PITTSBURGH — Few prognosticators give the Flyers a chance in their first-round playoff series against the two-time defending Stanley Cup-champion Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Flyers understand.
And they like it that way.
“I think everybody in the media says we’re the underdogs, but no one in our room really thinks that,” Nolan Patrick, the Flyers’ blossoming 19-year-old rookie center, said after the team’s practice Tuesday in PPG Paints Arena. “… We had close games against them [in the regular season], and we know what we’re capable of. We’re a confident group going in.”
The best-of-seven series will start Wednesday in Pittsburgh.
“We didn’t expect very many people to pick us to come out of this series, and that’s OK,” coach Dave Hakstol said. “There’s a quiet belief in our dressing room. I’m not going to expand or go any further. We’re the underdog. We’re pegged that. We know that. We’re playing against a helluva hockey team that has a lot of experience at the playoff level. We’ve got to go out and earn it, and that’s what we’ll do.”
Right winger Wayne Simmonds said the Flyers know they have a “long, hard road ahead of us, but we welcome it and we’re taking the challenge head-on.”
The Flyers went 0-2-2 against the Penguins in the regular season, losing a pair of 5-4 overtime decisions in Pittsburgh. They allowed five goals in each of the four losses.
“A couple of times we let our game slip, and that’s when they took over the game and would score two quick goals,” defenseman Radko Gudas said. “I think everybody learned from that, and we have to make sure we’re playing for 60 minutes – or 80 or 100.”
Thirteen of 14 NHL.com experts picked the Penguins to oust the Flyers.
“You’ve got to pick somebody, so it doesn’t affect us,” center Val Filppula said.
Captain Claude Giroux, who collected a career-high 102 points to become a strong MVP candidate, shrugged off the Flyers’ underdog label.
“You win two Cups in a row, and obviously people are going to favor you,” he said. “It doesn’t matter to us. You go on the ice and it’s two teams, and it’s whoever plays the best.”
Defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere said: “We haven’t had the best results against them this year, so it’s easy to say we’re the underdogs. It is what it is. I can see us being one, but we’re taking it game by game here. We’re going to play simple and play smart and adapt to the game.”
Gostisbehere is excited about the matchup.
“It’s awesome. There aren’t many times where you get to play the two-time defending champs first,” he said. “When you get the first crack, it’s exciting. You’re going to have to go through them at some point.”
The Penguins have much more playoff experience than the Flyers, who will use six players (and perhaps more before the series ends) who are in their first or second full season.
“But we believe in ourselves and we have a job to do,” center Sean Couturier said. “We’re focused on what we have to do.”
Gudas said being an underdog makes the Flyers loose.
“They won back-to-back championships, so I think there’s more pressure on them than us,” he said.
The Penguins were also the favorites in 2012, when the Flyers won their wacky series in six games. The teams combined for 56 goals in that fight-filled series, one that included Sidney Crosby famously using his stick to knock away Jake Voracek’s glove after it had fallen on the ice.
Asked about it, Crosby said: “I don’t like them. I don’t like any guys on their team.”
At a home game later in that series, the Flyers handed out orange T-shirts that said, “GUESS WHAT? WE DON’T LIKE YOU EITHER!”
Now the teams are about to face each other in the playoffs for the first time since that epic series.
Let the hatred begin.