It’s a revered hockey cliché, this idea that to win, a team must play its ultimate best for an entire game.
It’s hardly ever true.
What is true is the lesser team must play its better hockey longer, often much longer, than the better team.
For 10 minutes in Sunday’s 5-1 Game 3 loss to the Penguins, the Flyers did everything right. Well, almost everything. They turned the Penguins over at mid-ice, bottled them up inside of their own zone, possessed the puck as if they were playing against a junior team and not the two-time Stanley Cup champions. They drew a pair of penalties.
But the Penguins are the two-time Stanley Cup champions, which means this: They don’t have to play 60 minutes of hockey to win.
They can send Phil Kessel and Derick Brassard, two players who were among the brightest stars for their previous teams, out on a third line. They can center Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, a pair of Hart Trophy and Conn Smythe Trophy winners, on their top two lines. They can take advantage of a little crack and flip the narrative upside down, as they did by emerging from that first period with the lead.
“We’ve made a conscious decision that our team identity is going to be our strength down the middle,’’ Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said, referencing the trades that added Brassard and fourth-line center Riley Sheahan to the Penguins after the free-agent departures of Nick Bonino and Matt Cullen. “Those two moves really solidified our strength down the middle, which we think is such an important part of our overall team play.’’
“You play behind two elite players like Crosby and Malkin, they make our team that much better. They’re different players in how they play. But they are critically important to our ability to play the game the way we want to play.’’
Brassard and Kessel combined on a critical power-play goal early in the second period Sunday that changed the whole tone of the game. Before that, Crosby had made the Flyers pay for one of their few first-period mistakes, Michael Raffl coughing up a puck along the boards that ended with Crosby snapping in a wraparound goal – negating the Flyers’ overall dominance.
“But I didn’t think that was an issue,’’ Flyers coach Dave Hakstol said. “The game took a drastic turn within six or seven minutes of the second period. Centering around the penalties.’’
Oh yeah, the penalties. The Flyers’ captain, Claude Giroux, took the first of what would be seven over a 30-minute span, slashing the stick out of Crosby’s hand. Kessel and Brassard, part of Pittsburgh’s second power-play unit, put together one of those bang-bang plays from the side of the net, and the hole was doubled.
And then came a parade, but not the kind this town has been treated to of late. Jake Voracek took the first of his two stick penalties at 5:56 of the second period. Malkin scored at 6:48 to make it 3-0.
“I should have called a timeout after that,’’ said Hakstol, but he didn’t, and five seconds later, after Giroux badly lost a center-ice faceoff and then lost Penguins defenseman Brian Dumoulin trailing the play, the score stood at 4-0.
The Wells Fargo Center crowd, so electric at the start, was defused.
On the positive side, concessions in the corridors made a killing.
It was the second game in three that the Flyers didn’t get the important saves from their goaltender, who had allowed four goals by the time the Penguins evened up an 11-4 first-period shot advantage at 12 apiece. Brian Elliott made some important saves in the game in between, but even in that game Pittsburgh hit the post four times, and Crosby did something he might never have done before – missed a wide-open net by firing a puck across the crease behind a beaten Elliott.
Truth is, Pittsburgh has been far from perfect in any of the three games played in this series, yet it has outscored the Flyers, 13-6. The Flyers have given themselves and their fans a reason to believe at points of this series, too, especially when Travis Konecny busts through for a spectacular goal as he did in Game 2, or Nolan Patrick reads a play deftly and gets a breakaway as he did Sunday.
In other positive news, Travis Sanheim scored his first postseason goal Sunday.
On a day when his more veteran teammates celebrated their carelessness with repeated parades to the box and couldn’t finish off some impressive early groundwork, it hardly mattered.
“The first 20 minutes tonight was the first time I thought we looked close to how we want to look with the puck,’’ Hakstol said. “I thought our pace was good. I thought we had enough possessions and some opportunities off our offensive zone play. But you have to be able to sustain that for 60 minutes. Then you can evaluate what the outcome is. Not 20.’’