PITTSBURGH — Well that was emphatic.
The Pittsburgh Penguins sent quite a message in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference playoff series against the Philadelphia Flyers on Wednesday night with a 7-0 win that featured a Sidney Crosby hat trick, a highlight reel goal from Evgeni Malkin, a four-point night from Jake Guentzel, and, completely sliding under the radar in the midst of the offensive onslaught, a third consecutive playoff shutout for starting goalie Matt Murray.
While the Penguins were lighting up the scoreboard, the Flyers were searching for answers.
One of the questions they have to find answer for before Game 2 on Friday is a familiar one for anyone that has followed Flyers hockey for the better part of the past three decades: Just what in the heck are they going to do in goal?
Captain Claude Giroux called it “one of the worst games” he had ever been a part of.
Still, goaltending was a big part of the story and Elliott was not sharp on Wednesday, resulting in coach Dave Hakstol pulling him after giving up five goals on 19 shots. Some of the goals were a bit out of his control.
On another, Crosby scored on a no-look mid-air swat that is just one of those things that happens when Sidney Crosby is on the ice. Not much a goalie can do about that stuff.
But the first goal was the result of a juicy rebound Elliott left for Bryan Rust in the middle of the ice, and while Malkin cut through the Flyers’ defense for the third goal in spectacular fashion, the shot itself was one that Elliott should probably stop.
The reason it is such a debate is because the Flyers are once again in a position without a clear-cut No. 1 starter with Elliott, Michael Neurvith, and Mrazek all splitting the time this season, and all providing equal levels of mediocre play.
It is a vicious cycle that keeps repeating itself every single year. The names change. The story stays the same.
For Elliott, it was an up-and-down season when he was healthy. A brutal month of October was followed by him being one of the bright spots for the team in November and December, before his play dropped off significantly in January and early February. Then an injury sidelined him for 25 games only to have him return to the lineup for the final two games against teams well out of the playoffs to close out the season.
Then he had to face Pittsburgh on Wednesday.
Quite a change in competition.
Elliott was not interested in using that layoff as an excuse and didn’t want to chalk his Game 1 struggles up to still trying to get up to speed.
“It’s always hard when you miss a lot of time,” said Elliott after the game. “But everybody is dealing with stuff this time of year so there’s no excuses in the playoffs.”
But it still leaves Hakstol with a big decision for Friday’s game.
Does he go back to Elliott after benching him just 30 minutes into Game 1, or does he make a change and go with Petr Mrazek who gave up two goals on the 14 shots he faced in relief?
Hakstol was asked about a potential change after the game and seemed to have confidence in going back to Elliott.
“Right now my first instinct is yeah,” Hakstol said. “It’s always different as you get into the playoffs, things are elevated a little bit. But coming back with Moose when he was coming off the injury, he’s our guy. He’s a huge reason why our team was able to put ourselves in a position to be in the playoffs. In terms of his presence in our dressing room and the trust we all have him in that’s a pretty big factor. Like everything else we’ll look hard at it, but right now my first gut instinct is he that he is our guy and I don’t see a reason why we would go away from him.”
The other reason to potentially stick with Elliott: The alternative may not be any better.
Neuvirth is still listed as day-to-day with a lower body injury and has played just 28 minutes of hockey since Feb. 18.
That leaves Mrazek as the only other potential option for the time being. Since being acquired in a trade from the Detroit Red Wings (entirely due to injuries to Elliott and Neuvirth) Mrazek has had a .891 save percentage as a member of the Flyers. Since the start of the 2016-17 season is at .901 in 89 games. Not exactly the level of goaltending you want against one of the best offensive teams in hockey and one that just put a seven-spot on the scoreboard.
Not exactly a great spot to be in, and with everything being as it is, he may not have much of a choice but to stick with Elliott.
Then again, if the Penguins play like they did on Wednesday night it may not even matter who the goalie is.