PITTSBURGH — After four blowouts in games that lacked the intensity and the hatred usually seen at this stage of the hockey season, the Flyers-Penguins series finally has a playoff feel, finally has a pulse.
Welcome to the Battle of Pennsylvania, even if it took until the fifth game for the series to get a personality.
Thanks to the physical Game 5 antics Friday by the Flyers’ Brandon Manning, Ivan Provorov, and Radko Gudas, along with Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin and 6-foot-7, 255-pound Jamie Oleksiak, there is some animosity, some nastiness, some life in what had been a very sterile, vanilla series.
“We didn’t put a show on,” said center Sean Couturier, who heroically returned from a leg injury and snapped a 2-2 tie by scoring with 1 minute, 15 seconds left in regulation, taking advantage of a Bryan Rust turnover and firing a long shot that deflected off the skate of the Penguins’ Brian Dumoulin and into the net. “But we kept it tight and found a way to win.”
The question is, can they play the same way when the series resumes Sunday afternoon at the Wells Fargo Center?
Can they win a game in front of a restless fan base that has grown tired of seeing the Penguins embarrass the home team in its own building?
There were at least 1,000 empty seats for Game 4 at the Wells Fargo Center — a Flyers spokesman said all the tickets were sold — and those fans who were there had lots of energy and gave lots of support in the first 10 minutes. But as the game progressed and the Penguins took control, the boos seeped in and there were “Fire Hakstol!” chants.
“The crowd plays a big role, especially in the playoffs,” Couturier said. “When the — hits the fan and things are not going our way, we have to stay focused.”
The ultimate insult, of course, would be seeing the Penguins clinch the series on the Flyers’ ice. If that happened, the Flyers would be 0-3 at the Wells Fargo in this year’s post-season — and it would mean that, for just the second time in the last 20 years, Philadelphia would have failed to win at least one home game when it reached the playoffs.
“We know it’s tough to end someone’s season,” said Penguins winger Jake Guentzel, whose team has outscored the Flyers 20-4 at the Wells Fargo Center this season. “We would have liked to have done it the first time, but we have to go into Philly with the mentality we’re going to win.”
Pittsburgh won’t have a problem finding that mind-set.
Including the regular season, the Penguins have owned the Flyers at the Wells Fargo Center, winning all four games by huge margins: 5-1, 5-2, 5-1, and 5-0. The latter two games were in this conference quarterfinal.
The louder the Flyers fans have shouted insults at Sidney Crosby, the better the Penguins superstar has played. Crosby has 10 points (two goals, eight assists) and a plus-8 rating in four games in Philly this season.
On Sunday, with his team holding a three-games-to-two lead in the best-of- seven series, Crosby will probably spend lots of time matched against one of the Flyers’ unlikely heroes in Game 5, veteran center Val Filppula.
Filppula struggled mightily down the stretch and in the first four playoff games. It seemed like a stretch Friday when coach Dave Hakstol put Filppula on the top line — Couturier, still far from 100 percent healthy, was dropped to the third unit — and matched him against the irrepressible Crosby.
To most people’s surprise, the move worked. The plodding Filppula had his most impressive game as a Flyer, scoring a shorthanded goal that tied the game late in the second period, setting up two other scores, and helping the Flyers frustrate Crosby (one assist, minus-2).
“Fil’s just a really good, two-way veteran,” Hakstol said. “Very sound up and down the middle of the rink.”
If an injury changes your role, Hakstol said, “you have to step up, and that was the case for Fil.”
Filppula and his teammates will try to step up again and, at the very least, give a full 60-minute (or longer) effort at home. The challenge will be even greater because the Penguins always seem to bring their “A” game in Philadelphia.
Especially No. 87.
“We have to make sure we give ourselves a chance with the urgency,” Crosby said.
From what we’ve seen of the Penguins at the Wells Fargo Center this season, it’s a given that they will bring their urgency.
Can the Flyers match it and force an anything-can-happen Game 7? Can they live up to their playoff slogan, Earn Tomorrow?
We are about to find out, because, after four lopsided games in a conference quarterfinal that had no drama and bore little resemblance to the teams’ colorful past against each other, this series suddenly has gotten interesting.