Brian Elliott’s Game 2 redemption helps Flyers even series

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PITTSBURGH — After being dominated in all phases of the game on Wednesday night Philadelphia Flyers coach Dave Hakstol decided he was going to come back on Friday with the exact same lineup. Same players. Same line combinations. Same defense pairings. And, perhaps most notably, the same goalie.

It took a lot of faith and confidence in his team to not make any changes after such an emphatic loss, especially in the playoffs. Most coaches would have changed something between Games 1 and 2 because, well, that’s just what you do when you lose a game, whether it’s actually needed or not.

He was rewarded for that confidence and faith with a 5-1 Flyers win that saw them even their first-round series with the Pittsburgh Penguins at one game apiece.

It is almost never any one particular thing that goes into a win, and on Friday there was a lot that went right for the Flyers that went wrong in the first game.

Sean Couturier played a fantastic game and finished with three points. A lot of their young players had huge games (Ivan Provorov had two points; Nolan Patrick and Travis Konecny both scored goals). But the simple fact starting goalie Brian Elliott was able to bounce back after giving up five goals on only 19 shots in Game 1 (the fifth time in five meetings this season that the Penguins had scored at least five goals against the Flyers) before getting pulled and play the game he did may have been the single biggest factor in the win.

After the game Elliott was asked how much it meant to him to have Hakstol stick with him after such a tough first game, especially while still recovering from an injury that kept him out of the lineup for 25 games.

“Whenever you get that start you want to take advantage of that opportunity,” said Elliott. “It’s special to get a start, it’s special to get starts in the playoffs and carry a team and try to be the block in the wall behind them. The way the guys played tonight in front of me, we blocked I don’t know how many more shots tonight than we did the other night. That is key for me and allows me to stay calm and confident as well.”

To his last point the Flyers were actually credited with two fewer blocked shots on Friday, but that’s really not important — if he thinks it gave him more confidence, so be it.

But early on it still looked like he was off of his game.

He whiffed on two long distance Patric Hornqvist shots that rang off the goal post to his left, and even on bad angle shots he seemed to be fighting the puck a little bit. At that point it seemed like it was only a matter of time until he let one in and the dam would once again burst.

But the real turning point, and the point in the game where it seemed obvious that it was going to be a better night for Elliott and the Flyers, came when he stopped Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, fresh off of a Game 1 hat trick, on a breakaway midway through the second period to preserve what was at the time a two-goal Flyers lead. A goal there could have sent the game in a completely different direction. Instead, Elliott calmly snagged Crosby’s backhand out of the air and kept the Penguins off the board.

“You don’t really have that much time to think,” Elliott said when asked what his mindset was on that play. “You just try to be aggressive and play it just like any other breakaway. He’s got a lot of moves I’m sure, and you just try to stay one step ahead as best you can.”

From that point on Elliott looked like a completely different goalie, and even when he seemed to be beaten things still managed to go his way. Like in the closing seconds of the second period Crosby was standing by himself alongside a wide open net and inexplicably fired it through the other side of the crease, completing missing a chance to get the Penguins on the board.

When the Penguins managed to put the puck on net he stopped 34 of the 35 shots he faced in what was one of the best postseason performances of his career. Given that it came 48 hours after one of his worst playoff performances he faced a lot of questions about personal pride and wanting to make a statement after the game.

[Related: Flyers tie series, Penguins may haved dodged Letang injury]

“I don’t know if it was about pride,” said Elliott. “I think it was just about a response. I think to a man we knew we didn’t play a playoff game last game here in Game 1. I think we needed to just come out and have that intensity that we have had in the past two-to-three weeks of the season just to make it here. It was a little weird last game and I just think tonight everybody came out and played their role really well and we played a great team game.”

But it wasn’t just Game 1 that had to cause some concern for Flyers fans. It is that Elliott had been up-and-down most of the season, while the entire goaltending situation was once again unsettled, a Flyers tradition unlike any other. Then there is the fact that Elliott’s career postseason numbers as a whole — including a forgettable performance in Calgary a year ago — have not been great.

He was also asked about that after the game and whether he was — and still is — out to prove something about himself.

