PITTSBURGH – For the Flyers, the start of the Stanley Cup playoffs looked strikingly similar to their regular-season matchups with the hated Pittsburgh Penguins.
In other words, another loss. And another game in which their defense was embarrassed.
Building a 3-0 first-period lead against a shaky Brian Elliott, the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins trounced the Flyers, 7-0, before a roaring sellout crowd at PPG Paints Arena.
It was the most lopsided Game 1 loss in Flyers history and the most goals they had allowed in a playoff game since a 10-3 loss to visiting Pittsburgh in Game 4 of the wild 2012 series. The Flyers won that series in six games.
Put simply: The Flyers, unlike their two overtime losses in Pittsburgh during the regular season, were schooled in every aspect of the game Wednesday.
“It’s only 1-0 in the series and there’s a lot of hockey to be played,” defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere, who was minus-4 in the game, said bravely. “Obviously, there’s some anger in here. We knew it wasn’t going to be easy. They could have beat us in overtime tonight and they beat us 7-0, and it’s the same thing.”
The Flyers have a 23-9 series record when winning Game 1, and a 15-23 series record when they lose the opener of a seven-game matchup.
“I don’t think we weren’t ready,” Sean Couturier said. “Guys were excited and anxious to get going, but their best players were better than ours and we just have to be better.”
Sidney Crosby scored a hat trick, and one of his top-line wingers, Jake Guentzel, had a goal and three assists to pace Pittsburgh, which had just two more points than the Flyers in the regular season but has won all five games against Philadelphia this season and has scored five goals or more in each victory.
It was the 11th hat trick allowed by the Flyers in their playoff history, and it was the third time in Crosby’s Hall of Fame career that he had scored three goals in a playoff game.
The Penguins top line of Crosby, Guentzel and Bryan Rust combined for five goals, four assists, nine points and a plus-14 rating.
The Flyers’ No. 1 line — Couturier centering Claude Giroux and Michael Raffl — was a combined minus-11.
“It was one of the worst games I’ve been part of,” said Giroux, a 102-point scorer in the regular season.
Matt Murray collected his third straight playoff shutout dating back to last year’s Stanley Cup Final, and he now has a playoff scoreless streak of 206:26.
“That was as solid a commitment to defense that we’ve had,” said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan, whose team blocked 24 shots, including six by defenseman Chad Ruhwedel.
Elliott played the last two regular-season games after missing nearly two months following core-muscle surgery and he obviously is not himself yet. He allowed five goals on 19 shots and was replaced by Petr Mrazek with 10 minutes, 59 seconds left in the second period.
The veteran goalie, whom coach Dave Hakstol said would probably start Game 2, could not be faulted for either second-period goal.
With the Penguins on a power play, Guentzel got behind Radko Gudas (nine hits) and, from the doorstep, knocked in Derick Brassard’s perfect feed to make it 4-0 with 12:10 left in the second. Just 71 seconds later, Crosby, certified Flyers killer, scored a remarkable goal to make it 5-0.
With his back to the net, Crosby made a backhanded tip as he swatted a puck out of the air and past Elliott.
First-period goals by Bryan Rust (a poor rebound allowed by Elliott), an all-alone Carl Hagelin (tip-in), and Evgeni Malkin staked the Penguins to a 3-0 lead.
Rust scored on a long rebound from the top of the left circle, while Hagelin scored after Couturier failed to clear the puck out of the zone. On the Penguins’ third goal, Malkin came out of the penalty box, skated around Gostisbehere and beat Elliott with a backhander to the far side to make it 3-0 with 5:51 left in the first.
Earlier in the period, the Flyers nearly tied the score at 1-1, but an all-alone Scott Laughton couldn’t finish a golden opportunity in front. Laughton, goal-less in his last 22 games of the regular season, fanned on his first shot, and Murray made a great save after the Flyers’ left winger gathered the puck and got off a point-blank shot.
The Flyers squandered two power plays in the opening period and were outshot 2-0 during their time with a man advantage. They finished with four power plays and no shots on any of them.
“It was a tough power play tonight,” said Gostisbehere, who finished with a team-high five shots, all at even-strength. “If you ask any one of us, we didn’t have any jam or anything. We didn’t have the playmaking skills. I know our power play will be better. It’s been great all year, and it definitely needs us right now.”
Because of their regular-season dominance over the Flyers, most hockey experts picked the Penguins to win the series.
“I think everybody in the media says we’re the underdogs,” Flyers rookie center Nolan Patrick said before the series started, “but no one in our room really thinks that.”
If they don’t rebound and play competitively in Game 2, the players might start thinking otherwise.