Though they have been outplayed, outhustled, and outscored by an embarrassing 17-1 in their three playoff losses, the Flyers tried to put a happy spin on their predicament as they prepared for Game 5 on Friday in Pittsburgh.
Trailing three games to one in an Eastern Conference quarterfinal that has lacked intensity and drama and has felt like anything but a playoff series, the Flyers need to win to stave off elimination.
The Flyers have been badly beaten to loose pucks, lost a majority of board battles, and been outscored 5-0 in special teams in their three losses. In addition, the Flyers’ star players have been mostly invisible, and Penguins goalie Matt Murray (1.27 GAA, .948 save percentage in the series) has outplayed gallant Brian Elliott (4.74 GAA, .856), who has tried to return from core-muscle surgery.
So you can understand why the words coming from captain Claude Giroux (one assist, minus-7 in the series) seemed sincere but, at the same time, hollow.
“We’re not ready for our season to be over,” Giroux said after practice Thursday in Voorhees. He said Pittsburgh was a “tough building to play in, but we know we can win there. We know if we play our game, we can win. So we’re going to go out there, play our game, and be back for Game 6.”
The Penguins finished just two points ahead of the Flyers in the regular season, but they have been miles better than coach Dave Hakstol’s unassertive team in the series. Pittsburgh has been more focused, more relentless, more opportunistic.
Giroux said the Flyers have been pressing.
“I think our compete level is pretty good,” he said. “I know it’s tough to see. I think the guys are working a little too hard; we’re not playing smart enough, gripping our sticks a little too much, I think we need to take a breather and play some hockey.”
After Thursday’s practice, Giroux gathered the team together on the ice and spoke to the players about the situation.
Giroux’s message: “I think it’s believing in ourselves. All year we’ve done that. I know we’ve talked about it before, but you lose 10 in a row and you find a way to win and get in the playoffs. Not a lot of teams can do that. Just the fight in this team” was outstanding in the regular season.
The Flyers can be proud of the last four months of the regular season, when they overcame the odds and earned a playoff spot.
But they have not showed that same swagger in the postseason and have seemed overwhelmed by the spotlight. Getting outscored 17-1 equals their largest margin in the first three losses in any playoff series in franchise history. (It matches their 1979 series against the Rangers.)
Friday is “going to be a big game for us,” Giroux said. “If we go down, we’re going to go down swinging.”
“We can play better. The good news is there’s a lot more ability there that can shine through,” general manager Ron Hextall said about the Flyers’ dismal showing so far. “… It’s an elimination game for us, and we need to match their hunger and be ready to go right from the start.”
In the series, the Flyers have been outscored, 6-1, in the first period.
Giroux carried the Flyers to a playoff berth by scoring 19 goals in the last 29 games of the regular season and finishing with a career-high 102 points. But the MVP candidate has struggled mightily in the playoffs and conceded he was frustrated.
“Anytime the team is doing bad, everyone puts a little pressure on themselves,” he said. “In the past, I’ve put a lot of pressure on myself. I try not to, but you get frustrated, you try a little harder; you get down further, you try a little harder and nothing is working for you. You got to keep going. At the end of the day you got to keep going and good things are going to happen.”
Hextall said it was the Flyers’ execution, not their compete level, that has caused them to fall into a 3-1 hole.
“I think guys are working their asses off,” he said. “The execution just is not there. We know that. You know, we need to relax and play some hockey here.’’
After practice Thursday, Hakstol was asked about the team’s mind-set.
“There’s a little bit of tension there,” he said. “We didn’t do a whole lot of talking. The guys talked a little bit on their own. Today was a day to just go out and work for 30 or 35 minutes, clear the mind a little bit, get the bodies going.”
Unless they get a much better effort Friday, those bodies could be going to the golf course.