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.

Penguins vs Flyers: PHT 2018 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview

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The last time these two teams met in the Stanley Cup Playoffs it was 10 days of insanity as everybody involved with the series — from the players, to the coaches, to the fans, to the media — completely lost their minds.

Lost. Their. Minds.

Neither goalie could stop the puck. Flyers goalie Ilya Bryzgalov opened the series talking about his fear of bears in the woods. Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury was driven to a sports psychologist a year later because of playoff series like this one. Elsewhere, everybody on the ice forgot how to play defense. There were fights. There were suspensions. The Flyers got themselves banned from getting ribs from a bar-b-que place in West Virginia (yes, this in-state rivalry crosses state lines).

Stanley Cup Playoffs streaming, schedule and more

When it was all said and done it even produced one of the most scorching hot takes in recent hockey media memory in a Tweet that still lives on and will never die.

We did not even get into the Jaromir Jagr playing for Philadelphia aspect of it, or the fact a missed offside call helped change the outcome of a game!

Obviously, it was quite a series, and it is sure to be referenced more than once over the next couple of weeks as the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers meet in the first-round of the Metropolitan Division playoffs.

Only eight total players (three from the Penguins, five from the Flyers) and none of the coaches remain from that series, and most of the people responsible for turning it into a gong show have moved on. So it is probably not going to be as hectic this time around. I only say probably because you never really know what these two teams are capable of. The Penguins have been prone to getting their doors blown off on any given night this season, while the Flyers … well … the Flyers are capable of winning 10 in a row or losing 10 in a row at any given time.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Who knows which team on which side will show up when the puck drops.

While the potential for violence isn’t what it was in 2012, the potential for boatloads of goals is certainly on the table.

Six of the NHL’s top-27 point producers play for these two teams, while their goalies finished 22nd and 23rd in the league in save percentages, combining for only a .904 mark.

The two teams met four times during the regular season with the Penguins winning all four — two of them in overtime — and scoring five goals in each game.

What does that mean now? Nothing.

Here is what does matter.

Schedule

Forwards

Pittsburgh: This has always been the Penguins’ strength and they might be even better than they were the past two years, assuming Derick Brassard is healthy and ready to go. Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, and Sidney Crosby were all among the league’s top-10 scorers this season (first time since 2003-04 a team had three top-1o players) and they can still go four lines deep when they are healthy. Patric Hornqvist, one of the best net-front players in the league, is playing some of the best hockey of his career heading into the playoffs.

Philadelphia: Like the Penguins the Flyers boast three of the NHL’s top scorers in Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, and Sean Couturier, and also like the Penguins, they have one of the league’s best net-front players in Wayne Simmonds. Giroux and Voracek both had massive bounce-back seasons after down years in 2016-17, with each of them setting new career highs all over the board. Giroux topped the 100-point mark for the first time in his career, finished second in the league in total points, and led the league in assists. He should be an MVP finalist.

Advantage: Pittsburgh. Simply because they seem to have more depth. The Flyers’ top-line can match up with the Penguins’ top-line (or any top line in the league for that matter), but as noted in the pre-playoff Power Rankings the Flyers really tend to struggle when the Giroux and Couturier duo is not on the ice. The Penguins’ have won the past two years because Crosby can cancel out the other team’s top line allowing the Malkin and Kessel lines to do damage. Can the Flyers match up with that?

Defense

Pittsburgh: The good news for the Penguins is they won the Stanley Cup a year ago without Kris Letang. He is back in the lineup this year. The bad news is he really has not been himself and has been one of the most volatile players in the league, being equal parts brilliant and disastrous on a game-to-game — and sometimes even shift-to-shift — basis. From an analytics standpoint the Penguins did a lot of things well defensively during 5-on-5 play and were one of the best teams in the league when it comes to suppressing shots on goal and shot attempts at 5-on-5 play (top-10 in both). But they make a lot of glaring mistakes at times that just look bad. That, combined with some shoddy PK play and goaltending results in them entering  playoffs having given up more than three goals per game, the worst mark of any team in the playoffs.

Philadelphia: Here is a fun fact about Flyers 20-year-old defenseman Ivan Provorov — no defender in the NHL this season scored more goals than he did. With him, Shayne Gostisbehere, Travis Sanheim, and Robert Haag they have the long-term foundation of their blue line in place, and it looks like a really bright future. Like the Penguins they have strong shot-metrics during 5-on-5 play but are only a middle of the pack team in terms of goals against.

Advantage: Philadelphia. Neither of these teams are really great defensively and both have big question marks that could be exploited (whoever wins the Chad Ruhwedel/Matt Hunwick lineup spot in Pittsburgh; Philadelphia still plays Andrew MacDonald 20 minutes per night), but I think the Flyers, as a group, get a slight edge because they have succeeded in not being quite as bad as the Penguins have been at times.

Goaltending

Pittsburgh: As great as their offense was the Penguins probably would not have been able to get out of the first-round of the playoffs a year ago without great goaltending. Or the second round. They have not received that same level of goaltending this season and that has to be a concern. Matt Murray has shown flashes of being that player at times, but he’s also had stretches where his play has struggled.

