FFR2 Round 2, Game 5: NYI 3, PHI 4 (OT) - Big Boy Pants
Never a doubt, right?
The Philadelphia Flyers survive Game 5, 4-3, in OT, over the New York Islanders in the 2020 Eastern Conference Semifinals. By the hair or their playoff beards, the Flyers WIN to stave off elimination for the first time in these playoffs, cutting New York's series lead down to three games to two in the most eventful and heart-convulsing way possible.
Teams facing elimination usually come into a game knowing they have nothing to lose for and come out swinging. While sometimes that works, the Islanders no doubt would have welcomed the Flyers trying that approach. New York's seemingly perfect defensive structure and elite counter-attack would eat that style alive and boot the Flyers from the bubble faster than you can say one seed.
So instead, the Flyers came out playing the game they knew they had to play. Smart and safe with the puck, taking chances only when the Islanders gave a clear opportunity to attack, and getting pucks and people to the net. The Flyers know how to beat the Islanders, at least in the first period. New York is so effective because it's very hard to maintain that style for a full sixty minutes (or more), especially if you don't score any goals in the first period like the Flyers did tonight. Philadelphia played a pretty strong first, owning about two-thirds of the shot attempts and expected goals at 5-on-5, but came up empty-handed.
In fact, they came up less than empty-handed, because with less than thirty seconds remaining in the first, Derek Grant took an unnecessary tripping penalty in the neutral zone. Though the Flyers killed off the front part of the penalty, following it up after intermission proved more challenging. In the dying seconds of the PP, Josh Bailey rifled a wrist shot that went high and settled down behind the net. While Bailey was retrieving the puck behind the net, Pitlick pushed Mat Barzal into the crease. Bailey swooped in on the far side and buried a wrap-around to start the scoring for the Islanders.
Immediately, everyone's mind went to check if there was goaltender interference. Yes, Barzal was pushed into Hart initially, but he spent enough time in the crease to take the SAT after the contact let up and he was back on his feet. The bigger question was whether or not that impeded Hart's ability to make a save, since it was actually Pitlick most directly blocking Hart from the far post. Alain Vigneault risked a challenge, but the situation room ruled in the Islanders favor.
Suddenly, the Flyers were at a crossroads. The Islanders had the lead and were about to go on another power-play with a chance to go up by two - basically an insurmountable deficit considering their amazing defense. There are a lot of Flyers teams, especially recent ones, that would've broken at this very moment. Whether it was for lack of effort or lack of goaltending or lack of depth, the Flyers always seemed to fall apart in moments like these, eventually digging themselves into a hole too deep to climb out of.
But the Flyers killed off the penalty. They started to regain control of play. They finished the second period with an even greater share of shot attempts than the first and the majority of the expected goals for at 5-on-5. That's all well and good, but when you're facing elimination, results trump process. Thankfully, the Flyers got some of those as well.
On Tuesday morning, Alain Vigneault mentioned the Flyers epic 3-0 comeback against the Bruins in the 2010 ECSF. He also mentioned by name the two current Flyers that played for that team: Claude Giroux and James van Riemsdyk. Back then, AV said, they were the TK's and Farabee's of that team, young emerging stars getting their feet wet in the Stanley Cup playoffs. But today, they are leaders on the number one seed in the Eastern Conference, and if the Flyers' bubble is going to stay intact, AV said they needed to "put their big boy pants on."
Consider them changed. With less than five minutes to play in the second period, two of the Flyers biggest names finally broke through. Phil Myers launched a shot from the same spot of the ice where he played the hero of Game 2 from. Once again, the puck was deflected in, but this time, the tip came from none other than the captain, (extreme Lou Nolan voice) number twenty-eight, Claude Girouxxxxxxxxxx! For the first time in fourteen playoff games (if you count the round robin), the captain lit the lamp, tying the game and yanking the monkey off his back in one fell swoop.
