Flyers mantra going forward in NHL playoffs: Embrace the underdog role

Flyers Penguins Hockey
Flyers’ coach Dave Hakstol’s team is the underdog against the Penguins.

It wasn’t exactly “No one likes us, we don’t care,’’ but Dave Hakstol’s repeated referencing to his team’s underdog status last week conjured up images of Jason Kelce in a Mummer’s suit and was more than a little out of character for a coach who habitually disputes the premise of questions asked of him, even when he then concedes and even supports their validity.

So it should come as no surprise that Saturday, after his team reversed an embarrassing 7-0 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 1 of their opening round playoff with a spirited 5-1 victory in Game 2, Hakstol sought to reset the narrative. Asked whether embracing the underdog role can be translated onto the ice, the coach at first disputed that his team had done any such thing.

Um…

“There’s a lot of people who don’t really give us a chance,’’ Sean Couturier said in the Flyers’ practice-facility dressing room just minutes before. “So we embrace it, try to prove them wrong. We’ve got nothing to lose. Just go out there and play.’’

“Label us anything you want,’’ Shayne Gostisbehere said just before that. “I think the city has taken the underdog role, too.’’

He added that some Flyers might have viewed the Eagles’ parade footage on more than one occasion. “There’s a couple of dog masks running around here,’’ he said.

No embracing, you say?

You say to-MAY-to. I say ta-ma-to.

Let’s call the whole thing off.

Whoops … too late.

“I haven’t used the word `embrace’,’’ the coach said. “That’s what we’re labeled as. That’s reality. Reality inside of our dressing room is that we know that, and there’s a belief inside of our dressing room, that we’re here for a purpose.’’

Tomato, tamato, tomato, tamato …

Here’s Hakstol 30 minutes after Friday night’s victory: “It was tough for us to walk out of the rink the other night. That wasn’t us. I don’t know if anyone is giving us a chance to win this series, but I know this: We just made this a five-game series.  … Tonight, we played our asses off.”

Here’s Hakstol on Saturday afternoon, admittedly on short rest: “Honestly, I don’t think it’s a big rallying cry for our guys. I’m not trying to downplay it; I’m not trying to overplay it. The reality is, nobody expects us to win this series. I mean, do the math on what all the predictions are. That’s fine, how it affects our team. Like I said, I don’t think it’s a big rallying cry. I think our guys have a real sound belief about themselves inside of our dressing room.’’

No doubt, they do. But they’re not mutually exclusive concepts. They are rather, quite often, mutually inclusive ones — that sound belief forged into a hard-to-define but easy-to-see, us-against-the-world, solidarity.

That’s what the Flyers players did after Wednesday’s debacle, to their everlasting credit. They didn’t run from their embarrassment. They answered questions about it repeatedly, even in the case of Ghost and captain Claude Giroux, hours before the second game. Yes, they spoke often of turning the page, but they never attempted to tear it out or burn it.

Rather, they referenced it. Embraced it, you might say.

Giroux set that in motion by calling himself out after Game 1, excusing all others, and then returning to the Hart Trophy candidate he is in Game 2. Couturier, with three points, and Gostisbehere, who triggered the win with a late first-period goal, shook off Wednesday, too.

And you better believe the kids – Nolan Patrick, Travis Konecny, Travis Sanheim, etc. – were watching. Konecny scored the Flyers third goal on Friday night; Patrick – after his screen facilitated Ghost’s goal — scored the fourth. They looked like themselves again.

The Eagles lost their starting quarterback with three games left in the regular season and for the postseason. Despite owning the NFC’s top seed, they were underdogs in each of their three postseason games. They embraced it, hence the dog masks.

The Flyers lost their starting goaltender — “Our rock,” Hakstol has called Brian Elliott – for seven weeks, played three goaltenders in his place, and finished just two points behind Pittsburgh in the Eastern Conference points race.

It already seemed like more than that even before they dropped the puck Wednesday. And when the buzzer sounded to end it, there weren’t a lot of people in Pittsburgh concerned about how the series would go.

They are now.

“It’s a cool role to have,’’ Gostisbehere said. “It’s not a lot of pressure on yourself. I think, as a team, I don’t think of ourselves as a Cinderella or anything like that. We’re a good team. We made the playoffs and almost had 100 points. We’re a good team, and it definitely showed [Friday] night.’’