“It’s not about proving anything,” said Elliott. “It’s trying to win a game for your teammates, and your friends, and the guys you spend so much time with together over the year. That is what it’s all about it.”

For all of the things that went for the Flyers on Friday they may need more efforts like this from Elliott if they are going to win this series. They can not give the Penguins four power plays every game or get outshot by a 35-20 margin and expect to win many games by four goals.

If they keep taking penalties and giving up that many shots Elliott is going to have to be the difference in the series.

Does he have that in him the rest of the way? That remains to be seen. But for one night on Friday he certainly did. That performance is a big reason things are even as the series shifts back to Philadelphia on Sunday.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

The Buzzer: Ovechkin is clutch

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Two games on Thursday

Bruins 3, Maple Leafs 1 (Bruins lead series 3-1)

The Boston Bruins continue to show that they can survive – if not thrive – with key players out of the lineup. They don’t get much more “key” than Patrice Bergeron, who was unable to suit up for Game 4. Even so, Tuukka Rask made some crucial saves and the Bruins connected on two 2-on-1 rushes to snag a 3-1 series lead. The Maple Leafs must grapple with a lot of uncomfortable questions as they see their season slip to the brink of elimination.

Capitals 4, Blue Jackets 1 (Series tied 2-2)

This game was all about patterns continuing, or breaking.

Continuing: The road team winning. The away team has won all four contests during this series, so this one returns to Washington with the two teams now tied up 2-2. It’s also another instance of Alex Ovechkin being sneaky-clutch, although many people will disagree because of team results. Washington’s starting to pull away in terms of puck possession during the series, and that continued on Thursday, too.

Breaking: For the first time in the series, the game ended in regulation. It wasn’t all that close, either, as the Caps won 4-1 and were safe even considering one empty-netter.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Three Stars

1. Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins – There will be talk of Bergeron, Auston Matthews not being able to score, Mike Babcock’s decisions, and other factors from Game 4. Rask helped to push those discussions to the forefront – rather than talk about which team has the edge if they ended up tied – as he was sharp on Thursday. Rask stopped 31 out of 32 shots, factoring heavily in Boston building a 3-1 series lead against Toronto.

2. Evgeny Kuznetsov, Washington Capitals – After scoring two goals in Game 1, Kuznetsov had been held silent by the Bruins in Games 2 and 3. The Russian center made up for lost time in Game 4, scoring an empty-netter and two assists in that 4-1 win. Both of his assists were primary helpers, while he checked many other boxes by winning more than half of his draws (10 of 18), generating a +3 rating, and firing four shots on goal.

3. Alex Ovechkin, Capitals – Ovechkin fired a shot on Sergei Bobrovsky, which created a rebound opportunity for T.J. Oshie during a Washington power play, a goal that ended up being the game-winner. Ovechkin also scored from the right face-off circle for an important insurance goal. Ovechkin fired five SOG and was a +1 in Game 4.

Factoids

There’s plenty of focus on Bergeron being out and Marchand scoring/agitating, but don’t forget about David Pastrnak‘s brilliance.

Again, Alex Ovechkin is more clutch than people realize. By scoring the 49th playoff goal of his career, Ovechkin tied Henri Richard for 60th in NHL history. You may remember Henri as a) Maurice Richard’s brother and b) the guy who won the Stanley Cup 11 times.

Friday’s games

Philadelphia Flyers at Pittsburgh Penguins, 7 p.m. ET, NBCSN
Minnesota Wild at Winnipeg Jets, 7:30 p.m. ET, USA Network
Colorado Avalanche at Nashville Predators, 9:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Capitals tie series with Blue Jackets

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In Game 4, the Washington Capitals showed their heart by not working overtime.

The Capitals dropped both of their home games to start their first-round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets, opening the floodgates for people to dust off their favorite, cruel jokes about this team. They’ll return home with those one-liners drying up, though.

After falling behind 2-0 in the series, the Capitals flipped the script to tie it up 2-2 after beating the Blue Jackets both times in Columbus. The symmetry wasn’t complete, however; while Washington continued the series trend of overtime nail-biters by winning beyond regulation in Game 3, they made no mistake about winning Game 4 by a score of 4-1.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

This wasn’t a case where the Bruins got the bounces and the finishes to win. The Capitals have shown signs of dominance even in defeats during this series, but they really smothered the Blue Jackets in Game 4.

