Flashback FFR (4/22/2018) Round 1, Game 6: PIT 8, PHI 5 - Hats Off
(Photo from Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
It's been over a month since the last time I made an FFR (Flyers Fan Reaction). Since the 2019-20 NHL season is still suspended, it's probably going to be a while before I can make one for a new game. So I'm going to do one for a classic Flyers game today and see how it goes. This may be a one-off or the first of many until play begins. NBCSN re-aired Game 6 of the 2018 Eastern Conference Quaterfinals between the Flyers and Penguins on Thursday, April 16. During the broadcast, Liam McHugh chatted with Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan and wingers Conor Sheary and Jake Guentzel, the hero of the contest. After re-watching the most recent Flyers playoff game, here's my reaction.
Also, I came up with the title on the spot after the game ended nearly two years ago.
So this is how it ends, huh?
The roller coaster ride 2017-18 Flyers season comes to an end. The Philadelphia Flyers lose, 8-5, to the Pittsburgh Penguins, who will move on to the Eastern Conference Semifinals for the third straight season. As for the Flyers, their season comes to an end, all of the jubilation and frustration averaging out to a perfectly mediocre 44 wins and 44 losses.
The game couldn't have started any better for the Flyers. After losing the first two games of the series in Philly by a combined score of 10-1, the Flyers needed a strong start to get the crowd into the game. Just 2:15 in, Sean Couturier put together a highlight for his Selke reel, tipping a Penguins pass down the ice, then crashing the crease on a rebound. It looked like Matt Murray recovered in time to stop Wayne Simmonds on a mini-breakaway, but the puck leaked behind him, and... oh my gosh, is that in?
It is! Elite third-line center for the moment but first-line center by the end of this game, right back where he belongs, Sean Couturier, just crash-bang-parties (Doc Emrick reference) that puck to the back of the Pittsburgh net, sending the crowd into a frenzy. The team that scored first in the first five games of the series went on to win, a trend the Flyers hoped would continue.
However, after controlling play for a few more minutes, the Penguins answered. Sidney Crosby got inside positioning on Valtteri Filppula on a set face-off play and buried a rebound to tie the score. To make matters worse, the Penguins would score consecutive goals in under a minute for the second time in the series. Shayne Gostisbehere and Nolan Patrick both attacked the puck below the goal-line. Their lack of communication left Carl Hagelin wide open in front, and he buried his second goal of the series to flip the game on its head.
The Flyers struggled for most of the remainder of the period. The Penguins defense was stifling, and the Flyers passed up too many opportunities to shoot the puck. After the Hagelin goal, the Flyers went shotless for nearly seven minutes before Patrick put on one goal. Their next shot, taken 90 seconds later, went in. A textbook cycle by the Flyers best line of Laughton, Coots, and Simmonds went to work on the cycle. All three touched the puck below the goal-line before Couturier kicked it out to the point. Ivan Provorov, who was playing hurt, sent the puck D-to-D, and Andrew MacDonald blasted away! He put the puck through traffic and Murray to tie up this game!
Mac's second of the series after a career-high six in the regular season set the Flyers up for success, but there was still work to be done. Michal Neuvirth, who was solid in his first start of the series in Game 5, robbed Conor Sheary late in the period (with some help from the post). But Scott Laughton took an interference penalty on the ensuing scramble. Thankfully, the Flyers penalty kill stayed on the good side they swung to in Game 5, when they killed off all five Penguins power-plays and added a shortie from Filppula. They killed off the first 1:25 before the first period ended, meaning they would have to kill another 35 seconds before going to work in the 2nd.
Sure enough, they would just do that. With a few seconds left on the power-play, a Patric Hornqvist dump-in hit Matt Read's leg and bounced into the perfect area to spring Couturier. Hornqvist was able to catch up to Couturier, playing through a severe lower-body injury of his own, but Coots swatted the Pens winger off his back like a gnat. With time and space and no one but Murray to stop him, Coots undressed the Pens net-minder with a gorgeous... I don't even know what to call that move! It's almost like a reverse toe-drag, as Couturier pulled the puck from right to left, then slid it to the back of the net for his third goal in the last 23 minutes of play (dating back to his heroic game-winner in Game 5), restoring the Flyers lead!
The teams traded chances over the next dozen minutes. Neuvirth stopped Bryan Rust point-blank, then the Raffl-Patrick-Konecny lined hemmed the Pens in their zone for over a minute. Phil Kessel hit the post, then Giroux laid out Carl Hagelin with a massive, clean hit. The collision drew cheers from the crowd and Kessel's attention, as he took an interference penalty trying to get Giroux to drop the gloves.
