Philadelphia Flyers fans will argue (with some validity) that it was with some help from the officials, but the Pittsburgh Penguins successfully punched their ticket into the Second Round with an 8-5 victory at Wells Fargo Center in Game 6.
This was a wild back-and-forth affair that wasted no time in getting started, as Second Star of the Game C Sean Couturier needed only 2:15 of action to give Philadelphia an early lead. When D Jamie Oleksiak failed to collect W Bryan Rust‘s pass along the boards, Couturier pounced to beat D Chad Ruhwedel to the corner to G Matt Murray‘s left and took possession.
Couturier backhanded a centering pass towards Murray that he blocked into the center of the zone. That ended up being a very poor decision, as W Wayne Simmonds was able to continue applying the pressure with a wrist shot from right in front of the crease. Murray slowed the puck, but it ended up sitting loose in the blue paint, allowing Couturier to force it home with a wrister.
In all, the Flyers absolutely dominated play for the opening 6:26 of action, as they out-shot Pittsburgh seven-to-two.
That all changed after the first TV timeout though, as Third Star C Sidney Crosby (D Kris Letang and D Brian Dumoulin) cleaned up Letang’s slap shot from the blue line to level the game at the 6:30 mark. G Michal Neuvirth was able to make the initial save, but the Penguins’ set play was designed to give Crosby a rebound opportunity in case the netminder yielded one to his glove side.
Only 47 seconds after Crosby tied the game for the Pens, LW Carl Hagelin (RW Phil Kessel and C Riley Sheahan) took a quick pass from Kessel to give Pittsburgh the advantage. The Flyers defense was largely to blame for this play, as there were two players crashing on Kessel inside the trapezoid to leave the center of the zone wide open for Hagelin. Waiting at the left corner of the crease for Kessel’s pass, Hagelin took advantage of the open shot to beat Neuvirth to the far post.
But the Flyers were far from ready to give up that easily, as they were able to level the game at 2-2 4:12 before the intermission courtesy of D Andrew MacDonald‘s (D Ivan Provorov and Couturier) clapper from the point. MacDonald had the luxury of Simmonds and Oleksiak screening Murray, allowing him to beat the netminder glove side with ease.
Only one penalty was charged in the first period, and it is there where Philadelphians’ critiques of the zebras will begin. It was a wild play around the 17:30 mark of the frame that started with a W Conor Sheary snap shot. With the help of the near post, Neuvirth was able to make the save, and the resulting scrum in front of his crease quickly became a dog-pile of all players Pennsylvanian.
Somehow, only C Scott Laughton was charged with an infraction (interference against C Derick Brassard) with 1:25 remaining in the period, but fortunately for the Flyers it did not cost them their third goal against.
Riding the positive energy from completing the kill in the second period (35 seconds carried across the intermission), Philadelphia reclaimed the lead at the 40 second mark when Couturier (W Matt Read) scored his second of the game. Similar to the first, he had to grind this tally out, as Murray initially appeared to survive the center’s patient pull across his crease. However, Couturier’s backhanded shot eventually squeaked under the netminder and into the back of the net.
In a game filled with goals, the fact that there was 11:34 between Couturier’s tally and Laughton’s (Couturier) long-range snapper was unbelievable. However, the Flyers weren’t complaining one bit, as they earned the first two-goal game of the lead.
Of course, we all know what is said about two-goal leads, so it didn’t take long for the Penguins to begin storming back. RW Patric Hornqvist (First Star F Jake Guentzel and Crosby) pulled Pittsburgh back within one goal 1:21 after the horn stopped blaring for Laughton by completing some stellar passing with a wrister. Hornqvist had the luxury of a gaping cage due in large part to Guentzel’s well-earned reputation for clutch playoff performances (a point he’d further cement in the third period), as Neuvirth fully committed to stopping any shot the sophomore could attempt on his blocker side.
Speaking of Guentzel’s playoff scoring abilities, he (D Olli Maatta and Hornqvist) was the one responsible for tying the game at 4-4 with 54 seconds remaining in the second period.
Also in that category, Guentzel scored Pittsburgh’s fifth (assist from Kessel at the 30 second mark), sixth (assists from Crosby and Letang at the 12:48 mark) for his second-ever hat trick (both in the playoffs) and seventh goals of the game (assists from Hornqvist and Letang at the 12:58 mark).
It was the game-winning goal where officiating started to look a little fishy. Having already been sent to the penalty box for cross checking Couturier with 9:23 remaining in regulation (then setting up 1:28 of four-on-three play for the Flyers), it seemed like Letang was guilty of a fairly obvious tripping penalty against Couturier along the boards in Philadelphia’s defensive zone. However, play was allowed to continue, allowing Guentzel to bury his slap shot from between the face-off circles past Neuvirth’s glove.
Let the boo birds begin their song.
Surely mad at not getting the call he thought he deserved, Couturier (F Claude Giroux) set the score at 7-5 with 2:53 remaining in regulation to complete his hat trick. Penguins Head Coach Mike Sullivan challenged for goaltender interference, but it was ruled that Murray was able to play his position after the slight contact from the eventual goalscorer.
Couturier scored with Neuvirth pulled for the extra attacker, and – with his club facing elimination – Head Coach Dave Hakstol employed that strategy once again for any glimmer of hope that his team could score two more goals.
They would not be able to pull that off, but one goal was left to be scored: an empty netter by Rust with 31 seconds remaining in regulation.
Of course, this being the Battle of Pennsylvania, even this simple play could not go off without some gritty play. However, it was Maatta’s blatant cross check against a Flyer at center ice immediately before Rust’s goal that once again drew the ire of the Philly crowd.
Similar to Letang’s, this infraction went “unnoticed” by the officials and the orange-clad fans let them know about – not only with a chorus of boos, but also with rally towels and beer cans of various volumes.
While it is unwise to condone such behavior from fans, it’s hard to argue with their judgement. This was a built-up frustration stemming from the missed Letang penalty (at minimum) that truly could have influenced the outcome of this game, and it boiled over when Maatta’s penalty also went uncalled.
With one rivalry behind them, the Penguins now await the winner of the Columbus-Washington series for Round Two in their quest for a three-peat. The Capitals own a 3-2 advantage going into Game 6, which is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Eastern tomorrow night. Pens fans should tune their televisions to CNBC, SN or TVAS2 to find out which capital their club will square off against next: Ohio’s or the nation’s.