The Philadelphia Flyers had lost three straight games in their quest to secure the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference. Yet when they took the ice against the hated Pittsburgh Penguins at home on Saturday afternoon, their path to the playoffs was clear: Get two points in their final two games and they were in, thanks to the Boston Bruins’ humbling 6-1 loss at home to the Ottawa Senators.
They wasted no time in accomplishing the mission, sealing the deal and ending the Bruins’ season: The Philadelphia Flyers clinched the wild card in the Eastern Conference with their 3-1 win over the Penguins, earning a first-round series with the President’s Trophy winning Washington Capitals.
Forward Wayne Simmonds completed the best regular season of his NHL career with two goals, giving him seven goals in his last six games.
“We believed in one another all year long. From the goalies on out,” said Simmonds.
The game got off to an auspicious start for the home team, as Nick Bonino’s ninth goal of the season gave the Penguins the 1-0 lead. Pittsburgh was 30-5-1 on the season when scoring first and 20-2-0 when leading after the first period. They had won eight straight road games. They were attempting to sweep the Flyers in their season series. Things were not looking good.
But Simmonds answered the goal exactly seven minutes after Bonino’s tally, taking a pinpoint feed from Jakub Voracek for a 1-1 first-period lead.
In the second, Simmonds scored the eventual game-winner in fluky fashion:
Simmonds worked hard to get the puck back to the point for rookie Shane Gostisbehere’s cannon of a shot. He fired and the puck deflected off of Simmonds and into the Penguins’ goal for the 2-1 lead.
Pierre-Edouard Bellemare scored a breakaway empty netter for the 3-1 win. As he did, Simmonds slammed his gloves on the bench and smacked a TV camera with his stick in a fiery celebration, as his team earned a date with the Capitals.
“It’s going to be a physical series. A pretty bitter rivalry,” said Simmonds.
The Flyers certainly caught some breaks on Saturday. The Penguins rested Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang. Matt Murray, who started the game for the Penguins, was injured in the first period on a Brayden Schenn drive to the net. Jeff Zatkoff played well in his absence, but it was a strange coincidence: The Penguins lose their starter on a day when the Bruins were blown out at home when starter Tuukka Rask was too ill to play.
For the Flyers, it’s a return to the postseason after missing out last season. That cost coach Craig Berube his job, as GM Ron Hextall turned to University of North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol to take over. It wasn’t a smooth ride – the team when 5-6-3 in November – but the Flyers caught fire later in the season, winning 13 of 18 games.
Enough can’t be said of the work of Claude Giroux and Simmonds on the top line. Enough can’t be said of the work of goalie Steve Mason down the stretch, making his 12th straight start down the stretch as the Flyers lost Michal Neuvirth to injury. There were games in which he willed the team to victory.
He may need a few more of them as the Flyers face the best team in the NHL in the playoffs.
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