The reality is that the Pittsburgh Penguins season is on life support. And while we can play the blame game or go into those cold, harsh truths, there will be plenty of time for that when the season ends. And technically since it hasn't, and since Boston has recently lost a series when they had a three game lead, let's take a look at that, even though it means examining a Flyers win. Plug your noses and let's go.
Part 1: Bruins take 3-0 lead
In Game 1 the Bruins jumped out to an early 2-0 lead before the Flyers chipped it away to 3-2 Boston after two periods. Philly would fight to take it to over-time at 4-4, before Marc Savard (playing in his first game back from the infamous Matt Cooke hit) scored the OT game winner 13:54 into extra-time that Boston was outshooting the Flyers 15-4.
Game 2 was another tight, back-and-forth game, tied 2-2 after two periods. But Boston would pull away in the 3rd, Milan Lucic scored the game-winning goal and the B's outshot the Flyers 11-5 in the third earn a win, 3-2. These first two games took place in Boston, which is opposite of the current Pens/Bruins series, it should be noted.
Game 3 turned into the all too familiar Tuukka Rask show. The B's goalie was masterful, making 34 saves on 35 shots, while Boston only could manage 19 shots of their own. Still, Boston made them count, scoring three goals and tacking on an empty netter for a 4-1 win. Despite the loss, then-Flyer Arron Asham said, “We outplayed them pretty much in the first two periods. Our confidence was fine, we just couldn’t get the puck past Tuukka. He made some big saves for them and blocked a lot of shots. I think if we play the same way Friday night, we will be fine.”
No Penguin had the courage to publicly say anything like that after their devastating double OT loss, but Pittsburgh did play well for much of Game 3, and like the Flyers they ended up losing mainly because of the excellent play of Tuukka Rask.
Part 2: The Comeback Begins
The Flyers were at home for Game 4, but facing a sweep it wasn't exactly a smooth start to the comeback. The Flyers gave up the game's first goal early, and then blew a two goal lead late in the third period to send things to OT. Doesn't sound like the recipe for success, but the Flyers found a way to win a 5-4 barnburner of a game, with Simon Gagne scoring the goal in the picture above to give Philly their first win and the right to play one more game.
Because once you're down 0 to 3 in the series, it's really just about playing well enough to get one more game.
Game 5, in Boston, might have turned the tables of the series. The Bruins etched ruts to the penalty box, giving the Flyers eight power plays in the game. They'd only score one goal up a man, but they kept the pressure up enough to keep the game out of rhythm. Philly scored a goal in the first, tacked on two more in the second and never looked back, with Brian Boucher and Mike Leighton combining for the shutout in a 4-0 win.
Game 6 would be a low-scoring fare, but Philly again struck early in the first period and held on to an early lead. They added a goal in the second period and that would be enough. Boston got one back but that would be all the scoring. Then Boston defensemen Dennis Wideman said after the game, "If you would have asked me before the series if it would go seven, I would have said yes. No one thought we would win three straight to start the series.”
Finale: Game 7
In the first 14 minutes of Game 7, while at home, Boston scored three times to take a 3-0 lead. It would seem like they were out of the woods. They were not. The Flyers chipped away with a goal in the first period, then two more in the second to tie the game. From there Simon Gagne scored what ended up being a season clinching goal on a power play from a too many men call against the Bruins.
And like that, the improbable comeback (or collapse, depending on how you look at it) was over. The Flyers had done what only two other NHL teams in history had done to come all the way back from a 0 games to 3 hole and end up winning the best of seven series.
Now, the Penguins will try to do the same thing. What can we take away from how the Flyers did it in 2010?
- Win tight games. The first game the Flyers won was in OT, two of the others were one-goal games. If Pittsburgh has a chance, they're going to have to win some tight, competitive games, much like the one they just lost in Game 3.
- Tuukka. A young starter in 2010 (Tim Thomas had a bad hip and lost the job) there's no doubt Rask is a lot more experienced and confident with his play now in 2013 then he was back then. Still, the Toronto Maple Leafs this year came back from a 1-3 deficit to force a Game 7 on Rask, and he was on the losing end of this series. It's not exactly unheard of for him to lose games when his team is up in series.
- Different Boston team Make no mistake about it, this is not the same Boston team. They're closer to winning a championship in 2011 then they are to blowing a 3 games to none series lead, so that has to be kept in mind. Only seven players remain from Game 7 (Rask, Lucic, Patrice Bergeon, Johnny Boychuk, Zdeno Chara, Daniel Paille, Shawn Thornton) that are still factors this year. None of those players are particularly weak links, except for maybe Thornton and he doesn't play a ton. If the Pens do this, they're going to have to earn it, there's no real "ghost of 2010" hanging over the Bruins.
- Getting it to Game 7. Unfortunately, the Pens were in this same 0-3 deficit last year, and as we saw, the problem is getting it to the 7th game. If that happens, by then Pittsburgh would have the momentum, home ice and pressure would be on Boston not to blow it again. Getting it that far, will be the challenge. It's not exactly breaking news, but there's no margin of error. Every game, period and shift has to have the maximize importance and attention to detail. That's no small task, and this Pens team hasn't exactly mastered that.
- Stars need to shine. In the four winning games, Simon Gagne scored 4 goals, Claude Giroux had a goal and three assists and Mike Richards had a goal and four asssits, and picked up at least a point in every game. Needless to say, if you want to make the most epic of comebacks, your top players must produce and lead the way.
- Get a little luck along the way. The 2010 series seemed to change in Game 5, when Boston couldn't finish Philly because they played an undisciplined and penalty-filled game. The Penguins probably won't get the luxury of having Boston meltdown, they're a lot more experienced and smarter now compared to then, but the Pens are going to have to get lucky at some point. And when that comes, they'll have to be able to take advantage of a big power play or some sort of chance to bust a game open. If they could do that in, say, a Game 5 or 6, it'll open floodgates of doubts, at least publicly from observers that maybe this series isn't over.
After looking at the 2010 series, I feel conflicted. On one hand, it's encouraging to see that a comeback is possible. But from looking at personnel, Boston has gotten a lot deeper, especially defensively. Rask has a lot more experience, and is currently playing worlds better in 2013 than he did in 2010. There are some parallels, especially Rask's great play in both series Game 3's, but all in all Boston is a lot better and seems less likely to blow it now, compared to then.
There's no doubt about it, it's an uphill battle and one that almost always results in defeat for teams in the Pens shoes. Can the Pens do it? Most all signs point to no, but the journey of a thousand miles begins with the first victory. They'll have the chance to earn it tonight.