Pittsburgh came into the postseason as the hottest and most formidable team in the NHL. They finally had Sidney Crosby back, Evgeni Malkin was at the top of his game, Kris Letang had emerged as an elite defenceman, and with everything in its right place, they looked nigh unbeatable.
Except to the Philadelphia Flyers, the league's highest-scoring team in the regular season and perhaps the only franchise gutsy enough to look at the offensive juggernaut the Penguins had become with Crosby back in the fold and say, 'Yeah, we can beat that.'
[ Recap: Flyers beat Penguins 5-1 to win series ]
The Penguins battled hard, but in the end, they couldn't overcome the 3-0 hole. On Sunday, the Philadelphia Flyers put an end to one of the most entertaining postseason series in recent memory, eliminating their state rivals in six games with a 5-1 home ice victory.
The Flyers showed no fear of the Penguins whatsoever. That was perfectly clear in Games 1 and 2, where Pittsburgh opened up big leads early and the Flyers simply chipped away.
A 3-goal lead in Game 1? Gone. The Flyers regrouped in the first intermission and came back to score 4, unanswered, to win the game 4-3.
Game 2 saw the same script. The Penguins scored in the opening and closing minutes of the first, but neither tally could knock the wind out of the Flyers, who again regrouped in the intermission and fought back to a tie game by the end of the second. Then, when Pittsburgh opened the third period with yet another early goal, Philadelphia shrugged it off once more and scored 4, unanswered, to win the game 8-5.
By Game 3, it was clear that the Flyers were completely immune to the Penguins' punch and star power. Pittsburgh scored 4 goals in that game, and every single one caused the Flyers to level up like Super Mario eating a mushroom -- they answered back within 4 minutes every single time.
(That's correct. In a series with the Penguins, the Flyers even stole the Super Mario reference.)
It had to be infuriating for the Penguins, and we know it was; because, in the closing stages of Game 3, they lost their cool completely in the face of the Flyers' unblinking attack.
In a series with Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby -- the likely Hart Trophy winner and the consensus best player in the world -- Claude Giroux was the story. Prior to Game 6, he told coach peter Laviolette, "I don't know who you plan on starting, but I want that first shift." Then, in the opening 32 seconds, he rocked Sidney Crosby with an open-ice hit and scored the first goal.
The entire team followed his lead. The Penguins scored once in Game 6. As usual, the Flyers answered back instantaneously, rubbing it out within 34 seconds.
Now Penguins' GM Ray Shero heads into the offseason with a team whose weaknesses have been exposed.
That forward corps may indeed be formidable, but the guys behind it? Yeah, not so much.
Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek were supposed to shore up the Penguins' backend for the next half-decade after signing big free agent deals in 2010-11, but 26 goals against later, one begins to wonder if they're the answer.
Michalek was surprisingly steady through 6 games (he finished in the minuses just once, which is remarkable), but he wasn't a difference-maker. And Martin had already come under fire by Pittsburgh fans before he was knocked out of the series after Game 3 with an undisclosed injury.
In goal, Marc-Andre Fleury finishes with a 4.63 GAA and a .834 save percentage in six games, and was once again a liability in Game 6. He came into this series as a "Stanley Cup winner." By the third period Sunday, Bruce Arthur of the National Post called him "Dan Cloutier with a ring."
Fleury and this group will never see another one unless Shero can make some serious adjustments on the goal prevention side, because the blueprint for beating the Penguins has now been written.
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