Thursday, April 12, 2012

Resiliency the real star of Wednesday's playoff opener

by Bob Herpen
Phanatic Hockey Editor

Every year there are reminders -- some subtle and some not so much -- that the NHL playoffs are every bit about those intangibles as they are about all the things we like to pick apart, toss around and reassemble on our path to analyzing key factors in each series.

Wednesday's Flyers-Penguins series opener was no exception.

During a brief twitter conversation with colleague Bill Meltzer in between the end of the third period and start of overtime, I posited the following: Isn't it time, given the fact that the visitors have forced overtime by erasing a 3-0 first-intermission deficit, to shift the narrative from "the Flyers are constantly chasing the game," to "the Penguins can't lock things down with an early multi-goal lead?"

Bill hedged, and later issued a simple "pressure's all on Pittsburgh now" missive in response. I don't blame him, because he, like me, is a veteran of a triple-digit number of playoff contests and so I'm sure can see multiple possibilities stemming from one event floating in his mind.

My reply, a curt "They won, so it really has to switch," indicated a desire to say something before starting the long process of churning out a full recap, and it doesn't really get to the depth of what's on the table.

After witnessing yet another in a series of great comebacks in this club's history, I feel confident enough to say that, while it's clearly not advantageous to keep plunging to early deficits, it's a far more lethal thing for the opposition -- and in particular this Atlantic Division foe stacked with talent and a Cup win -- to expend so much energy early on and not finish the job.

Per the Elias Sports Bureau, last night marked the sixth time in franchise history that the Flyers have come back from a three-goal deficit to win a playoff game. The others:

Flyers 4, Boston 3 May 14, 2010 – Game 7 Eastern Conference Semifinals

Flyers 5, Washington 4 (OT) April 10, 1988 – Game 4 Patrick Division Semifinals

Flyers 5, Edmonton 3 May 22, 1987 – Game 3 Stanley Cup Final

Flyers 6, Toronto 5 April 17, 1977 – Game 4 Quarterfinals

Flyers 4, Atlanta 3 (OT) April 14, 1974 – Game 4 Quarterfinals

Note: that's two such rallies in the last three seasons under Peter Laviolette. And there's a confidence that's building among the ranks, something that should no longer be suppressed by throwing out stats like how few times the Flyers have led in the first 10 minutes of a game.

"[I was] more about addressing a realization for [the players] that they know how to play and we weren't doing that," Laviolette said about the tone of his early timeout and his comments between the first and second periods. "I've said it before -- we have a certainly identity that we find success with, we know we can score goals and win hockey games playing a certain style and brand. The first period we didn't."

All told, we have three examples within the last four weeks where the Penguins have come on like a house afire only to get tamped down like a pile of wet ash.

The first was March 18 in Philadelphia, when a 2-0 lead evaporated like hot water in Arctic sub-zero temperatures thanks to Scott Hartnell's buzzer-beating OT goal. The second, a 6-4 setback in Pittsburgh 11 days ago where a 2-0 first-period withered away under a five-goal assault.

Dan Bylsma, a stark contrast to many on the opposing bench, calmly tried to play off the let-down last night as a technical issue. But it might not have been so convincing hearing it as he might have been in saying it:

"I'm not so sure the pace can't be sustained. It's a conscious decision with puck management to be able to play at that speed. "We weren't as good as the game got later. It's not a matter of sitting back."

It goes deeper than the simple presentation of a 1-6-0 home record, and certainly further than Bylsma suggesting that it was simply a lack of execution. It's not the losing, but the crushing manner in which it occurred, and the vicious snap-back that will doom the Penguins or any other club for that matter as each defeat sends them closer to elimination.

"Sitting here after the first period all we were saying was that we've done it all year. Let's start with a goal and you never know what can happen," Danny Briere said.

And he should know, as one of the principal on-ice architects of the Stanley Cup Finals run two years ago that featured a rally from an 0-3 series deficit and 0-3 margin in Game 7 on the road against Boston in the East semifinals.

It's another feather in the cap of emotional hockey winning out over technical hockey -- the fiercest pitched battle of the last 15 years.

The evidence of it happening in such a tight cluster is a clear indicator that it will happen again. The tide is turning, and for the team with home-ice advantage due to a five-point difference in the regular-season standings, they must find their own inner Flubber to seize the momentum back.
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