The Flyers failed to score on the power-play, but the momentum from the hit carried over. Just after the man-advantage expired, Couturier sprung Scott Laughton with a saucer pass with touch that would make Tom Brady (or maybe Nick Foles, since he out-dueled Brady in the Super Bowl two months prior) through center. Laughton got to the circle before being challenged by Justin Schultz, forcing him to shoot. From that far out, it's not like he's gonna snipe on Matt Murray-oh my gosh, he just sniped on Matt Murray!
Laughton became the fourth different Flyer (joining Konecny, Patrick, and Sanheim) to score their first career playoff goal in the series. With less than half the game to go, the Flyers had the first multi-goal lead of the contest and all the momentum in the world after their dramatic Game 5 victory in Pittsburgh, a return to the Steel City for a do-or-die Game 7. I could taste it.
The lead didn't even last to intermission. The Manning-Gudas pairing and Dave Hakstol's refusal to break it up led to the Flyers demise. Patric Hornqvist scored a cross-crease goal and Jake Guentzel tallied a re-direct with the safe haven of intermission less than a minute away to tie the game. Both goals were immediately preceded by a Gudas failed clear and poor net-front coverage from them. The Flyers went from the driver's seat to dead at the arrival of the 3rd period.
The Phillies played the Pirates while this game was going on, and during intermission, I turned on the baseball game. When I turned the Flyers back on, I was greeted with a replay of Phil Kessel getting the puck uncovered in the slot, feeding Jake Guentzel uncovered backdoor. I knew the puck was in before it even hit the net.
The Flyers came close. After coincidental minors, Couturier drew a cross-checking penalty on Kris Letang, giving the Flyers a 4-on-3 for about 90 seconds. Couturier, Giroux, Patrick and Gostisbehere were unable to produce the tying goal. Shortly after, disaster struck.
The Penguins rung the puck around the boards in the Flyers zone. Letang was converging on the puck coming in from the blue-line, Couturier was closing in skating towards center. Letang reached out for the puck, and in doing so, wiped out Couturier, sending him spiraling to the ice. Twenty thousand fans simultaneously raised their arms to signal a penalty. The four referees did not. The puck trickled to Guentzel right in the slot, who wacked home a one-timer to complete the natural hat-trick.
At first, I was furious this goal, which would up as the game-winner, was allowed to count. But after seeing all replay angles from the full broadcast, I have to admit, the refs made the right call. Letang clearly touches the puck first and trips Couturier with the follow-through of his past, which is not a penalty. Oh, and in the time, I took to write that confession, Guentzel scored again. Twelve seconds separated Guentzel's third goal from his fourth, aligning with Kevin Stevens and some guy named Mario Lemieux as the only Penguins to score four goals in a playoff game.
In the blink of an eye, the Flyers went from being right with the defending-defending champions to out of the game completely. Again. Every Flyers loss in this series was a blowout; 7-0 in Game 1, 5-1 in Game 3, 5-0 in Game 4, and now this. Even in their two wins, the Flyers were outplayed for long periods of time. The Flyers had their flashes of brilliance, but this series went on a tailspin after the Flyers failed to capitalize on a dominant 1st period in Game 3. Finding themselves trailing 1-0 after giving the Penguins everything they had demoralized them, and the Flyers, who had a knack of letting adversity snowball, never recovered.
Except for Sean Couturier. Coots finished off his own hat-trick with a 6-on-5 rebound goal with 2:53 left. It may be the least excited I've ever been for a goal. It was all false hope, and even a newer fan like myself knew that. The Flyers pulled Neuvirth again, and actually came pretty close to making it 7-6. But the Penguins held down the fort, and as the pathetic 5% of Philly fans that always ruin everything and give the rest of us a bad rap showed up by throwing beer cans and rally towels on the ice, Bryan Rust, who scored the first goal of the series, scored the last goal of the series into an empty Flyers net.
Looking back on this game and this series, the Flyers had no business hanging with the Pens. They probably should've been swept. Couturier played Games 5 and 6 on a torn MCL after missing Game 4 (if you remember, the injury came from a practice collision with Gudas), and Provorov played Game 6 with a Grade 3 AC shoulder separation, which explains his ghastly turnover that gave Pittsburgh the lead for good. Both would have been out about two months had their injuries occurred in the regular season.
