|ESPN.com: NHL Playoffs 2009||[Print without images]|
PHILADELPHIA -- This is the kind of grisly loss that defines a franchise. It's the kind of win that may define a champion.
Up 3-0 in the second period of Saturday's Game 6, the Philadelphia Flyers wilted in the face of a willful and skillful Pittsburgh Penguins team, lost 5-3 and were eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs.
If this loss is yet another piece of the quilt of playoff failure that has dogged the Flyers since last winning a championship in 1975, what does it say of the Pittsburgh Penguins, who orchestrated this stunning turnaround?
In the short term, it tells you Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby have that singular ability to steady a team adrift and drag it kicking and screaming somewhere else entirely in the moments that matter most.
"I just thought Malkin and Crosby almost looked like they took the game over, to be honest with you," Philadelphia coach John Stevens said. "We capitalized on a few opportunities there, and if you get a 3-0 lead, it should be over."
Stevens' counterpart, Dan Bylsma, was coaching in the AHL when this season started. Now, he's managed his Penguins into the second round despite the fact his team was outplayed for large portions of this series.
"They have great players over there," Bylsma said. "I think we anticipated it to be a battle, but until you get in the battle and play face to face, until you get hit with pucks in the gut, you don't know how hard it's going to be. They put up a huge fight and played some great hockey against us and they certainly challenged us."
A comeback like this isn't one thing, it's not one moment; it's a collection of seemingly random incidents that somehow morph into something that suddenly and irrevocably changes everything.
Like Maxime Talbot fighting Daniel Carcillo at the 4:21 mark of the second period. Talbot had been an early goat in this one. His ghastly turnover led to Mike Knuble's rebound goal, which was the first of two the Flyers scored in a 51-second span that gave them a 2-0 lead through the first period.
Talbot approached Carcillo just 29 seconds after Daniel Briere had given the Flyers a 3-0 lead with their first power-play goal in 19 tries. The two went at it, and if you were scoring at home, it was a unanimous Carcillo decision.
"I played with him in the minors," Talbot said. "I know he's a tough cookie. But I felt responsible for that first goal and I knew I was not going to score three goals after that, so I had to do something to make up for it and help my team. I thought a fight could be something."
His teammates were unanimous in believing he did something.
"Max Talbot. I've been talking about him since the game ended. I can't say enough about what he did," veteran Pittsburgh forward Bill Guerin said. "You know, he fought a tough kid, and he knew that, but it's not the win and the loss of the fight, it's the willingness to jump in there and do what you have to do for your teammates. That's a win."
Fourteen seconds after they'd gathered up the gloves and sticks from the ice, Malkin bulled his way to the front of the Flyers' net and Ruslan Fedotenko speared home a loose puck to make it 3-1. (Want to know the last time Fedotenko scored a playoff goal? It was the Stanley Cup winner in 2004.)
Less than two minutes later, defenseman Mark Eaton, not necessarily known for his offensive derring-do, joined the rush and bunted the rebound of a Tyler Kennedy shot past Philadelphia netminder Martin Biron. Now, it was 3-2.
"That's where youth baseball came in handy," Eaton joked.
By then, the 20,072 sardined into the Wachovia Center -- surely 20,071 of them wearing orange T-shirts -- were suddenly feeling as though the game had been mysteriously replaced by a gruesome train wreck.
With just under five minutes remaining in the second period, Guerin launched a hard backhand toward the net. The shot deflected off Flyers defenseman Kimmo Timonen, off Biron's glove and then was batted past Biron by Crosby as he dashed toward the net. It was Crosby who'd been in the penalty box when Briere scored what looked to be the killer power-play goal. Now he had tied the game with his third of the playoffs.
Less than three minutes into the third period, Sergei Gonchar took a delicate little drop pass from Malkin and blasted the winner past Biron on the stick side.
Not even the vision of Rocky Balboa and the sound of the "Rocky" theme, or John Belushi and his famous "It's not over" speech from "Animal House" could save the Flyers from what seemed inevitable.
"We seemed to lose our focus and it's not the first time that it happened," Briere said.
Were they thinking ahead to Game 7?
"I don't know. I'm not sure exactly," Briere said. "We definitely lost focus and I don't know if it was looking ahead or just thinking that we had it won at that point, but this change in momentum just hurt us."
It was apropos Crosby, the perpetual whipping boy in this sport-crazy city, collected an empty-net goal to add the final punctuation mark to this game.
"This is a good one. This is a big one. I don't think I've been involved in a game like that before," Guerin said.
"There's no better feeling and probably no better building to win it in than here," Eaton added. "And being down three, it should give us a lot of confidence going into the next series. I mean, I think this was our best game in this series, so we need to learn from what we did tonight. Obviously throughout the playoffs, we talk about how you're going to face adversity, and tonight we responded the way we needed to. I think we learned a lot about ourselves tonight."
The Penguins will return home and nurse their bumps and bruises and await their second-round opponent.
Unlike last season, when the Penguins dominated them in a five-game set in the Eastern Conference finals, the Flyers were healthy and seemed poised to take control of this series.
"I'm extremely disappointed," Stevens said. "I really thought we could get this game back to Pittsburgh and then anything can happen. Every year, you want to make steps as a team and I thought we made big steps last year and I really think we made big steps this year.
"It might not seem like it right now because we're not going as far as we did last year, but we certainly put up a better fight against a team that's just as good, in my opinion, as they were last year."
Still, the Flyers' inability to stay on task for long periods of time ultimately cost them this series, just as it cost them home-ice advantage when they blew a third-period lead in their final regular-season game, which gave home ice to the Penguins.
"You're not going to get away all the time with losing your focus for periods of time," Briere said. "It can happen for a goal. It just seems too many times it happens for too long."
Although Joffrey Lupul recorded his first goal of the series Saturday and Timonen notched his first point of the series in Game 6, the Flyers got far too little from their big guns when it mattered.
Jeff Carter was a major disappointment, scoring just once in the series after finishing second during the regular season with 46 goals.
"It's tough. I had a pretty good regular season, and coming in, I had high hopes for myself," Carter said. "I'm looked upon to put the puck in the net and one goal just really doesn't cut it. I had some shots and some chances, but you've got to put them in the back of the net."
The offseason will provide a host of challenges for GM Paul Holmgren.
It would seem another first-round ouster, their second since the lockout, will mean the end of the line for Biron, even though his performance in Game 6 shouldn't be laid at his feet. Biron, 31, will be an unrestricted free agent this summer.
The Flyers went hard after Florida defenseman Jay Bouwmeester at the March 4 trade deadline and they can be expected to take another run at him when he becomes a free agent on July 1. But in order to do that, Holmgren would have to move some salary, and Briere and Lupul will be the subject of trade rumors as free agency approaches.
Regardless, for those that remain, the memory of this loss will persist long into next fall.Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.