PITTSBURGH, Pa. – Peter Laviolette’s speech was well rehearsed, nothing the Philadelphia Flyers haven’t heard a dozen times this season, if not more.
His team facing a three-goal deficit after the first 20 minutes of the Eastern Conference quarter-finals against Pittsburgh on Wednesday, Laviolette trotted out the same message that’s become rote during the last three months.
Hang in there, Laviolette told his players. Get back to playing your game. Keep skating—actually, start skating—and good things will happen.
Laviolette didn’t smash a stick to make his point. He knows that’s no longer required.
Of course, it’d be nice if his players would let him take a night off from making the speech by not waiting until they’re trailing to get it together. Still, the Flyers will take their stunning 4-3 rally in Game 1 over the alternative, which they fear is coming if they don’t solve their first-period issues in Game 2 on Friday night.
“I think we’ve got to play that desperate hockey when it’s 0-0 when the puck drops,” forward Scott Hartnell said. “You can’t win too many of these games. We’ve been getting lucky.”
The comeback was nothing new for the Flyers, who won 20 games this season when the opposing team scored the first goal, the most in the NHL. They’ve become particularly adept at doing it against the Penguins.
The game marked the third time in the last month Philadelphia has spotted Pittsburgh at least two goals then roared back to win, yet the Penguins tried to remain upbeat after ceding home-ice advantage with a stunning collapse.
“I think that’s something we expected of them,” Pittsburgh goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury said. “They always come back. They always find a way to come back into games.”
The Flyers did it on Wednesday by taking away the space Pittsburgh stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin prefer to operate in and nullifying the Penguins’ power play. Pittsburgh had the man advantage twice in the second period and again early in the third period with a chance to add to its advantage, but couldn’t muster much flow.
“I look at that situation as an opportunity for our power play to get a big goal, but momentum as well,” Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma said.
Instead it was the Flyers who seized control, nearly scoring on a short-handed breakaway that breathed some life into the bench. Danny Briere turned the breath into a full-blown rally halfway through the period with a breakaway goal to put Philadelphia on the board.
Briere appeared to enter the zone before receiving the pass but the whistle never blew. The Penguins refused to point fingers at linesman Tony Sericolo, who was trailing the play and not in the best position to make a call.
“That was just one play,” Pittsburgh defenceman Brooks Orpik said. “There were a ton of others out there that we could have made.”
Only the Penguins didn’t, managing just five shots in the third period and none in the brief overtime that ended when Jakub Voracek stuffed a rebound past Fleury to send the sellout crowd at Consol Energy Center trudging to the exits in silence.
Quite a turnaround from the opening 20 minutes, when the Flyers—some of whom were making their playoff debut—looked overcome by the moment.
“Obviously, they came out just guns-ablazing, they were skating all over us, we were on our heels,” Hartnell said.
That’s been the case much of the second half of the season for Philadelphia, which has only scored the first goal eight times in its last 33 games. Yet the Flyers are 18-8-5 over that span.
Laviolette has taken to using his lone timeout early in games to settle his team down. He did it on April 1 after the Penguins scored twice in the first five minutes and watched the Flyers storm back to a 6-4 win.
He did it again on Wednesday and though Pittsburgh pushed the lead to 3-0 late in the first period on a somewhat fluky goal by Pascal Dupuis, Philadelphia had already started to assert itself.
“We did it before, I would say probably seven, eight, nine times this season,” said Philadelphia forward Jaromir Jagr.
Particularly against the Penguins, who insist the Flyers aren’t in their heads.
“We’ve just got to stay aggressive,” forward Jordan Staal said. “We can’t sit back and get comfortable.”
The Penguins point out the winner of Game 1 in their last four playoff series has gone on to lose the series. They should know, they easily won the opener of their quarter-final series against Tampa Bay only to fall in seven games.
“It’s just one game,” Fleury said. “It’s a long series but we know how important it is to get going.”
So do the Flyers, who would prefer to keep Laviolette from having to make a speech to get their attention. Hartnell just smiles when asked if he could elaborate what exactly comes out of his coach’s mouth when things look dire.
“I don’t want to say that on-air,” Hartnell said. “It’s something that we talk about in our group, and he… I don’t know. Whatever he says works.”