Phil Sheridan: Flyers' performance beyond explanation

Posted: April 13, 2012

PITTSBURGH - If you're looking here for some explanation of the how and why of Game 2 here Friday night, sorry to disappoint.

This was hockey through the looking glass, a relentless stream of brilliant shots, clever passes, body blows, spectacular saves, and wild momentum swings. It was a game that defied logic and helped define this series as a burgeoning classic.

Surely the Flyers can't keep falling behind by two or three goals and expecting to come back. And yet they do.

Surely a goalie who gives up a goal 15 seconds into the game, and five overall, didn't have a great night. And yet Ilya Bryzgalov truly stole this game for his teammates.

What are the Penguins supposed to do? Try not to score early? Try not to take the lead? How does a team recover from blowing two big leads, on their home ice, to start a playoff series? The answer is, it doesn't. This series now belongs to the Flyers.

Considering the avalanche that followed, it is easy to overlook the first tumbling rock. But it was a doozy. The moment the puck was dropped, Flyers coach Peter Laviolette ordered a line change.

With his guys rushing off the ice, Sidney Crosby and Steve Sullivan skated freely into the neutral zone. They passed the puck back and forth as if there were some cones set up for a drill, then Crosby cranked a shot past Bryzgalov.

It was a stunning mistake. The Flyers needed to improve on their slow starts, and Laviolette all but handed the Penguins an instant goal.

Before the period was half over, it was 2-0. The Penguins seemed to be skating twice as fast and hitting the Flyers three times as hard. They desperately needed to win this game, and it showed. The Flyers already had at least a split here in their pocket, and that showed, too.

Then Kris Letang, Pittsburgh's splendid defenseman, whipped the shot destined to make it 3-0. And Bryzgalov's fast-twitch glove snapped. The NHL office had to review it to be sure the glove, and therefore the puck, hadn't been over the goal line. Or maybe the guys in the NHL office just had to see it again to believe it.

It was the best of a bunch of athletic, acrobatic saves made by the Russian Bear. It changed everything.

Within moments, Max Talbot scored the shorthanded goal that really triggered the avalanche. It was like a hockey game of H-O-R-S-E, with each team trying to score a more incredible, creative goal. Claude Giroux finally tied it at 3 on another shorthanded goal. Chris Kunitz scored six seconds later.

Bryzgalov skated toward the sideboards and slammed his stick in disgust. At whom? Himself for failing to control the rebound on James Neal's original shot? Or his defense?

In this case, Braydon Coburn let Kunitz sail right on by him and flick the puck into the empty net.

When the Flyers finally took the lead in the third period, the intensity level cranked up several more notches. The Penguins' desperation was palpable.

Bryzgalov was fantastic. This was what the Flyers were doing when they signed him to that zillion-dollar contract last summer. They were giving themselves a chance to win playoff games when everything else goes wrong.

The fast-twitch glove robbed Jordan Staal with just over 21/2 minutes left. The Penguins kept coming. Bryzgalov sprawled in his crease, making two quick saves as the clock ticked slowly, agonizingly slowly, toward zero.

Then Sean Couturier, the 19-year-old center with the toothless smile of the young Bobby Clarke, scored his third goal of the night to salt it away for good. Giroux completed his own hat trick into the Penguins' empty net.

8-5? Seriously, 8-5? Who is going to make sense of that?

The Flyers return home now for games 3 and 4. They will talk about trying to start off better, to stop tempting fate by playing from behind every night. But the reality is, they seem to enjoy the flirtation with disaster. They seem to thrive off of it.

As for the Penguins, it's hard to know where they turn. They are coming to Philadelphia, where the atmosphere will be nearly oxygen-free for them. They carry a two-game deficit made all the worse because of those leads they built and blew. They can't even console themselves with trying to get back to the Consol Energy Center. This is where their nightmare came true.

The Flyers are in control of this series. In the most improbable ways imaginable, they have stolen not one, but two games, from the talented and experienced Penguins.

Best of all, after this game, they will take the ice with the confidence that only comes from having a goaltender capable of winning it all.


Contact Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844, psheridan@phillynews.com, or follow @Sheridanscribe on Twitter. Read his blog, "Philabuster," at http://go.philly.com/philabuster. Read his columns at www.philly.com/philsheridan

 

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