There are some things in life that are unwanted, though not necessarily unexpected. I experienced that rather unsettling feeling on Sunday afternoon, when the Pittsburgh Penguins lost Game 6 to the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round of the NHL playoffs. While many Flyers fans called the series weeks ago when the two Pennsylvania rivals faced off, I held fast to the hope that the pressure of the playoffs would inspire the Pens to play to their full potential. Sadly, I was mistaken.
While I will always be most decidedly a Pittsburgh fan, I have to say that I am disappointed that the Pens’ playoff run ended so soon. Like many others, I feel like the team failed to play to its full potential, which ultimately cost it the opportunity to continue on the road in pursuit of the Stanley Cup and the biggest bragging rights in the NHL. While I chose to ignore it, the writing was on the wall in Game 1 of the series, when the Penguins blew a three-point lead in the first period. Despite that incredible 10-3 win in Game 4, I don’t think that the Penguins ever possessed the focus necessary to advance to the next round. So, the Flyers outplayed, outlasted and, dare I say, outclassed the Penguins.
After blowing the three-point lead in Game 1, it is hard to argue that the Pens were playing their best hockey. Coming into this series I wrote a column where I said that I would put money on Marc-Andre Fleury being a more reliable goalie than the Flyers’ Ilya Bryzgalov. Instead of being the underrated brick wall in net like I had predicted him to be, Fleury played erratically and, in my opinion, is one of the biggest reasons why Pittsburgh made such an early exit from the playoffs. Fleury was supposed to be Pittsburgh’s saving grace in net; however, an embarrassing 4.63 goals-against average and .834 save percentage scream anything but impressive. No wonder it’s hard to convince hockey fans that your team is capable of bringing home the cup when your goalie is dead last on the GAA leader board.
While I feel that goaltending is a major make-or-break aspect of most games, the goalie should really the last defense. Throughout the series, I wore my Evgeni Malkin jersey proudly. The alternate captain really carried the Penguins at times in the regular season, especially when captain Sidney Crosby was side-lined with those never ending, concussion-like symptoms. Malkin led the team in points (109), goals (50), assists (59) and game-winning goals (9) heading into the post-season. I expected big things from the center, but when all was said and done, Malkin contributed just eight points to the Penguins’ playoff efforts, with three goals and five assists. Crosby contributed the same — a far cry from what was expected from the once-best player in the league. While the final goal count was a close 30-26 in favor of Philadelphia, I would have liked to see the numbers a little higher thanks to Geno and Sid. If it weren’t for Jordan Staal, I’m pretty sure that the Flyers would have easily swept the Pens in four games.
While the Penguins skated around impersonating the Canucks, whose championship dreams were also unexpectedly dashed, in Games 1-3, the Flyers were solidifying themselves as a contender for the 2012 Stanley Cup. As much as I hate to praise the Flyboys, I will give credit where credit is due. It’s no wonder that the Flyers are entering round two when they have players like Claude Giroux, Danny Briere and Bryzgalov on the ice. While Bryzgalov is nowhere near perfect, I think he defended more consistently than Fleury — disregarding Game 4, as it was clearly a fluke. Giroux and Briere proved that solid stick work and focus can make all the difference. Briere also proved that he is capable of finishing the series playing at a high level of intensity, despite a cheap shot by the Penguins’ James Neal.
The Flyers also outclassed the Pens, as much as it pains me to say it. For me, sportsmanship is one of the most important aspects of a game. So, whether your team is winning by 10 or losing by 10, you go out there, play the game as it was meant to be played and accept the final results. Philadelphia has been known for being a brutish gang since the glory days of hockey, when they were nicknamed “The Broad Street Bullies.” So, expecting the series between the Flyers and the Penguins to be nice and civil was naïve. I thought that the Flyers would live up to their bad boy reputation; however, I was surprised when it wasn’t the Flyboys taking the cheap shots, but rather the Penguins. I have some very strong opinions when it comes to fighting and hockey, so when I saw Neal’s hit on Giroux, I was less than pleased. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think he deserved more than a one-game suspension. Charging someone has a place — that place is a bull ring, not a hockey rink. As for Arron Asham’s stick to the “throat” against Flyers’ center Brayden Schenn, that four-game suspension was deserved. Dan Bylsma must be so proud.
I hate that my team did not make it to the next round, just as much as I hate that the Flyers did. However, I really feel that at the end of the day, the better team advanced. Like I said before, I will always stand by the Penguins, but I think that sometimes being a fan means recognizing that your favorite team isn’t perfect 100 percent of the time. The Penguins will need to go back to the drawing board and see what worked, what did not work and what can be improved on. The boys have 12 months to get their act together and prove that they deserved to make the playoffs.
As the competition was bound to be heated on the ice, I decided to make a small bet with a friend before the playoffs began. I promised to wear his Bryzgalov jersey for a week, if the Flyers won in four, but he would have to wear my Crosby jersey for a week if the Penguins swept the series. Luckily, the Penguins weren’t swept, so I only have to wear the jersey for a day. However, while I stand by orange and black are not my colors, I’m a woman of my word. Also, Chris, dinner is on me. I guess things could always be worse. I could be a Canucks fan.