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.
“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.