was the unsung hero of Game Three, as he played more like the goaltender that took Philadelphia to the Conference Finals last season as opposed to the blundering baboon that let up seven goals in the first two games of this series.
Biron may be the most important player to the Flyers if they hope to replicate their success of Game Three.
The Flyers goaltender made numerous big saves to keep Pittsburgh from getting back into the game, and he will need to play even better if Philadelphia hopes to advance to the second round.
The Flyers now have a chance to even the series at two games a piece, and they have a chance to seize momentum in the series. Falling behind 3-1 would leave Pittsburgh two chances on home ice to clinch the series.
Philadelphia played good enough to win in Pittsburgh in Game Two, and if the Flyers can ride their momentum to another convincing win on Tuesday, then they will set themselves up in great position to steal Game Five in Pittsburgh with some new-found confidence.
Pittsburgh played good enough to win on Sunday, and Philadelphia will need to play a stronger defensive game if they hope to hold off the Penguins.
Marc-Andre Fleury struggled to control his rebounds in net, and as it has proved costly throughout his career, it ultimately did the Penguins in, in Game Three.
Fleury is sure to bounce back, as he has been playing strong hockey for over two months, but he can ill-afford to have another weak performance like he did on Sunday.
With the open style Pittsburgh has been playing under interim-coach Dan Bylsma, Fleury will need to shake off his lapsed effort and focus solely on game four as the Flyers will continue to get chances.
Pittsburgh’s lineup is loaded with talent, and Philadelphia will need to continue to take it to the Penguins physically in order to dictate the pace.
The goaltending advantage still favors Pittsburgh, but both goaltenders have shown signs of shaky mental stability. The team that scores first in Game Four will ultimately have a chance to capitalize on a goaltender whose self-confidence could be wavering.
"The story of every series is different," said Jordan Staal, whose early penalty led to the Flyers' second goal. "Last year, we went up 3-0 in every series before the Cup final. So this year is going to be different. We have a little bit of adversity. We expected that. We didn't play well tonight, but we know we'll bounce back."
The story of this series has been physicality. Whichever team imposes their will in game four, will have the best chance of coming out on top. These two teams have combined for 136 penalty minutes in three games (Pittsburgh 51 min, Philly 85 min) and the animosity between these two teams hints at dozens more minutes to come.
Eight of the 19 goals in this series have come on special teams: Pittsburgh has four power-play goals, Philadelphia has three power-play goals and one shorthanded goal.
Special teams should loom large in Game Four, as the physical play appears to be picking up. The team that uses the power-play to capitalize on a wavering goaltender will seize the momentum of this series heading into Game Five in Pittsburgh.