Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the circus.
In what will likely be a first round match up in the playoffs, the Pittsburgh Penguins faced the Philadelphia Flyers in what started as a heated game but ended in extracurriculars worthy of the April Fools Day we celebrate today. The Pens and Flyers have always had a history of fists and hatred, but as the seasons pass, this blatant disgust both teams share for each other continues to grow more and more layers. And this time, it is all leading up to another playoff bloodbath.
The Pens started the game with their turbo skates. They came ready to play and they showed it. Complete domination in all three zones and had two goals from Steve Sullivan and James Neal before the first five minutes of the game passed. The defense, showing signs of weakness the last few games, also showed tremendous improvement; they were all over the Flyers forward and gave them no room or time to start anything anywhere near Marc-Andre Fleury.
But after the timeout called by Peter Laviolette after Neal's goal, the determination that drove the Pens to an early lead seemed to melt away. Yet another problem I have been noticing of late. The Flyers quickly took control of the game and never looked back, scoring five unanswered goals in the process. It's getting worrisome how strong the Pens will start and then completely fall a part within a matter of minutes. It seems like they clock out of a game a little too quickly but then attempt a comeback too late in the game, sometimes when a two-plus goal deficit is on the board. I was pleased to see two more goals scored but it's isn't enough.
Even though we're nearing the playoffs, I'm quite calm about these issues. The Pens still have a few games on hand to find themselves (which we know won't be a tremendously difficult plight) and make whatever adjustments are necessary. Things will come together come playoff time when it all counts.
The tempers charging throughout the game exploded when Joe Vitale laid out a huge open ice hit on Daniel Briere with just over a minute left in the game, the game all but decided. This caused an eruption I haven't seen in a very, very long time that included a jawing match between Flyers head coach Peter Laviolette and Pens assistant coach Tony Granato. I don't want to get too into this since I'm sure everyone has already made their opinions known, but I want to focus on Laviolette's comments in the postgame: "Those guys (fourth line) hadn't played in 12 minutes. It's a gutless move by their coach. It's gutless."
I like Laviolette but a comment like this feels like one he'll regret. I honestly don't have major issues with what happened on the ice. Vitale threw a big hit and the Flyers came to Briere's rescue. I hate the fact that clean hits draw retaliation from the opposition, but that's the way things roll nowadays. But to call Dan Bylsma gutless for putting his grinders on the ice for the last minute of a game? Plain silly. I would much rather have the fourth line out there than have Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, or Jordan Staal out there and possibly get injured. Laviolette clearly doesn't remember how the final minutes of Pens/Flyers games roll: you will never see a Pens star player on the ice unless the Pens are down a goal. I also want to point out that the fourth line was creating quality chances throughout the game and provided endless energy every time they took the ice. They aren't replicas of Steve MacIntyre who only play with their fists. The Pens are lucky enough to have quality players on their fourth line who can not only fight, but boast good skill that is used predominantly in games. Major overreaction from Laviolette.
As I type this, more penalties are being handed out. We'll see if there will be some suspensions thrown in the mix since Laviolette took a Flyers' stick and broke it against the boards before getting into it with Granato. Isn't hockey fun?
More after the jump:
- Joe Vitale, who returned on Friday against the Buffalo Sabres, showed just how important he is in the lineup. Five hits and won four of seven draws in the faceoff. The Pens will desperately need him in the playoffs because he provides a grittiness that has been lacking in the lineup. He isn't afraid to hit but he has hands to make him more valuable than a human cannonball.
- Kris Letang also returned to the lineup today and not a moment too soon. The Pens' defense has been lost when he isn't on the roster. Not surprisingly, Letang was a +1 and was only on the ice for one goal (disregarding the empty net goal). Letang's health in the post season is just as important as Crosby's, Malkin's, and Fleury's.
- My hat is off for Neal. Scored his 39th goal of the season and played a solid game. I'm still in awe at how much his game has changed since last season.
- Sergei Bobrovsky received the start today which makes sense since he's had great success against the Pens at Consol. But if the Pens/Flyers meet in the postseason, who will get the start? Will Laviolette stick with Ilya Bryzgalov who has been on a hot streak and has been the consistent start for the Flyers, or will Laviolette place his faith on Bobrovsky's shoulders?
- Pascal Dupuis' assist on Sullivan's goal extended his point streak to 14 games and it continues to be longest in the NHL this season. Dupuis has 18 points in that stretch. Just unbelievable.
- Max Talbot scored a goal this afternoon, and I don't know if anyone shares my feelings, but he's someone the Pens will have to watch if the Pens and Flyers meet in the playoffs. The Pens haven't missed Talbot since he left, but he was a spark in the playoffs and he could be a back breaker for any opposing teams. He cannot be overlooked.
- I understand it takes Crosby some time to re-acclimate to playing, but he has been making some very, very questionable passes, especially in the defensive zone. I hope he can ease back into his effortless passing skills sooner rather than later.
- Before I emphasize passing too much, the Pens need to stop playing around in the offensive zone. Too many opportunities disappear because the Pens are making that extra pass. This must stop immediately. Chances may be few in the playoffs and pounced on at every opportunity.
- Two separate times during the game, the Pens had a power play but then took a penalty just seconds into the power play. The Pens have one of the best power plays in the League, they're better off when they use it and not waste the opportunity with four-on-four play.
- Speaking of the power play, I hope we don't see the five-forward power play for long. Letang belongs on the first unit, plus, I feel much safer if there's at least one defenseman manning the blue line.
- The last two match ups, the Flyers erased two-goal deficits to win the game. Pens have to carry the play all 60 minutes and they haven't been doing that. Another detail that must change.
- The Pens assaulted Bobrovsky with 47 shots in the game. Crosby and Neal lead the Pens with seven shots a piece. The Pens also had 41 hits in the game.
- With that said, is it interesting to note that the Flyers were still able to win the game with only 26 shots and 27 hits?