The Capitals generated a 33-24 shots on goal edge, won about two-thirds of the faceoffs, and generally carried the play by every metric.

Tom Wilson making it 1-0 was valuable, and jokes about blown 2-0 leads aside, T.J. Oshie‘s eventual game-winner was important during the second period. Alex Ovechkin‘s goal from his opposite office widened the gap too much for an overmatched Blue Jackets team, even with Boone Jenner scoring and giving Columbus a brief boost.

With a goal and an assist in Game 4, this is yet another reminder that Ovechkin is a playoff performer, even if his team isn’t always there with him. After Washington went down 2-0 against Columbus, Ovechkin said “it’s going to be fun when we bounce back and tie the series,” and that’s exactly the situation Washington is in after … whatever the opposite of “holding serve” is.

Of course, people will quickly forget this triumph-within-the-series if the Capitals ultimately bow out of the first round, anyway.

The Caps must feel really good about their collective play as they aim to become the first team to win at home in this series in Game 5. Their power play has been productive, playing tight defense, getting scoring from Ovechkin/others, and Braden Holtby looks poised in regaining his usual spot in net. It’s the sort of stretch that changes the Capitals’ narrative from “here we go again” to “could this be the year we finally make a run?”

With this series now essentially becoming a best two-out-of-three clash, the disposition could easily go from sunny back to gloomy, but give this beleaguered group credit for keeping cool heads and making this anyone’s game once again.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Bruins push Leafs to brink

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The Boston Bruins found themselves on the wrong end of plenty of stats in Game 4, but even with Patrice Bergeron on the shelf, they won 3-1 to push the Toronto Maple Leafs to the brink of elimination.

Boston took a 3-1 series lead with tonight’s win despite Toronto generating a 32-21 shots on goal advantage, hogging the puck, and holding home-ice advantage.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Goaltending was one big area of advantage for the Bruins. Tuukka Rask was forced to make some tough saves as Mitch Marner and other Leafs players created plenty of chances. One cannot help but wonder if fatigue is a bit of a factor for workhorse Maple Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen, meanwhile, as he’d likely love to have this Torey Krug goal back:

That early 1-0 lead provided a cushion for the Bruins to adjust to life without Bergeron (again), although Tomas Plekanec did tie things up. Ultimately, the Bruins were able to cash in on two 2-on-1 rushes, with Brad Marchand burying a tremendous setup by David Pastrnak for the game-winner and Jake DeBrusk finding the net after a great feed by David Krejci (who has absorbed some criticism for his play lately).

The two goals were remarkably similar in exhibiting the Bruins’ smarts and finish, along with the Maple Leafs lacking in a few areas on defense, as Nikita Zaitsev and Roman Polak were exposed (among others). Here’s that Marchang GWG:

Game 5 shifts back to Boston on Saturday. You can watch that game on CNBC, with puck drop slated for 8 p.m. ET.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Bruins without Bergeron vs. Leafs in Game 4

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The Boston Bruins rolled through much of the regular season despite injuries, even to key players like Patrice Bergeron. The fact that they’re unfortunately experienced playing without Bergeron is probably the only silver lining regarding his late scratch heading into Game 4.

The Bruins announced that Bergeron is day-to-day with what they’re deeming an upper-body injury, so Riley Nash slips into Bergeron’s spot between Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

This stands as an obvious opportunity for Auston Matthews to roam more freely against the Bruins and a chance for the Maple Leafs to tie this series in front of their home fans.

NBC Sports Boston’s Joe Haggerty makes a good point that Bergeron missing Game 4 is especially troubling since the Bruins played Game 3 on Monday, gaining an extra off day between contests.

Bergeron generated five assists through the first three games of this series, including four helpers in Game 2. He was limited to 64 regular-season games in 2017-18, falling just short of a point-per-game with 63. Naturally, his all-around game goes beyond goals and assists, so this hurts badly for the Bruins, whether they had some experience playing without him or not.

As of this writing, the two teams are tied up 1-1. Click here for the livestream link.

This news comes not that long after news surfaced that Bergeron’s once again been named a finalist for the Selke.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.