The long series most everyone predicted has become reality after all. Yes, the Flyers flirted with a sweep. But, now this Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series is headed to an early afternoon Game Six Sunday.
The Flyers are still one win from advancing to the second round. The Penguins are halfway to making history. It is definitely a nervous time for fans of the orange and black. Here are some observations after Friday nights 3-2 Pittsburgh win.
True playoff feel
After four games that produced an NHL record 45 goals, Game 5 had the look, feel and smell of the type of hockey you usually see this time of year. It was high paced, intense, and the goalies made some big stops. Momentum swung back and forth with the Penguins hanging on for dear life as the Flyers made their final charge.
The Flyers actually performed better in the loss than they did in some of their earlier wins in the series. They can actually take that with them into Game 6 and try to build off of it. Its obvious the Penguins will not fade into the background. The Flyers are going to have to push them out. If they remain as disciplined and intense as they were for most of Game 5, I like their chances to do it Sunday.
Flower has bloomed
One of the goalies in this series was bound to step forward eventually. In Game 5, Marc-Andre Fleury was the guy. He wasn't overly taxed through the first 50 minutes although he did make some key stops during the course of the first two periods. But, he really stood out in the third period, especially during a Flyers' power play that resulted in seven shots, several of high quality. Simply put, he was the difference.
Fleury has now registered five solid periods in a row. He is the type of goalie who can get on a roll and be a difference maker. After struggling early in the series, he appears to have found his game and that becomes another significant obstacle the Flyers will have to overcome.
Their best bet is to get in his face and disrupt him. They need to do whatever it takes to make him uncomfortable. He looked far too comfortable on Friday night.
Piling up the minutes on D
The Flyers have been remarkably resilient on defense this season. They have dealt with the loss of Chris Pronger and injuries to several other key members of the defense corps without being derailed. However, the damage may finally be taking its toll.
The latest casualty, Nicklas Grossmann, has left them very thin on the blue line. The result is an imbalance in ice time distribution that could be leading to some of the veteran defenders wearing down.
In Game 5, Braydon Coburn, Matt Carle, and Kimmo Timonen logged heavy duty minutes while Andreas Lilja, Pavel Kubina, and Erik Gustafsson we're simply spotted here and there. The result? Lilja, Kubina, and Gustafsson's total ice time put together barely added up to any of the other threes individual time on ice.
While you have to ride your horses this time of year, you have to wonder if there will be a wear down effect. There's not a lot of time between Games 5 and 6. Coburn, Carle, and Timonen will have to somehow hang in there. The Penguins are sure to try and pound them whenever they get a chance to accelerate the potential fatigue factor. It bears watching.
For as much attention as Flyers fans pay to Sidney Crosby, it is his running mate who is the dirtier player. Evgeni Malkin is a supremely talented, at times, dominant player. He will probably win the Hart Trophy this season as the NHL's most valuable player. He is in anyone's list of top five players you would want to build a team around.
That being said, he also deserves some attention for his lack of discipline and propensity for cheap shots. Far too often, the guy they call Geno targets the head for his hits. He has done so to Claude Giroux, Nicklas Grossmann, and Sean Couturier in games between the Flyers and Pens this month alone. At some point, as great as he is, he's going to have to face the music, either via supplemental discipline or on the ice.
Its no secret that Malkins frustration gets the best of him from time to time. Sometimes he pays for it by sitting in the box while opponents score. Perhaps the time is coming where he will have to sit out more than two minutes when his hits warrant it, even with his superstar status.
Dont look big picture
The Flyers need to show some real mental toughness now. Between games five and six, there will be many stories, tweets, blogs, reports, etc. of how this series is slipping away from them. Once cruising to a possible sweep, now sliding toward making the kind of history they want no part of.
It's important that this young club ignores all that and just goes out and plays a solid hockey game on Sunday afternoon. They actually performed better in losing Game 5 than they had in winning some of the earlier games of the series. If they can replicate that performance in Game 6 and just bury a couple more opportunities, they will be on their way to the second round.
The Flyers were very good all season long at avoiding losing streaks. They never lost more than two straight games in regulation. They never lost more than three in a row overall. This would not be the time to change that.
E-mail Jim Jackson at firstname.lastname@example.org