PITTSBURGH, Pa. – So this is what normal playoff hockey looks like. Big saves. Tight checking. Defence. Strong penalty killing.
Took long enough, though better late than never for Marc-Andre Fleury and the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Fleury withstood a furious third-period onslaught to stop 24 shots and the Penguins extended their season with a 3-2 victory over the Flyers on Friday in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinal series.
Pittsburgh, which dropped the first three games of this wide-open series, now trails 3-2 heading into Game 6 on Sunday in Philadelphia.
“Our story doesn’t change,” Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby said. “It’s still desperation for us.”
And maybe for the Flyers, too.
Philadelphia used a pair of early power-play goals to take a 2-1 lead, but failed to close out the Penguins.
“We’ve got to find a way to get that fourth (victory),” Flyers centre Claude Giroux said. “It’s probably the hardest game to win. We’ve just got to get it done.”
The Flyers couldn’t get it done on Friday thanks mostly to Fleury, who restored order to his crease and his team’s Stanley Cup hopes in the process.
“He won them the game, plain and simple,” Philadelphia’s Scott Hartnell said.
Facing elimination, Fleury had no choice. The Flyers spent the game’s final 15 minutes doing everything they could to rattle him, bowling him over on more than one occasion and forcing him to make stops with one or two players draped around his white pads.
“(Fleury) was on and he made some huge ones,” Crosby said. “It definitely was the difference in the game. It’s the time of year when you need those and he came up big for us.”
Steve Sullivan, Jordan Staal and Tyler Kennedy scored for Pittsburgh, which won on a night stars Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were held pointless. The Penguins dug in, however, after another shaky start to keep their hopes alive of becoming the fourth team in NHL history to rally from a three-game deficit.
“Our defence made hard and good plays,” Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma said. “We finally got what looks like a playoff game a little bit more tonight.”
It was a welcome change for the Penguins, who have struggled to keep up with the Flyers during a series more suited to a video game than the Stanley Cup. The teams combined for a record 45 goals in the first four games.
The goal light—which malfunctioned briefly in the third period—only came on five times Friday as the wide open sheets of ice that marked the first week of the series suddenly disappeared.
“The pace was still fast and furious,” Philadelphia coach Peter Laviolette said. “It was physical … we just couldn’t get it in the back of the net as often. We had opportunities. We had good looks at it. Their goaltender made big saves at the end.”
Hartnell and Matt Carle scored power-play goals in the first period for Philadelphia, but the Flyers failed to close out Pittsburgh for the second straight game. Ilya Bryzgalov stopped 20 shots, playing much steadier two days after getting yanked in the second period of a 10-3 loss in Game 4.
Staal had a hat trick in the rout, but his goal Friday might have been more important. The Flyers had the lead and momentum when Staal beat Bryzgalov over the glove 6:15 into the second period to tie it and give the Penguins an energy boost in front of the largest crowd in the Consol Energy Center’s brief history.
Kennedy put Pittsburgh in front to stay just over 3 minutes later, ripping a slap shot past Bryzgalov for his third goal of the playoffs.
And for once, a one-goal advantage in this unpredictable series was enough.
Fleury, who came in with an unsightly 5.43 goals-against average and a .817 save percentage overcame four games of shabby play with 20 brilliant minutes in the third period.
He made seven saves during a Philadelphia power play early in the third period to give Pittsburgh’s maligned special teams a break, one they needed after the Flyers pumped in two goals with the man advantage in the first.
On the brink of having a season with Stanley Cup expectations come to a stunningly quick end, however, the Penguins responded by ditching flashy play for more basic, responsible hockey.
It was enough to send the series back to Philadelphia, where the pressure will be squarely on the Flyers, who are hoping to avoid the same fate as the 2010 Boston Bruins.
Philadelphia lost the first three games of its Eastern Conference semifinal series only to roar back and win on its way to an appearance in the Stanley Cup finals. The Flyers know the Penguins are brimming with confidence. They’re hardly worried even though they haven’t scored an even strength goal since the third period of Game 3.
“I like pressure,” Giroux said. “If the pressure is on us, that’s good.”
NOTES: The Flyers played without defenceman Nicklas Grossmann. He is dealing with a concussion and is out indefinitely. …. The Penguins played without D Paul Martin, who missed his second straight game because of an undisclosed injury. … The Penguins had never won a Game 5 after going down 3-0 in a series. … Philadelphia F James van Riemsdyk played 7:31 in his first game since breaking his foot against the Islanders on March 1.