Styles make fights. It is a tried and true axiom of boxing. A better fighter can be made to look bad against a lesser one if the underdog’s stature, stance, or movements are the very same characteristics that most trouble him.
The Flyers play the Pittsburgh Penguins on Sunday afternoon for the fourth and final time this regular season, and if this game is anything like the two previous ones, it is likely to resemble Ronda Rousey fighting Turtle in the Entourage movie.
Just a few years ago, the Flyers had uncanny success against the Penguins. They went 4-1 in 2013-2014 and 4-0 in 2014-2015. But since Dave Hakstol took over the Flyers and Mike Sullivan became the Penguins coach, those roles have reversed. The Penguins have won eight of the 11 games the teams have played over the last three seasons, including all three this season.
The Penguins trounced the Flyers, 5-2, earlier this month after putting a 5-1 hurting on them back on Jan. 2. “A lot of it has been self-inflicted,’’ Flyers defenseman Andrew MacDonald said after practice Saturday at the Skate Zone. “I don’t think we’ve given them our best effort so far this year.’’
Both of those games were at home, and while the Flyers’ one trip across the state back in late November was more competitive, it too was doomed by those self-inflicted wounds as the Penguins rallied from two goals down in the final period, tied the game with their goalie pulled, then won it on Sidney Crosby’s overtime goal.
So what is it? The easy answer is to say the Flyers aren’t nearly as good as the Penguins, even when the standings have said otherwise. A regulation victory Sunday would tie the Flyers and Penguins in points. “They’re a team with a lot of players who make a difference,’’ Claude Giroux said. “When you put all of those guys out there on the power play, it’s a really dangerous power play. For us it’s stay out of the box, try and take away their chances and odd-man rushes. You give those guys room, they’re going to make plays.’’
But the Tampa Bay Lightning are also a good team with a lot of those players, and perhaps no team in the league makes as many pretty plays as the Toronto Maple Leafs. Yet the Flyers have beaten the Leafs all three times they have played this season, and their 1-1-1 record against Tampa Bay included two hard-fought games down there in which they collected three of a possible four points.
No, this is a style issue, as it once was when the Flyers had the Pens’ number. “There’s definitely parts of each game where we’ve played the way we are capable of playing,’’ said MacDonald. “But for whatever reason we were a little timid last time. Trying to feel out the game, see what kind of game it was going to be instead of dictating the play. I think we need to come out, establish our game early, and try to dictate the play.’’
It can’t hurt. Pittsburgh has scored first in all three games between the teams this year and it’s been Phil Kessel in the last two.
“It’s a matter of us going out and being ourselves for a full 60 minutes,’’ Hakstol said. “We haven’t done that yet against Pittsburgh and you have to credit them for that. They can push teams off-balance with some of the things they do. But regardless of who you are playing, who you’re opponent is, you just have to go out and be comfortable in your own skin and compete hard for the full 60 minutes.’’
Breakaways. Hakstol said after Saturday’ practice that Alex Lyon will start in goal. Michal Neuvirth joined Lyon and Petr Mrazek on the ice during practice. Brian Elliott was also in pads and did a light workout afterward with several players. … Robert Hagg on being a (semi) healthy scratch Thursday: “You don’t have much of a choice. You have to handle it if you want to stick around. I mean I had been playing every single game until I got injured a couple of weeks ago.’’ On the positive side, Hagg said his health was improving.