PHILADELPHIA, PA - APRIL 18: Matt Niskanen #2 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates a second period goal by Sidney Crosby #87 (not shown) against the Philadelphia Flyers in Game Four of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2012 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Wells Fargo Center on April 18, 2012 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
In tonight's elimination game, there was no doubts for very long who the better team was. Though the Pens got off to a rocky start, especially with Marc-Andre Fleury giving up easy goals and guys like Evgeni Malkin, Brooks Orpik, Chris Kunitz and Matt Cooke taking fairly foolish penalties, all in succession. Down early, the Pens could have slinked away into the off-season.
It's only one game, but hey, what a statement to make. The Flyers have to know now that Pittsburgh can beat them. This isn't over. If only for one night, this isn't over. The Penguins aren't cowardly (newspapers be damned) and they're not just going to lay down and die. The Flyers are going to have to act like men and eliminate them. Didn't happen tonight.
Some more thoughts on the game: -Bounce here, a bounce there, right? Evgeni Malkin takes a terrible, selfish penalty early, the Pens kill it, he steps out and retrives a Pascal Dupuis rebound to score. Kind of a sign of how the night would keep going for Pittsbugh. -Really nice night for Sidney Crosby. All the pressure in the world on him, the papers mocking him, the Flyers giving shirts out mocking him. He just comes out and cooly makes plays early in the game, putting up 3 points and leading his team to victory. -You just can't say enough about Matt Niskanen. He's playing hurt, and everything he's touching is turning out aces. With so many Pens defensemen playing without confidence, Niskanen's been one of the few in control and steady. -Zbynek Michalek got mauled and assaulted by Zac Rinaldo, who had a fairly scary and pyschopathic look on his face before, during and after elbowing and punching the fallen Michalek. Wayne Simmonds and Pavel Kubina alternated turns cross-checking Matt Cooke in the head in the third. Don't know if the latter two will get any discipline, but after all the glad-handing "ooh the Pens are so dirty" narrative, let's just remember the team in black and orange has their moments, too. -Lamplighter Jordan Staal was back at it again, with his first career playoff hat-trick. He's been one of the Pens best and most consistent forwards for these four games, and if Pittsburgh is going to make any sort of series comeback, that will have to continue. -Oh my, let me tell you the story of Steve Sullivan. The wee man took the puck behind his net, winded up and skated all the way into the Flyers zone, with not many Philly players getting in his way. So he took a big slapper and blew it by gloveside. Big time goal. -Look, it was still a wild back and forth ride, with the Pens up 4-3 after a crazy first, but something has to be said for that all the Flyers got was 3 goals. The last part of the game was a joke, but it's something for Fleury and the defense to build on. And that's what this game is all about - something to build on. The Pens put up 10 goals, with no James Neal. All we heard was the team didn't want to go out quietly, and well, they didn't. Visions of a Philly sweep were ended early, but now we go back to Pittsburgh, where the Flyers did win the first two games of the series and will be looking to buckle down, play a road hockey game and try to close the Pens out again.
But you give a team some life, some hope, some confidence and it can be a dangerous thing. The Pens don't have to look at it at winning four games in a row, right now they just have to come out on Friday night and play like they did tonight. With Bryz and Bob very shaky, and the Flyers defense every bit as bad tonight as the Pens defense was earlier in the series, questions have to be in their heads.
Oh, and Matt Niskanen, you're awesome.