Philadelphia: Stop me if you have heard this one before, but the Flyers have a question mark in net. Brian Elliott seems to alternate good years and bad years (the Flyers got him on one of the down years), Michal Neuvirth has been injured off and on, and Petr Mrazek has been a disaster since coming over in a trade from Detroit.

Advantage: Pittsburgh. As mentioned above the Penguins and Flyers were both in the bottom-10 in the league in save percentage this season and had virtually identical numbers. But Pittsburgh’s potential upside at the position seems to be higher given that Murray has a pretty recent track record of excelling in the playoffs.

Special teams

Pittsburgh: The Penguins’ power play is lethal to opponents and enters the playoffs as the best unit in the NHL. You simply can not take penalties against this team. On the other side the Penguins penalty kill has, very recently, been lethal to them. They simply can not take penalties.

Philadelphia: Given the talent they have the Flyers’ power play seems like it should be better than it was during the regular season, only finishing 15th in the NHL. But that’s not the concern. The concern is that their penalty kill was 29th in the league at only 75 percent.

Advantage: Pittsburgh. Both teams have been bad on the penalty kill this season, and the Flyers have managed to actually be worse than the Penguins. Given how dominant the Penguins’ power play is that has to be a concern.

X-Factors

Pittsburgh: Bryan Rust is probably the most underrated player on this team. He can play anywhere in the lineup and on any line, he brings that speed element that the Penguins love, and he is one of those players that seems to have a knack for scoring big goals in big situations.

Philadelphia: The Flyers have some All-Star level talent at the top of their roster but what makes them so intriguing long-term is the wave of young talent that has started to hit the NHL. We already talked about their young defenders, but they have a pretty nice collection of young forwards as well. No. 2 overall pick Nolan Patrick is a big part of that, but let’s not ignore Travis Konecny. The 20-year-old finished third on the team in goals (24) this season and was one of the team’s top overall point producers.

Prediction

Penguins in six games. Both teams have similar strengths, similar weaknesses, and similar question marks. But the Penguins just seem to be a deeper team that is going to be difficult for the Flyers to match up with.

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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.

WATCH LIVE: Philadelphia Flyers vs. New York Rangers

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[WATCH LIVE: Philadelphia Flyers vs. New York Rangers]

Projected Lines

Philadelphia Flyers

Forwards

Claude GirouxSean CouturierMichael Raffl

Oskar LindblomNolan Patrick – Jake Voracek

Travis KonecnyValtteri FilppulaWayne Simmonds

Scott LaughtonJori LehteraMatt Read

Defense

Ivan ProvorovShayne Gostisbehere

Travis SanheimAndrew MacDonald

Brandon ManningRadko Gudas

Starting Goalie: Brian Elliott

[NHL On NBCSN: Flyers look to clinch playoff spot against Rangers]

New York Rangers

Forwards

Chris KreiderMika ZibanejadRyan Spooner

Jimmy VeseyFilip ChytilMats Zuccarello

Vladislav NamestnikovKevin HayesPavel Buchnevich

Paul Carey –  Lias AnderssonPeter Holland

Defense

Marc StaalNeal Pionk

BradySkjei – Ryan Sproul

John Gilmour – Rob O’Gara

Starting Goalie: Henrik Lundqvist

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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.

WATCH LIVE: Boston Bruins at Philadelphia Flyers

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NBC’s coverage of the 2017-18 season continues on Sunday, as the Philadelphia Flyers will host the Boston Bruins at 12:30 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online by clicking here.

[CLICK HERE TO WATCH AT 12:30 P.M. ET]

PROJECTED LINES

Bruins: 

Brad MarchandPatrice BergeronDavid Pastrnak

Jake DeBruskDavid KrejciRyan Donato

Danton HeinenTommy WingelsDavid Backes

Tim SchallerNoel AcciariBrian Gionta

Zdeno CharaNick Holden

Torey KrugAdam McQuaid

Matt GrzelcykKevan Miller

Starting goalie: Anton Khudobin

 [The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

Flyers: 

Claude GirouxSean CouturierTravis Konecny

Oskar LindblomNolan PatrickJakub Voracek

Jordan WealValtteri FilppulaWayne Simmonds

Jori LehteraScott LaughtonMatt Read

Ivan ProvorovShayne Gostisbehere

Travis SanheimAndrew MacDonald

Brandon ManningRadko Gudas

Starting goalie: Petr Mrazek

WATCH LIVE: Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Philadelphia Flyers

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[CLICK HERE TO WATCH LIVE]

PROJECTED LINES

Philadephia Flyers

Forwards

Claude GirouxSean CouturierTravis Konecny

Oskar LindblomNolan Patrick – Jake Voracek

Jordan WealValtteri FilppulaWayne Simmonds

Jori LehteraScott Laughton – Matt Read

Defense

Ivan ProvorovShayne Gostisbehere

Travis Sanheim – Andrew MacDonald

Robert Hägg – Radko Gudas

Starting Goalie: Alex Lyon

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS

Forwards

Jake GuentzelSidney CrosbyPatric Hornqvist

Carl HagelinEvgeni Malkin– Bryab Rust

Conor ShearyDerick BrassardPhil Kessel

Tom KuhnhacklRiley SheahanDominik Simon

Defense

Jamie OleksiakKris Letang

Brian DumoulinJustin Schultz

Olli MaattaChad Ruhwedel

Starting goalie: Matt Murray

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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.