PITTSBURGH -- We must begin with all of the usual caveats, especially these two: that pucks can take funny bounces, and that goaltending is uber-important. Which means that there are a lot of factors that might determine the outcome of this playoff series between the Flyers and Penguins.
Still, take a minute as you are watching the games. Take a minute and try to notice how often, on the standard television camera shot from the side, that you can read the names of the Penguins’ defensemen on the back of their shirts.
For the Flyers, the more, the better.
And it might very well decide the series.
The Penguins are a fast, skilled team; this just in. Their counterattacks through the neutral zone can be breathtaking. Counting on being able to contain one of their stars after he has the puck is a fool’s game. The only way to stop those lightning counters is to prevent them from happening in the first place. The best way to do that is to get pucks in deep, turn the Pittsburgh defensemen around, and go about the business of winning forechecking battles.
It is what the Flyers did not do in the first period of Game 1 of the series, when they fell behind by 3-0. But they turned it around in the second and third periods and completed their amazing comeback in overtime mostly because they started turning the Penguins’ defensemen around.
That is the blueprint, then.
“They put 46 pucks behind our defense with a purpose,” Pens coach Dan Bylsma said. It is his job to catalog such factoids, one of what he called an “array” of internal metrics the Penguins use to dissect their games.
“The only way to prevent them from doing that is to have them not have the puck and to play in the offensive zone,” Bylsma said. “If you give it back to them, they were going to put it behind our defense and go in on the forecheck...
“It was effective for them in the last game, especially in the second and third period, even more so than the first. That’s something by playing with the puck, and where we play with the puck, and how we play with the puck, can prevent them from being able to play that game.”
Forty-six sounds like a big number. Bylsma was not all that interested in saying where that might fit on a season-long chart of Penguins game. His point was that it revealed a mindset by the Flyers, and that he is aware of the problems it can cause for his team as their series grinds along.
“We don’t have a number we’re trying to minimize a team to, but that was a real focus by their team and something they did well,” Bylsma said. “It forced our defense to go back and with that pressure...You want to minimize your retrievals and minimize your time in the defensive zone and not letting that be a factor in the game -- and it certainly was.”
You talk to the Flyers players about this and they all acknowledge what is going on. As Claude Giroux said, “(The Penguins) are going fast. We have to make sure we’re responsible with the puck and make sure we get the puck deep.”
But it is interesting. The Flyers have fast players, too, and they do a lot of their scoring damage on the rush, and this is not dump and chase, not by a long shot. The Flyers have a dynamic offense and they will continue to need a dynamic offense if they are to get through this series.
Another point: the Flyers are at their best, as coach Peter Laviolette said, when they are skating well. In this case, we are talking about skating well and with a purpose: to make sure that, if they aren’t on the rush, that they get the pucks deep and then confront the Pittsburgh defense. They don’t necessarily need to splatter them. What they do need is to use their speed to pressure them into mistakes as they turn and retrieve the puck.
“I think a lot of teams just try to redirect pucks behind the defense now and get it down to the goal line,” Laviolette said. “Their objective seems pretty simple: get it out, get it through, get it in. They probably had 50 behind us. I’m not sure what that means.
“You need to take care of the puck. Turnovers in any sport usually leads to a loss. That’s in any sport. It doesn’t matter what it is. You take care of the ball. You take care of the puck. You take care of whatever it is or you’re going to be looking at them coming the other way...
“A lot of teams are playing a simple game,” Laviolette said. “More of what I just said: get it out, get it through and get it behind them. So many teams now are playing an aggressive system and an aggressive game. It’s better to play that game on one goal line than the other. I think you see that throughout the league. That’s the objective on most teams, most nights.”
For the Flyers, though, it is more imperative than objective. And, well, put it this way: if you can spell Engelland and Michalek by the end of the series, the Flyers will probably have won it.