Just a few minutes later, bad pinches by Adam Pelech and the man covering for him (JG Pageau) sprung the Flyers on an odd-man rush. It looked like Scott Laughton's best play was to shoot on the quickly developing two-on-one, but Scotty sauced one over Ryan Pulock's stick into his winger's wheelhouse. Varlamov got a piece with his sweater, but it was nearly enough to stop James from getting back on the van Boardsyk and giving the Flyers their first lead of Game 5. Suddenly, two of the team's most maligned stars had found their magic, propelling the Flyers to intermission with a 2-1 lead.
But those two weren't the only ones looking to remove a goose egg from their playoff goals department. Despite having the lead, the Flyers actually started the third period on the attack, no doubt remembering the Islanders' two-goal comeback from Game 2. After a couple close calls, a failed clear right up the middle by Derick Brassard became too much for the Islanders to handle. Hayes wound the puck to TK at the near boards, who found a sweet spot that the recovering Islanders hadn't gotten back to. That was the right point, where Matt Niskanen walked in from before firing an absolute rocket far-side to beat Varlamov! Steadzo Glensky's first since of the playoffs propped the Flyers up to a comfortable two-goal cushion.
And that'll just about wrap it up. Well, it should wrap it up, anyway. Sure the Islanders came back from a 3-1 deficit in the back-half of the 3rd period of Game 2. And a 3-1 deficit in the back-half of the 3rd period of a regular season game in November. And a two-goal lead is the most dangerous lead in hockey. Any the Flyers lost their precious "we don't give up the lead" mantle in Game 3. But all they have to do is hang on for a couple more minutes, and they'll be set.
The Islanders definitely had the better of play in the third, but it didn't feel like the Flyers were being outright dominated. New York wound up with about 60% of the shots in the third, acceptable for defending a multi-goal lead most of the frame, and only a slight edge in expected goals at 5-on-5. Carter Hart was coming up big when the Flyers needed him. The defense was making simple plays and I can only think of one shift where the Flyers were actually hemmed in. It was just a simple, safe period of chip it out and get it deep hockey, and the Flyers seemed to be playing it well.
Ah, shoot. Brock Nelson just wired in a one-timer from the high-slot with four and a half to go. It was a nice set up by Josh Bailey and the shot was absolutely ripped, maybe even changing direction off a Flyers' stick. Hart could've had it, but it's not the end of the world. This won't happen again. This can't happen again. How long do I have to keep repeating that to speak into existence?
Under three minutes to go and my heartbreak continues rising exponentially. The Islanders throw out the best fourth-line in hockey, but with Derick Brassard at left wing instead of Matt Martin. Whatever, like that'll matter. Cal Clutterbuck (what a silly name that is!) wins a board battle and started toward the front of the net with Phil Myers on his back. Carter Hart is in perfect position, however, so we'll be fine. Well, his body's in perfect position, not so much his stick, but goalies barely need those things anyway. There's no he'll make it much farther against the star-studded defense of (squints at stream)...
Why are Robert Hagg and Nate Thompson on the ice at the same time.
You know what, I'm making too big a deal of this. At least Hagg is in perfect position in front of the net, stick on the ice in just the right spot for Clutterbuck's pass to slide right past him um Robert I don't think that's how you're supposed to do it. The good news is there's no one on the far side of the crease except for Derick Bras-
*ERROR! ERROR! ERROR! ERROR! CRITICAL DEFENSIVE FAILURE. FOURTH LINE SHIFT NOT WITHSTOOD. REBOOT IN OVERTIME*
I think I set the Guinness World Record for fastest journey through the five stages of grief.
The same Derick Brassard, the ONLY person playing in this series who was also on the last team to eliminate the Flyers from the playoffs (the 2018 Penguins), chips in the tying goal with just 2:41 remaining in regulation. Absolute heartbreak. Absolute devastation. Absolute disbelief, even though we've seen the SAME THING happen TWICE already this season!
From 2015-2018, the Boston Bruins scored a lead changing goals in the final two minutes of regulation against the Flyers in five out of ten meetings, with the Flyers somehow going 1-3-1 in those games despite being within an arm's reach of at least one point and a 50% percent chance at a second in all of them. It appears they have passed that torch down to the Islanders.
