No sport really needs four rounds of playoffs. Sure, you get the occasional good first-round series, but mostly it’s about weeding out the fatally flawed teams before they have a chance to shit up the later rounds, which in theory should be quality hockey all-around. The Flyers are out of the playoffs, thank goodness, losing their series to Pittsburgh 4-2, with all four of those losses featuring defensive meltdowns. That’s the sort of team that shouldn’t make it out of the first round; or something has gone very wrong with hockey if it does.
Sunday’s 8-5 Flyers loss was ugly on and off the ice, the Flyers committing a slew of brutal turnovers, and goalie Michal Neuvirth getting shelled but not being replaced, because Brian Elliott had been too awful in the series to even consider going back to him, and angry Philadelphia fans littered the ice with trash after a late empty-netter. Well, not all of it was trash:
But, let’s back up and see just what the fans were so pissed about. Warning, the defensive breakdowns you’re about to see are graphic.
Here, in the first, are two quick Penguins goals from Sidney Crosby and Carl Hagelin to take an early 2-1 lead. I don’t know how on earth you forget to cover any player—let alone Crosby—so completely, and I don’t know how you do it again 47 seconds later.
When Sean Couturier (who revealed he was playing on a torn MCL, suffered during a practice collision last week with teammate Radko Gudas) scored his second and third of the game to give the Flyers a 4-2 lead midway through the second, things were looking up for Philly. Evgeni Malkin did not play with a leg injury, and Carl Hagelin left the game after being hit by Claude Giroux. All the Flyers had to do was protect a two-goal lead for 28 minutes against a team missing two of its top six forwards.
But Patric Hornqvist cut the lead to one a minute later on a bad turnover by Gudas, and it’s not even so much worth looking at the goal itself, on this, or later scores, not when compared to the giveaways.
With 54 seconds left in the second period, Gudas gave the Penguins another gift:
Just 30 seconds into the third, Flyers d-man Ivan Provorov would hand the puck to Phil Kessel, who faked and slid it over to Jake Guentzel to make it 5-4 Penguins, a lead they would not relinquish.
Guentzel would later score another two goals in 10 seconds (one of them on a bad Provorov turnover), giving him four straight goals. “I don’t think I’ve ever had a game like this, where they’re just going in like that,” Guentzel said. I don’t think he’s often played against a defense so seemingly intent on setting him up like that.
Provorov, a supremely talented 21-year-old who led the league in goals by a defenseman, tearfully addressed reporters after the game, revealing he was limited by an injured shoulder, but taking the blame for his turnovers. (Gudas declined to speak to the media.)
The play of the defensemen was so bad, it’s easy to overlook the fact that Neuvirth gave up seven goals. The only reason he wasn’t pulled was because Elliott, the nominal No. 1, had allowed 14 goals in 177 minutes and was yanked twice in the first four games of the series. Step one of this offseason will be figuring out the goaltending situation. Step two is tightening up the blue line.
The Flyers have a lot of young talent, and they played like young guys on Sunday, which is going to happen. But everyone’s got maybe one more season (after which coach Dave Hakstol will be entering his lame-duck contract year) to see exactly what they’ve got here in Philly, and if they’re actually on their way up, or just scuffling on the postseason bubble. Hakstol said there are going to be rough patches like this in the short term.
“You always want development to be this smooth path and this smooth climb; it doesn’t work that way,” Hakstol said. “It’s kind of a jagged climb, and as long as you’re seeing a steady push to improve, then you stick with it and keep pushing in that direction.”
As for the Penguins, it’s tough to know what to make of them. They were given more trouble than they’d like by the Flyers, but also outscored them 28-15 in the series. This edition of the Pens is not exactly favored to threepeat, but the way the East shakes out, they’re going to get the Capitals or Blue Jackets in the second round, both eminently winnable matchups. And playing flawed teams goes a long way toward hiding your own flaws.