There were lots of reasons why the Flyers evened their Eastern Conference quarterfinals and took away the home-ice advantage with Friday’s 5-1 victory in Pittsburgh.
At the top of the list, quite surprisingly, was the Flyers’ special-teams’ domination in Game 2.
The Flyers were 2 for 3 on the power play – getting goals from Shayne Gostisbehere and Nolan Patrick – and 4 for 4 on their much-maligned penalty kill, which got a break when Sidney Crosby missed a wide-open net at the end of the second period.
“I think we frustrated them on their first couple power plays,” Matt Read, who has keyed the penalty killers’ improvement over the last two-plus months, said after Saturday’s optional practice in Voorhees. “And when they’re frustrated, they’re trying to make more seam passes. … We took away their seam passes, kept them to the outside, and Moose [Brian Elliott] made a couple big saves for us.”
Pittsburgh, which will face the Flyers in Game 3 on Sunday afternoon at the Wells Fargo Center, set a franchise record and led the NHL with a 26.2 percent success rate on its power play in the regular season. But the Penguins are just 1 for 8 (12.5 percent) in the first two games.
The Flyers kept the Penguins to the outside during most of their man-advantages on Friday. Pittsburgh had just three shots in eight minutes of power-play time.
Read said the Flyers need to reduce the number of power plays they are giving the Penguins, who were a combined 3 for 6 with an extra attacker in 5-1 and 5-2 regular-season wins at the Wells Fargo Center.
“They’re a dangerous power play, and if we keep giving them opportunities, it’s going to bite us sooner or later,” Read said.
The Flyers’ penalty kill, which was 29th out of 31 teams in the regular season, played more aggressively than usual on Friday and got strong performances from forwards Read, Sean Couturier, Val Filppula, and Jori Lehtera, and defensemen Ivan Provorov, Radko Gudas, Andrew MacDonald, and Brandon Manning.
“We’re clearing pucks, and our sticks and bodies were in the right lanes” Couturier said. “We’re forcing them to try to make a perfect play.”
Since Read, 31, was recalled from the AHL’s Phantoms on March 8 and reunited with Couturier on the penalty-kill unit, it has improved significantly. Without him, it killed 75.7 percent of the power plays. With him, it has succeeded 81 percent of the time.
“This is my last opportunity here to prove myself again,” said Read, who can become an unrestricted free agent in the summer. “I’m not going to let it slip away. It’s been a good time so far, and hopefully we can continue playing good hockey and continue to win at home.”
Couturier and Read said being reunited on the PK has helped both of them.
“We’ve played a lot together in the past and we can read off each other,” Couturier said. “It’s a good chemistry.”
“We talk in between shifts and in the locker room a lot,” Read said. “He’s so smart that it makes it a lot easier on me.”
Read was a 24-goal scorer when he broke into the league in 2011-12 and is now a defensive specialist.
“Reader’s really accepted his role,” Gostisbehere said. “He’s dealt with a lot of adversity this season, obviously going to the minors, and coming back up here he’s found a nice niche on the PK. He’s such a reliable player. You know he’ll get the puck out at the wing.”
Coach Dave Hakstol said the Flyers haven’t made any tactical changes on the penalty kill in the playoffs, but praised the unit’s execution.
“Our PK did a good job. We were able to get a couple turnovers on entry,” he said. The Penguins are “outstanding on entry, and we were able to get a couple good reads and break up a couple plays coming into the zone to break up a little rhythm.”
More of the same is needed because the Penguins’ power play has the ability to turn a game in their favor.