Flyers fail to eliminate Penguins

Inside Fights Chuck Tay
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The Philadelphia Flyers never seem to take the easy road, and their Eastern Conference quarterfinal matchup with the Pittsburgh Penguins is proving to be no exception.

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The Flyers could have made it easier on themselves by sweeping their reeling intrastate rivals and moving on to the second round of the NHL playoffs. But instead the home team gave up 10 goals, including four while a man down, and took 16 penalties totaling 64 minutes, on their way to a 10-3 loss Wednesday night.

Things started off well for the Flyers in Game 4. For the first time all series, Philadelphia scored the game's opening goal. Only 17 seconds into the opening period, Penguins forward Steve Sullivan took a high-sticking minor. The Flyers took advantage on the power play with Claude Giroux scoring 1:14 into the contest, continuing a trend. In the first three games, the Flyers had gone a convincing 6-for-10 with the man advantage.

Things looked like they would continue in the Flyers' favor when the league's leading scorer, Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin, took an untimely hooking minor at 1:29 of the first stanza. But the Flyers failed to convert on their second early power play opportunity, and upon leaving the box, the star center received the puck in the middle of the ice and went on to score his first goal of the series.

After being shut down brilliantly in the previous three games by Flyers rookie center Sean Couturier, Malkin seemed to hit his stride in Game 4, on his way to a three-point night, with two goals and a plus-4 rating.

The first period saw a total of four lead changes, along with five minors handed out to the Pens and three to the Flyers. The refs made their presence known by cracking down on any infractions in response to the out-of-hand play of Game 3, in which 156 total penalty minutes were handed out along with three Penguins suspensions.

After the first period, the Pens were up 4-3, and while the Flyers proved throughout the early part of the series that no Pittsburgh lead was safe, this one would be.

Just 3:07 into the second period, with Claude Giroux in the box for high-sticking, Flyers goalie Ilya Bryzgalov gave up his fifth goal of the night on only 18 shots. He’d been looking shaky in net since Game 3, and the fifth goal prompted Flyers’ coach Peter Laviolette to see a need for change. Backup goalie Sergei Bobrovsky was sent in for Bryzgalov.

“Our team needs to be better,” Laviolette said politically, when asked if he has been satisfied with his goaltending. “That is, everybody's performance has to be better than what we do. It was an off game for us. We were not as sharp as we need to be and that was obvious.

“I said it before about Bryz. The first few games in Pittsburgh, he made spectacular saves. But when you put it cumulative together and tie everything together, it makes it a little more difficult to answer [if I’m satisfied with goaltending] with a yes or a no.”

The goalie change would provide no relief for the Flyers, as a cold Bobrovsky allowed five goals on 18 shots before the night was over.

But the Flyers' troubles couldn’t be blamed on the netminders alone. The Flyers defense, much like the Pens defense in Game 3, was in shambles. They let the Pens run all over the offensive zone, and did little with their own transitions. The Pens shut things down with their own defense, and didn’t allow many chances for the Orange and Black.

On top of it all, Pens goalie Marc-Andre Fleury appeared to be getting his confidence back, and made several astonishing saves. After giving up three power-play goals on 11 shots in the first, he was perfect, stopping all 14 shots he faced in the final two periods.

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One of the big issues when facing the Penguins is their centermen. Most teams can stop one, maybe even two of them, but the Pens bring three centers — Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Jordan Staal — who can each bring offense when needed. In the first three games of the series, the Pens trifecta at center were held to a combined four goals and nine assists for 13 points, with Malkin held to only four assists.

That changed in Game 4. The Pens pivots combined for six goals and three assists for nine points. None of them were kept off the scoreboard, and the 6-foot-4 shutdown specialist Staal led the way with a hat trick.

While it seemed nothing went right for the Flyers in Game 4, the problems really came on special teams. All three of the Flyers goals were scored on the power play, which went 3-for-5 on the night, but the Flyers gave up nine power plays, and the Pens capitalized on four of them. Previously, the Flyers penalty kill was outstanding, killing 9-of-12, and scoring three shorthanded goals. The kill was at times dominant, and the shorthanded goals were deflating to the Pens.

Wednesday’s affair was the complete opposite, seeing the Flyers running around without discipline, giving up juicy rebounds, and time and space to their opposition. They looked like a team that didn’t come ready to complete a sweep.

Now they’ll have to go back to Pittsburgh for Game 5, and will likely do so without  fourth-line tough guy Zac Rinaldo, who could very well be suspended due to a late head-shot he threw at Penguins defenseman Zbynek Michalek in the second period. The Flyers do have options though. Power forward James van Riemsdyk, after recovering from a broken foot, has been skating with the team, along with tough guy Tom Sestito.

The Flyers are still in the driver’s seat, and can finish things off in Pittsburgh this Friday, where they have a record of 7-1 this season, but they’ll need to shore up their defense and get better goaltending from Bryzgalov.

"We're going to find out what kind of team we are, how we are built," Flyers’ forward Jaromir Jagr said. "If we are the team like we think we are, we're going to have to respond the next game."

Tagged: Flyers, Penguins, Ilya Bryzgalov, Evgeni Malkin, Claude Giroux, James van Riemsdyk

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