The night started out with obvious promise. A win would mean a sweep of not only the Flyers' most hated rivals, but also the odds-on favorites to win the Stanley Cup. A close loss wouldn't be the end of the world, as really, no one expected a sweep in the Flyers' favor when the series began. All day I had a nervous buzz. Anticipation for the possibility of being in the building for something unforgettable;
My buddy Will and I filed in, warmer-than-the-regular-season weather making FDR and the lots that much more fun for tailgaters. The later-than-usual playoff start time didn't hurt either.
Passing through the turnstiles, a nice young lady hands us our bright orange t-shirts with the phrase of the game scrawled on it, the material still warm. No charge here, unlike in Pittsburgh. A few Bullies await along the first steps of the concourse, a few hoagies at Campo's. Our seats are upstairs—way up in the top row, where we can stand all game and bang on the ceiling—so we make our way up the escalators.
Not a Penguins jersey in sight. Not one. Unheard of for this series.
Up on the 200 level, where the better beer resides just behind the main bars that are just off the escalators, the lines were lighter than expected, which got us up the steps with two hands full that much faster.
When the Flyers took the ice and started circling in their end, the lighting and fan attire a uniform orange glow, the place erupted briefly. The Pens came out soon after, and as they skated in a whirlpool of their own, there was the rare blissful mix of fans booing one team while still clapping of the other. Feet glued to the floor with game 3 beer remnants, we stood as Lauren Hart sent us goosebumps and a good shiver. Her rendition was great, Kate by her side on the splitscreen. One tap of her chest as she finished showed that she was really feeling it.
As the teams lined up for the opening faceoff, there were four chants. Let's Go Flyers, We Don't Like You, Crosby Sucks, and Let's Go Flyers in the original cadence. A woman a few seats down from me did it the whole game, swimming defiantly against a current that changed years ago.
Before the fans had taken their seats from the anthem, Steve Sullivan was called for high-sticking. Claude Giroux scored on a power play less than a minute and a half in. A "Flllleeeuuurrrryyyyy" chant began, way prematurely. Evgeni Malkin was whistled for a hook 12 seconds later. Four horsemen were seen between the benches.
As we discussed in the pregamer that day, it was beyond likely that the refs would try to exert control over this game, and they did, for the better part of two periods. We had no idea how painful it would be until the second, but it was pretty apparent in the first. The Flyers tallied three times while up a man, and for some reason, the Flyers' 3-2 lead felt huge.
But then, a subtle but critical moment in the game reversed their fortunes. It wasn't the reason the Flyers would ultimately lose, and it may not show up in many game stories, but we said as it was happening that it wasn't good. Just after the Flyers went up by a 3-2 count and carried tremendous momentum with 4 minutes left in the first period, an offsides call led to a TV timeout. "This isn't good," I said to Will. It felt the same as having two days between games 3 and 4, too much time for a powerful Penguins team to regroup and strategize.
Ten seconds out of the break, the game was tied. Sidney Crosby deflected a goal originally credited as the second of the period for Matt Niskanen, who was inserted into the lineup earlier in the day. A minute later, Jordan Staal scored the first of his hat trick.
We didn't know it yet, but the game was over. The Penguins had weathered a storm that saw multiple Flyers power play goals, including one on a two-man advantage followed another by a nearly full minor. That was the only way they'd beat Marc-Andre Fleury in this one, and the free rides were over after the opening 20 minutes.
The second period began with Matt Carle in the box. Less than a minute after his release, Claude Giroux would be called for the first of six Flyers penalties in the period—four in the first 10 minutes alone, not including the Carle penalty that was served to start it. The Pens scored three times on those power plays, then danced on the ashes twice more in the period.
I kept mentally repeating the mantra we've learned over the course of the playoffs so far, and even dating back to the regular season. This team is never out of it. At 6-3, despite it being a manageable deficit, it felt foolish to expect another comeback.
The final minutes of the period were increasingly absurd. Our seats aren't the best vantage from which to call penalties, so I'm not going to comment on whether any of the calls were legit, missed, etc. Zac Rinaldo seemed deserving of a match, if not a suspension, and I'm pretty sure I called a few Penguins for various infractions the refs didn't agree with, but again, it's not the seat to be judging calls from.
The exodus began in the latter portion of the period, the folks staying ribbing the folks leaving. Some pleaded that they were just headed to the bathroom or to get some food. And a few did return. But the hordes on the escalators showed that the building was going to be laughably empty in the third period.
I've never seen so many seatbacks during live game play.
We stayed through the end, and in the final 30 seconds, what I perceived to be a genuine Let's Go Flyers chant began and lasted to the final horn. There were plenty of mocking cheers when Flyers goalies made saves, especially Bob, as the game was well out of hand. But this didn't feel as mocking, if at all. The fans, particularly those who stayed, know the series goes on, and this was just one game.
Will and I have been to a lot of games, plenty of wins and more than a few losses, including a fair share to the Penguins. As this tragedy was unfolding, we were trying to decide if it was the toughest loss we'd been to. It was certainly among the worst games. But is it worse to be at a loss that can be chalked up to a catastrophe halfway in, or to see something like a 3-1 third period lead evaporate into a last-minute loss?
The devastating parts of this loss are clear. MAF got his groove back. Crosby played his game. Malkin got on the board a few times. The Flyers couldn't score without the power play and couldn't defend or goaltend at all. They lost another defenseman to injury. We had our first goalie change, and we all know what comes with that.
So from that standpoint, it was as scary a horror film as could be imagined. Game 4 tickets were hard to come by, yet the seats were somewhat understandably empty for the entire third period. The Penguins are back in this series.
Still, it was worth it to go. The lead-in alone was every reason you're a fan. Will drove down from Albany—and back that night—and didn't gripe a word about the drive, only the game. Instead we made plans for our annual effort to get to at least one home game per series, provided the Flyers get us one more win in the next three opportunities…
This guy got booed pretty hard walking in. Guess they didn't notice the bonnet at first.
Special thanks to Zach too. Wish you were in town.