Sometimes there aren't words to describe sports. Sometimes what happens in a game transcends the moment. Every great comeback, every great victory, every great moment in sports has another side to it. A hard-luck, devastated loser trying to process an event in the moment, maybe knowing it will stick with them the rest of their lives already, or having that realization sink in days, weeks, months, or years later. While the Flyers were lucky in the sense that this collapse didn't come with immediate defeat, heading to overtime felt like absolute torture knowing devastation was just a single shot away. The Flyers were in one of these "you can't believe it" moments, afforded the rare but usually for-naught opportunity to save themselves from a terrible fate.
Unlike Game 2's overtime, which ended quickly without the Islanders ever threatening to score, extra time in Game 5 was a total track meet. The Flyers struck iron twice, including once less than two minutes in on a tip by Kevin Hayes. Hart had to return to peak form fast, robbing Devon Toews on a cross-crease one-timer early and stopping a Brock Nelson breakaway moments later. The Flyers actually got to the middle a couple of times, but for the most part, they were back to keeping it simple with a bevy of point shots. If only they could put one on net.
With about eight minutes to play in the period, the Islanders iced the puck, which is exactly what preceded Myers' OT winner in Game 2. The Flyers won the face-off once again (they were a dominant 9/11, or 81.8%, in OT draws). Matt Niskanen flipped a puck into the left corner, nearly taking off Scott Laughton's head in the process. Laughton, head in tact, retrieved the dump and found Giroux in back of the goal. Just like Couturier in Game 2, albeit on the other side of the zone, G banked the puck out to the point. Ivan Provorov chose not to blast a one-timer, instead drifting towards the middle in hopes to avoid another pesky Islanders' shot-block. He found the lane and let it rip. To be honest, I don't know if he even got a lot on it.
But I do know that Laughts got it.
SCOTT LAUGHTON YOU ABSOLUTE HERO! Scotty Laughts murders the Islanders' chance to advance, at least for a night, and sent the Flyers back to their hotel with suitcases still tucked inside the closet. Both Laughton and Jake Voracek were there, providing heavy traffic in front of Varlamov. Laughton managed to get a piece, and just three games after being healthy scratched for the first time in his playoff career, Laughton recored his second multi-point game of the playoffs, sending the series to a sixth game.
I wonder what Barry Trotz is thinking right now. The Islanders all but had the Flyers by the throat after that third period comeback. They all but had the Flyers by the throat coming into this game. Just like Trotz's Capitals had the Alain Vigneault coached New York Rangers by the throat in the 2015 Eastern Conference Semifinal, up 3-1 in the series and up 1-0 in the final two minutes of regulation. But then Chris Kreider tied it, in OT Ryan McDonagh won it, the Rangers nearly choked a 4-0 lead in Game 6 but held on, and Derek Stepan ended the series with a double-overtime goal.
Look, Trotz is an amazing coach, and the Islanders are an amazing team. They're still in the driver's seat of the series with a chance to put this in the rearview mirror and head to the Eastern Conference Final. I would be absolutely stunned if this caused the Islanders fell apart after this. Remember, the last time the Islanders blew a 3-1 third period comeback with an overtime loss, they responded with a consecutive convincing 3-1 victories. Now, they only need one game like that, or even a game worse than that, to move on.
The problem for the Islanders isn't that they lost this game. The problem isn't anything they did wrong. It's what the Flyers finally did right. Claude Giroux SCORED. James van Riemsdyk SCORED. These guys have been starved for goals all playoffs. When a guy of their caliber goes on a slump, you never want to be the team that has to face them once they've finally scored that goal. It's amazing how often once those guys score one, they score like ten in the blink of an eye. Guys like them have the talent to flip a game, maybe even a playoff series, on its head.
In my Game 5 recap, I wrote that while it would be all well and good if those guys (and Travis Konecny, who took the shot Hayes deflected off the bar in OT) could finally break through, they have fallen so far back it wouldn't even matter. Maybe it won't matter in the ending of the series; heck, it almost didn't matter tonight. But if nothing else, winning Game 5 bought Philly the two things every athlete desires - time and space. On Thursday night, we'll get a chance to see what the Flyers can do with it.
