Penguins' playoff road vs. Flyers suddenly is very rocky
Whether inspirational, observational or instructional, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan delivers messages to his team on a daily basis in practice.
One, in particular, stuck with Evgeni Malkin after Saturday afternoon's skate in Cranberry.
“Sully says in tough situations, we play better,” Malkin said. “I agree with that.”
The Penguins better hope Sullivan and Malkin are right because things are about to get exceedingly more difficult in their first-round series with the Philadelphia Flyers, which is tied 1-1 and continues with Game 3 on Sunday afternoon.
First and foremost, the task will be harder because the series is switching to Philadelphia's Wells Fargo Center for the next two games.
Philadelphia fans notoriously make life difficult for visitors, but that's not really the problem for the Penguins. They have performed well in Philadelphia this season, decisively winning both games they played there by a combined score of 10-3.
Sure, the Flyers faithful will rain boos and jeers down on Sidney Crosby, as is their custom, but that's to be expected. Heck, it's practically welcomed.
“It gets pretty loud there,” Crosby said. “I think any building at playoff time is going to be loud and tough to play in, but it's part of the fun of playing in the playoffs: the different atmospheres and the high stakes. That's why we play the game.”
No, the problem for the Penguins isn't specifically playing in Philadelphia. It's playing anywhere other than Pittsburgh.
The Penguins had a dismal season on the road, going 17-20-4. They allowed 3.37 goals per game away from home, the eighth-worst figure in the league. Among playoff teams, only the Colorado Avalanche, the eighth seed in the Western Conference, had worse road numbers.
Sullivan's contention is the Penguins have performed well on the road in the playoffs before, so there's no reason to think they won't do so again.
He's not wrong. After all, the team has clinched the last two Stanley Cup championships away from home. Still, improvement on this season's road performance is an absolute necessity if the Penguins expect to avoid a first-round upset.
“I think when you play playoff hockey, it's tough, regardless of where you play,” Sullivan said. “I don't know if that changes anything whether we're here or we're there. When you play a seven-game series, you're playing against good teams because good teams make the playoffs and that's tough and it's hard hockey. That's what we expect.”
There are two other reasons the road ahead is a rough one for the Penguins.
First, they're facing a suddenly confident opponent.
After suffering a 7-0 blowout in Game 1, the Flyers could have been painted as hopeless underdogs. By recording an impressive 5-1 win in Game 2, they issued a public reminder they're a team that finished only two points behind the two-time defending champs in the standings in the regular season.
“You go into a playoff series, you expect it to be emotional. Highs and lows, wins and losses,” Crosby said. “You want to win every game, especially a game like last night (that) we put ourselves in a good position to win, but that's the nature of the playoffs. That's how it goes. You've got to be able to turn the page.”
Second, the series will become more challenging physically for the Penguins the longer it goes.
Kris Letang is expected to play in Game 3 after a violent collision with Claude Giroux in the second period of Game 2, but the human car crash served as a reminder that the bumps and bruises will pile up and the intensity will grow the more games are played between the bitter cross-state rivals.
Again, though, Malkin said he considers that an environment in which the Penguins can thrive.
“We know it's a physical team. We know it's lots of fights, but we're ready,” Malkin said. “We're not playing soft. We're ready to play.”