The 2017-18 Flyers were a very flawed team. They didn't have very good goaltending, their penalty kill was third worst in the league, they lacked forward depth, and Andrew MacDonald was in a top-4 role for most of the season because, oh yeah, Dave Hakstol was head coach. They lost 10 straight games early in the season, which they immediately followed by winning six straight, which they immediately followed by losing four of five. They were 10-1-2 in February despite losing both goalies down within a week of each other and then lost seven of their first eight in March. They ended the season with points nine of their last ten. Their only hat-tricks came in the first and last game of their season. Their two shutouts came when half the defense injured or suspended, leading to 29-year old Will O'Neill playing his first and only NHL game (and how could you forget Mark Alt?). The other was a 19-save shutout on the last day of the season by a clearly still hurt Brian Elliott who was still recovering from core surgery.
Sometimes they were frustrating. They went to overtime in twenty-five games. They lost to the 0-10-1 Arizona Coyotes in OT after scoring two goals in the final minute of the 3rd to tie the game. In fact, they scored a game-tying goal in the last minute of regulation three times, only to still lose each game (two in OT, one in a shootout). They took three penalties in the final three minutes of regulation in Nashville, including the (first ever?) delay of game for a failed offsides challenge, to turn a 5-4 lead into a 6-5 regulation loss. The Bruins scored two lead-changing goals in the final minute of regulation in consecutive games less than a month apart. They gave up exactly 5 goals to the Penguins in every regular season meeting, losing each game, and then gave up 5 goals or more in each of their four playoff losses (exactly 5 twice). They traded a third for Petr Mrazek, who put up a .891 save percentage. In the last two years, Mrazek's save percentage is .909.
Sometimes they were fun. They won 9 games in 3-on-3. Claude Giroux was the first Flyer to score 100 points in a season since Eric Lindros in 1993-94. Giroux sat on 99 heading into the final day of the season with the Flyers a point away from the playoffs, and he posted his first career regular-season hat-trick to carry them there. His 102 points were the second highest in the league, and based on that and his outstanding advanced metrics (especially relative to his teammates), he should have won the Hart. Sean Couturier nearly doubled his previous career-high in points (jumping from 39 to 76) and led the team in scoring in the playoffs despite the torn MCL. Shayne Gostisbehere scored 65 points and received Norris votes. Ivan Provorov scored 17 goals, tied for the most of any defenseman, the last of which was the game-winner in the Flyers game 82 playoff clincher, which was the last game Alain Vigneault coached until his victory in Prague in October. Travis Konecny broke out with 24 goals. Dave Hakstol stuck with Nolan Patrick, who scored at a 51-point pace after the All Star break. Their final victory of the season featured a shortie from Valterri Filppula assisted by Jori Lehtera, which shows that you can truly do anything, a game-winner from a hobbled Couturier with 1:15 left in the 3rd, a desperation save by Neuvirth on Sidney Crosby 25 seconds later, and an empty-netter scored by Matt Read, who spent most of the year in the AHL.
There is really no way to effectively summarize the 17-18 Flyers. Their season went off on so many random tangents during the season that there's nothing to do but just start looking through the branches to see what you can find. Hence the preceding stream of consciousness. After the heartbreak and embarrassment of the 16-17 team being the first club in NHL history to miss the playoffs in a season where they won 10 straight, a return to the playoffs made all the agony worth it.
This was the first time I've seen Game 6 in its entirety since April 22, 2018, but it's far from the first time I've thought of it since then. I'll never forget Couturier's heroics, AMac living up to his contract for that one fleeting moment, Neuvirth's big saves, and Laughton's snipe that had me thinking of Game 7 the instant it hit the net. Two years later, I'm still not over it. It's not that I can't believe it happened like this; it's really the exact opposite. I can't believe they couldn't break out of this cycle of craziness and establish structure of their season when they needed it most. To come that close, to get to a situation where you have victory within reach is extremely difficult. The Flyers did that, but they couldn't take that next step. They managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
And yet, I'm still thankful for this incredible season, and this incredible team. This was my second season as a die-heart fan, and the first season I started knowing that about myself. It made the highs so much better and the lows so much worse. I started wearing my Nick Schultz jersey at home every game even though he was no longer on the team. I listened to the warm-up mix before each game, the goal song after each goal, and the Orange and the Black exactly 44 times. For all of the joy they brought me, like those in attendance that day did for Couturier, I tip, or I guess throw, my hat to them.
I'll probably never get over this until the Flyers clear the Round 1 hump that has tripped them up their last three playoff trips. I'm hopeful that this year's team will get their shot, because I know they are different than the team I watched yesterday. The only area the 17-18 Flyers might be better is first power-play unit; everything else is better today. That's the most encouraging thing. I don't when they'll get their shot. I can't guarantee it will work out. This loss might haunt me (and Flyers fans) longer yet. But the Flyers wouldn't be where they are today without this team, or this game. And for the moment itself: don't cry because it's over, smile because it happened.