PITTSBURGH — The worst moment for Brian Elliott on Wednesday might not have been the puck that Evgeni Malkin backhanded over his shoulder or the fat rebound that Bryan Rust ricocheted off both posts and into the net. The worst moment might not have even been when he lost track of a fluttering puck from above, and it bounced off the back of his shoulder and – somehow – back into play.
No, the worst moment for Brian Elliott during the Penguins’ 7-0 thrashing of the Flyers in Game 1 of their first-round series was when former goaltender (and lightning rod) Ilya Bryzgalov, who still lives in the Philadelphia area, tweeted this out during the second period:
— bryzgoalie30 (@bryzgoalie30) April 12, 2018
By now you probably know the what: “Moose” didn’t look loose in the Game 1 loss to the Penguins. He allowed five goals on 19 shots and while a few were the stuff of highlight reels, he made no saves that fit that category at a time of the year when, in coach Dave Hakstol’s words, “Everything is elevated.”
Less clear is the what’s next. Start Petr Mrazek, who allowed the final two goals of the game, in Game 2? Send a chauffeur to Allentown and pick up Alex Lyon? Pray that whatever ails Michal Neuvirth’s lower body is miraculously cured?
Dustin Tokarski, anyone? The Phantoms’ backup arrived with his equipment at midafternoon, hours before the game.
Maybe someone knew something.
“Like everything else we’re looking hard at it,” Hakstol said afterward. “But right now my gut instinct is that Moose is our guy and I don’t see a reason we would go away from him.”
Down the stretch, this happened a lot. Neuvirth pulled something, and Mrazek went in. Or Mrazek wouldn’t have it, and Lyon would go in. There was even a time when Lyon didn’t have it, and Mrazek went in.
Miraculously, the Flyers put together a 15-7-5 record during their seven-week goalie carousel, staying afloat in the Eastern Conference playoff race until they could get Elliott — “our guy,” Hakstol repeatedly called him over the last 10 days or so – up to speed as he returned from one of those infamous core muscle injuries that have hobbled several of his current teammates over the last few years.
He didn’t look the part on Wednesday. A shaky win against Carolina, a work-free, 17-save shutout against the ghost Rangers in the regular-season finale, provided hope that he was. But Pittsburgh’s speed, playmaking, puck movement – from the opening faceoff, when the Penguins’ first line fashioned three shots against the Flyers’ first line, it was clear that Elliott did not look comfortable out there.
“I thought there were a lot of areas of his game where he was seeing the game, battling hard,” said Hakstol. “I wanted to give him that opportunity to battle through. Obviously, after the fifth one, I just wanted to get him out of there.”
This should be mentioned: The last time Elliott was in a playoff series, it looked a lot like this. The Calgary Flames were swept by the Anaheim Ducks in the first round last season, and Elliott was the goat of Games 3 and 4, allowing a stretch of soft goals that ultimately led to him being pulled just 5:34 into the fourth and final game.
This should be mentioned, too: It wasn’t all about Elliott. Earlier Wednesday, after the Flyers’ morning skate, Hakstol said this: “We’ve had really good discipline throughout the year. It hasn’t been an issue for us on the whole. We play fast, we skate, we’re a team that moves. We have taken a lot of pride in not taking a ton of penalties. We know how important that is. … Got to pay attention to detail, and that’s part of detail, no question. … You don’t want to play with fire too often.”
So what happens? In the first 10 minutes, Elliott gave up a fat rebound that was converted into a goal. Scott Laughton took his eyes off a puck that Jori Lehtera put on his stick with Penguins goaltender Matt Murray laid out, lost it, then pushed a second chance into his glove. And they took penalties. Four total, feeding the Penguins’ potent power-play, which incredibly, converted just once in this game.
“You can’t play in spurts this time of the year against this hockey team,” said Hakstol. “We did that tonight.”
You can’t play with two goaltenders, either. At least not for long.