The Flyers are closer to the Penguins’ level this season than in any year since 2012, when they beat them in six games in the first round of the playoffs. The Penguins have mostly been a mile ahead of their cross-state rivals every season since, until this year, when they finished just two points up in the standings despite a series sweep that required two overtime wins. In the grand scheme, Philadelphia is closing in.
But the Flyers aren’t there yet. They just got dropped a combined 10-1 in Games 3 and 4 of the teams’ Eastern Conference quarterfinal, the low point being a 5-0 drubbing on Wednesday that sends the Penguins home for Game 5 with a 3-1 series lead. Teams in Pittsburgh’s position go on to win 91 percent of the time. With elite defensive center Sean Couturier injured for Philadelphia, those odds are closer to 100 percent than 91.
The Penguins still have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, and the Flyers haven’t built the kind of depth to counter them.
The two best centers of their generation are still two of the top-five players in the world, and they’re playing like it in this series. Crosby leads the playoffs with five goals and nine points, and Malkin’s not far behind with three and five.
The Penguins have a third offensive star now in Phil Kessel, plus too many good supporting players to count. But Crosby and Malkin are still what puts the Penguins on a different level. Without Couturier healthy and with Claude Giroux on the wing, the Flyers’ top two centers are Nolan Patrick (who’s great, but 19) and Valtteri Filppula (who’s not as good as the Pens’ third-line center, Derick Brassard).
When the top two centers on your depth chart are both generational talents, you start the 100-mile race of the playoffs something like 20 miles ahead. It’s the presence of Crosby and Malkin that’s turned Kessel, Patric Hornqvist, Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust, and Conor Sheary into championship-caliber offensive players. The Flyers have a lot of good supporting pieces, but they don’t have the game-breakers lifting them up that the Penguins have.
At five-on-five in this series, Crosby’s been on the ice for eight Pittsburgh and zero Philadelphia goals, despite having merely pretty good possession numbers. Malkin’s line has controlled play better, though it’s not filling the net as much as Crosby’s.
It’s not just the stars playing like stars, though. The Penguins have outclassed the Flyers on special teams and in goal.
Crosby and Malkin haven’t built this lead by themselves. The Penguins have pretty slight advantages in possession stats across the board, from total shot attempts to overall scoring chances to “high danger” scoring chances. They’ve played better than the Flyers, but they haven’t played “win three different games by a combined 17-1” better.
So, what’s gone wrong for Philly? The Flyers have been dreadful on the power play, going 2-for-17. The Penguins have gone 5-for-19 for a 26.3 percent success rate that’s almost exactly in line with their league-best figure in the regular season. The Flyers’ penalty-kill unit was bad all year, and while it hasn’t gotten run off the ice, it hasn’t been much good.
The Flyers have played three goalies in this series. They’ve faced 124 shots and let 18 of them into the net, an abysmal save percentage of .854. Most of that damage has come against Brian Elliott, who got yanked mid-game for the second time in the series in Game 4. Petr Mrazek and Michal Neuvirth, who had barely played in months, haven’t been any better in limited duty. This soft goal Elliott gave up to Kessel made the score 2-0 Pittsburgh on Wednesday after the Flyers had been pressuring the Penguins heavily:
Matt Murray has a .948 save percentage on the other end of the ice.
It’s easy to see how the Flyers could beat the Penguins in the next few years. But this series has laid plain that Philadelphia’s time hasn’t come yet.
Crosby and Malkin are on the wrong side of 30. We don’t know when, but a time will come when they’re not all-world players anymore. Patrick should grow into one for the Flyers, who have a strong farm system and a lot of young talent already in the NHL.
But that’s not now. Crosby and Malkin are still doing what they’ve done for more than a decade. Murray is much better than any of the Flyers’ goalies, and top Philly net-minding prospect Carter Hart hasn’t arrived yet to be a savior. The Flyers’ window will open someday, but at the moment, the Penguins are standing there blotting out the sun.