PITTSBURGH – As guarantees go, this wasn’t exactly Mark Messier before Game 6 of the 1994 Eastern Conference finals, or Joe Namath before Super Bowl III.
It was only a Game 2 of a first-round playoff series with the Pittsburgh Penguins, and Shayne Gostisbehere didn’t guarantee that he would win it for the Flyers.
But he kind of guaranteed that his goalie would.
“Moose is the backbone of our team,” he said a few hours before Friday night’s 5-1 victory over the Penguins in Game 2. “And he’s going to prove it tonight.”
Battling as his coach and teammates said he would, Brian Elliott turned aside 23 shots in the first two periods alone and 34 for the game, denying Sidney Crosby in the first seconds of the game, and later on a second-period breakaway, confidently snapping it up with his glove like a man who had, after three games back from injury, located his game.
Oh, he needed some black magic: Patric Hornqvist hit his glove-side post twice on separate trips down the ice in the first period and Connor Sheary rang one off the crossbar in the second. That second period ended with Crosby breaking his stick over the crossbar behind the Flyers goaltender after he inexplicably one-timed his shot across the crease behind Elliott — after being teed up perfectly by Phil Kessel.
Sid also hit a post in the game’s final minutes.
But most of the magic was Elliott’s, beginning with his “battle,” as his coach and teammates so often refer to it. Elliott was part of the endless scrums the Penguins had, especially early on, getting his stick involved, freezing the puck, moving it along from behind his net to neutralize Pittsburgh’s attempt to forecheck and cycle – two staples of their lopsided 7-0 victory in Game 1 of this series.
Elliott was pulled halfway through that game after allowing five goals, and the prevalent thought was that Petr Mrazek, who finished that game, would start this one. But coach Dave Hakstol was steadfast from the moment they left the ice Wednesday that Elliott would remain his guy.
The endorsement wasn’t lost on the 33-year-old goalie.
“It’s special to get a start and special to get a start in the playoffs and to carry a team,” Elliott said. “And try to be the block in the wall behind them.”
“He’s pretty hard on himself,” said Gostisbehere, whose power-play goal late in the first period gave the Flyers a 1-0 lead. “I honestly don’t think he played that bad in the first game. But he was pretty angry. He was dialed in for this game. He was our backbone, like I said.”
Heating pack wrapped around his midsection as he tried to loosen up a 33-year-old body that frankly looks even older, Elliott seemed to be having trouble with his own backbone before the game, never mind providing one for a team that admitted after Game 1 that the moment had gotten to it.
The Flyers, while not perfect, were able to get clears and get their own forecheck working better than they did in Game 1. Wayne Simmonds had a try off one such occasion, Scott Laughton another. After an 0-for-4 night where they did not muster a shot Wednesday night, they converted on their first power play in the final minute of the period. Gostisbehere’s shot from the point snuck by Penguins goalie Matt Murray as Nolan Patrick slipped in front of him and blocked his view.
“Huge,” Gostisbehere called it, and it was. “Especially scoring near the end of the period like that.”
From there on, the Flyers team that you expected to see, that they expected to be, and that Pittsburgh expected to see, was on the ice. A second goal came quickly at the start of the second period, and with their own bit of black magic — Sean Couturier’s wide-angle shot flipping into the air in front of Murray, bouncing fortuitously off Kris Letang as he wrestled with Claude Giroux in front, and into the net.
In case there was any doubt about the jitters, the Flyers pushed it to 4-0 on a couple of goals from their kids. Travis Konecny boosted it to 3-0 early in the third by outsprinting Chad Ruhwedel and lifting the puck over Murray. Nolan Patrick converted a cross-crease, between-the-legs pass from Couturier on the power play.
But the night belonged to Elliott, who punctuated his redemption by fending off a 4 ½-minute man advantage after Murray left the net.
“Sometimes they weren’t the cleanest saves,” Ghost said. “But he made them.”
“It’s just one shot at a time,” Elliott said. “If you look too far ahead, even a period ahead, you get yourself in trouble.”
He’s out of trouble. So are they. Games 3 and 4 are in Philadelphia.
It’s a series.