Sunday, April 22, 2012
Flyers leave Pens with only questions
By Scott Burnside ESPN.com
PHILADELPHIA -- The distance between the two locker rooms at Wells Fargo Center is maybe 30 yards. But the distance on this Sunday afternoon, with the Philadelphia Flyers celebrating their opening-round victory over Pittsburgh and the Penguins wondering how it all fell apart so quickly, seemed infinitely greater.
The Flyers weren't just celebrating their 5-1 victory in Game 6 of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series over a hated foe; they were celebrating the blossoming of a team that underwent a dramatic upheaval less than a year ago.
"It's good to see us rewarded here in the playoffs," defenseman Matt Carle told a small group of reporters in a crowded Flyers locker room. "Probably not too many people picked us to win this series. It feels good for us in the locker room to beat a team like Pittsburgh and move on to the next round."
After playing in the 2010 Stanley Cup finals and then getting swept in the second round last spring by Boston, GM Paul Holmgren decided his club needed a new look.
He dumped two top forwards in Jeff Carter and captain Mike Richards and signed top free-agent netminder Ilya Bryzgalov. The Flyers started this series with six rookies in their lineup, including Matt Read, Sean Couturier and Brayden Schenn, and there were plenty of questions about their ability to respond to the pressures of playoff hockey.
Yet each played a significant role in the Flyers' upset of the favored Penguins.
Couturier frustrated regular-season scoring champ Evgeni Malkin throughout the series. He won 9 of 12 faceoffs in Game 6 and had a four-point night in Game 2.
Schenn was an agitating force throughout. He was on the ice in the final seconds stripping the puck from Malkin and scoring into an empty net, giving him two goals and four assists in his first playoff series.
Jakub Voracek, who came over from Columbus in the Carter deal, added two more assists Sunday and finished with seven points on the series.
Losing Games 4 and 5 prompted questions about the Flyers being able to close the deal. But in Game 6, Philadelphia blocked 40 shots to deny Pittsburgh any kind of flow to its game.
"I'm proud of how everybody responded today," forward Daniel Briere said. "We have such a young team.
"There's a lot of guys that paid a huge price. I'll remember this series for a long, long time."
As the Flyers were being asked about whom they might face in the second round, down the hallway in the Penguins room there were more sobering questions, like "What now?"
Since winning the Cup in 2009, they have won just one playoff round. They were bounced in the first round two years in a row. Last year was understandable as both Malkin and captain Sidney Crosby were sidelined by injury.
But this spring the gang was all here, healthy and ready to roll again. And most thought they would, even with the understanding that Philadelphia presented a formidable challenge.
"Flyers are a good team," said Pascal Dupuis. "Obviously we knew that coming in.
"The potential was there like you said. At the same time you can have the best player in the game, if you don't execute, if you don't battle, if you don't work hard, if you don't keep the puck out of your net, you're not going to win. Right now it's a shock, but we didn't play the right way to win."
In a series that was chockablock with some of the biggest stars in the game, the ones who left the greatest, lasting impression wore Flyers orange.
Claude Giroux, who never seems to stop chirping and chatting with anyone who crosses his path on the ice, was a force. He set the tone Sunday, taking Crosby hard into the boards off the opening faceoff and then capitalizing on a terrible Steve Sullivan turnover to rip home a wrist shot to give the Flyers a 1-0 lead just 32 seconds in. With 14 points in the series, Giroux came within one point of the franchise record for most points in a single playoff series.
The Penguins' stars, seemingly so much bigger and brighter, simply didn't deliver enough.
Crosby ended up with eight points in the series, but had none in the final two contests.
After battling back from concussion-related symptoms that kept him out of action for long periods the past two seasons, including last year's playoffs, Crosby had a disappointing end point.
"You know that's hockey sometimes," Crosby said. "You don't always get to achieve the stuff you want to and there's a lot of other teams that want the same thing. It's not a good feeling, but that being said, we've got to find some way to learn from this and be better for it."
James Neal seemed more intent on trying to run people in this series and was not a factor in Game 6.
Jordan Staal was terrific at times. And while Malkin played with energy in Game 6, he lacked the kind of finish one would expect from a 50-goal scorer and the likely Hart Trophy winner as regular-season MVP.
"They played really, really well and we didn't play very well for three games," defenseman Brooks Orpik said. "There's obviously a lot of regrets in the room and stuff that you can't take back. You can't change the outcome of the first three games.
"I think if we'd played really well for three games and we were down 3-0, it would have been a little easier to swallow. When you look back at a number of things you could have done better, that's what's harder to accept."
Perhaps most disappointing for Penguins fans was the play of Marc-Andre Fleury, who was lionized after the Pens held on for a 3-2 victory in Game 5. He seemed surprised by Giroux's opening goal, was beaten on a power-play scramble and then whiffed on a long Erik Gustafsson shot that made the score 3-0. Even when Malkin made it 3-1, Fleury couldn't get a bead on a bouncing puck in the crease and it skittered over the line to put the game out of reach just 34 seconds later.
In a conversation before the series began, GM Ray Shero described how important Fleury had been to the Penguins' season, calling him their personal MVP in spite of Malkin's play. But aside from brief periods, he was not very good and finished with an unsightly 4.63 goals-against average and .834 save percentage.
He is now 8-12 in his past 20 postseason games, and that lack of consistency is another concern for Shero and the Penguins as they approach this offseason.
When you are a team with this much talent but disappointing results, the course is tricky. Do you tinker, filling in around the edges, changing small pieces in the hopes that they make up the difference?
Or does another disappointing playoff turn suggest bolder action?
One of the names that will continue to percolate, especially in light of the first-round exit, is that of center Staal, who can become an unrestricted free agent after next season.
He insisted he isn't wondering what changes the team might undergo.
"I don't wonder about it," Staal said. "But I love the guys in this room. I believe in every one of the guys in the room. I think we had the character in this room not to give up; we didn't give up this series. It was too bad we still came up short."
Still, the fact this latest disappointment came at the hands of a team that faced similar questions not long ago and answered them boldly suggests some hard choices ahead for the Penguins.
The Flyers? No regrets here. Just a look forward to their next opponent.