As Marc-Andre Fleury made save after save through the third period, holding off the Philadelphia Flyers on a crucial power play, the ear-splitting roar of 18,628 fans at the Consol Energy Centre spurred him on.
The Flyers owned the Penguins when they were on the power play in this first-round NHL playoff series. In the first period Friday night, thanks to more stupid penalties by the Penguins, the Flyers took the lead on their 10th and 11th power-play goals of the series. But that ownership ended as Fleury fought his way back from a couple of disastrous outings that put the Penguins on the verge of elimination.
With the crowd stiffening his confidence with every wave of sound, Fleury made several saves during that power play midway through the third period. Then he robbed Scott Hartnell from in close a few minutes later and it was certain there would be no blown leads this time, just a clampdown on the Flyers for a 3-2 win that shifted the pressure squarely on the visitors.
“The crowd was awesome,” Fleury said afterward. “The energy was working.”
The crowd would have said much the same about Fleury, although the evening didn’t start that way. The first Flyers shot of the night sent a clang echoing around the arena as the puck went off the post. Later on, another shot ricocheted off the other post.
But the fans refused to let the close calls take the air out of Fleury. Both times, they chanted, “Fleury, Fleury,” and the game turned in the second period. By the third, Fleury was impenetrable even as the Flyers ripped 14 shots at him.
“They’re very supportive, always behind us, giving us a little confidence or energy throughout the game,” Fleury said of the fans. “All playoffs they’ve been great, they’ve been very loud.”
Now it is the Flyers, once in command of this Eastern Conference best-of-seven series, who are squarely in the vise when the series resumes Sunday in Philadelphia. They may have a 3-2 lead but the Penguins have their mojo working.
“It was loud and it was awesome,” Penguins centre Jordan Staal, who scored the tying goal in the second period, said of the final 20 minutes. “[The Flyers] made a push but Flower made some unbelievable saves.”
While the Penguins made the game closer thanks to some bad penalties in the first period, it did not feature much of the gratuitous violence from earlier in the series. It was also much more conservatively played than the high-scoring affairs in the previous three games, although that may be a reflection of the increase in the quality of the goaltending.
The Philadelphia goaltender, Ilya Bryzgalov, was not as awful as he was earlier in this series but he was no match for Fleury, who shook off poor outings in the first three games. The Flyers’ collars started to tighten midway through the second period when the Penguins struck for two goals Bryzgalov should have stopped to take a 3-2 lead. Yes, both shots by Staal and Tyler Kennedy were rockets but playoff heroes make those saves.
Flyers head coach Peter Laviolette deflected any questions about the pressure his players must be feeling.
“There’s a lot of confidence in our group,” he said. “We did a lot of good things tonight. We need to win one hockey game and we’re going back to our building.”
Aside from the boost from the crowd, Fleury wasn’t sure what caused the turnaround that saw him surrender 24 goals in the Penguins’ three losses in the series.
“I don’t think I changed my game,” he said. “It’s being comfortable out there.
A lot of time when you’re a goalie or anybody, you need to be able to relax.”
Before Staal and Kennedy scored, it looked like the Penguins were going to self-destruct from stupidity. After talking for two days about how important it was to avoid the penalty box because of the ruthless efficiency of the Philadelphia power play, the Penguins took three penalties in the first period and the Flyers cashed in twice on goals from Matt Carle and Hartnell. Only a power-play goal by Pittsburgh winger Steve Sullivan kept it close.
The chief culprit in all this was Evgeni Malkin. He alternated between making questionable plays with the puck – repeatedly trying to force passes through lanes where the Flyers had their sticks active – and questionable hits that resulted in penalties.
Malkin had everyone talking about a visit with NHL disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan late in the second period when he decked Flyers rookie Sean Couturier. At first glance, it looked like an egregious headshot and Malkin was penalized for interference. However, there is no guarantee Shanahan will look at the hit, as the puck was in the vicinity and Malkin hit Couturier with his shoulder rather than his elbow as the Flyer player’s head dipped.
“The emotions got the best of him in some of the situations and he took those two penalties,” Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma said. “Our team came out big on the [penalty]kill there and then our team came out big in the second period with Jordan Staal’s line.
“Now we have that singular focus again, just one game, and we need everybody at their best, we need [Malkin]at his best, for Game 6.”