The Flyers may have won this battle, but both teams lost a crucial soldier in the fire. For the Flyers, that means Sean Couturier. He and Mat Barzal collided late in the second period, potentially knee on knee. Both players were slow to get up, but at least Barzal was apparently fine. Couturier was not. He grimaced in pain as he went to the bench, played one shift before the end of the second, and did not return for the third or OT. While Coots has shown he can play great through pain before, scoring four goals and two assists in two 2018 playoff games on a torn MCL, losing any portion of his abilities is a huge blow for the Flyers.
If Couturier can't go, the question becomes who replaces him. Since the Flyers are losing a skill player, you could argue that Morgan Frost should enter because he's the most skilled player in the press box. If Michael Raffl is close to full strength, he deserves to keep his spot based on his stellar play earlier in the playoffs (7 points in 7 games). Connor Bunnaman (4 playoff games) is probably the most likely option if Raffl isn't available. And of course, there's the wildcard of Oskar Lindblom, who took warm-ups once again on Tuesday.
Worth noting Laughton took Couturier's spot on the top line in his absence. JVR also played some shifts with Giroux and Voracek when Couturier briefly left Game 4 with an equipment issue.
Apparently, the only way to make things fair was to take an eye for an eye. Although that's supposed to be figurative, it nearly became literal when Claude Giroux caught Barzal around the eye with the follow through of a pass in the third. Barzal went down in a heap, play was stopped, and Barzal left the game, also never to return. He's the most dynamic and talented player in the Islanders lineup. The last player just about any team can afford to lose is their first-line center (unless you're the Lightning, apparently), and for at least one night, both teams did.
Focusing on the big picture, the Islanders have never lost a series after taking a 3-1 lead (10-0). The Flyers are just 1-17 when trailing a series 3-1, with the Boston comeback in 2010 from down 3-0 (and therefore later down 3-1) being the lone exception.
What a huge redemption moment that goal must've been for Matt Niskanen. After being burnt for both third period goals against in Game 4, Niskanen broke a 36 playoff game goal-less drought, dating back to Game 3 of the 2018 ECSF against the Penguins, back when he was a Capital.
Though the Flyers as a team may have lost some of their bounce-back might after consecutive losses in Games 3 and 4, Carter Hart still hasn't lost consecutive games since January 4. However, if you want to nitpick the young goalie, Brian Boucher pointed out on the broadcast that Hart's stick was not in very good position on the tying goal. Hart inadvertently tipped an Anders Lee pass into his own net in Game 3, and Boucher believed that lightning may have struck twice had Hart gotten a piece of the pass. Hart more than made it up for that with his sensational OT play, however.
Hart really got away with one in overtime, though. With nine minutes left in the period, Hart accidentally caught a dump-in behind the net in his glove. That's a pretty clear-cut delay of game penalty, but the referees let him off with a stern talking to. Had that been called properly, the Flyers would've been on the penalty kill at the time Laughton scored.
Hart picked up his eighth playoff victory tonight (including round robin), moving him into tenth all-time in Flyers playoff wins, which is exciting and depressing all at the same time.
NBC Sports Philadelphia has been killing it with the caption game all season long.
The Flyers have won at least one game while facing elimination in each of their last four years in the playoffs. Since 2014, the Flyers are 5-3 when facing elimination.
Player of the Game Helmet Standings Return!
Laughts, Phil - 1
Unknown - 7 (Look, you've gotta start somewhere)
1st - Scott Laughton (PHI) - OT-Winning Goal (4), Assist (4)
2nd - Claude Giroux (PHI) - Goal (1), Assist (6), 84.79% xGF
3rd - Josh Bailey (NYI) - 2 Assists (12, 13)
Game 6 - 9/3, 7 PM: Once again, it doesn't have to be the end.
*Advanced Stats via Naturalstattrick.com