On pure Flower power, the Pittsburgh Penguins are going back to Philadelphia.
Here's a sentence nobody covering the Eastern Conference quarterfinals between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia thought they'd write:
Thanks to great goaltending by Marc-Andre (The Flower) Fleury, the Penguins won Game 5 of the their series Friday night, earning a Game 6 and no doubt a few "On the whole, they'd rather be in Philadelphia" references from the Knights of the Keyboard (no?).
In a series that had just one personality prior to Game 5, it turned Sybil at the Consol Energy Center. After another period in which he looked as permeable as 29-cent-a-roll toilet paper, Fleury cast aside all the disparagement and played a superb final 40 minutes -- the final 20 in stark silhouette.
Fleury came out to thunderous cheer as the game's No. 1 star, finally earning real ones in this series and not of the Bronx variety. On a night his team finally seemed to say to him "Look, we can't put up a football game's worth of points tonight, you need to give us a break this time", the Flower responded with a great third -- stopping all 14 shots he saw. Included were two larcenous pad stops of Daniel Briere on the doorstep, a chest-protector point-blank stop of Jakub Voracek on the power play with 11:26 left and a stack-the-pads rob of Scott Hartnell with about 10 minutes left. Any other previous time in the series, those pucks probably go in, but before being consigned to the first-round-disaster goaltending heap, Fleury found his game again.
The Flyers are halfway home to what only four other teams in pro sports history have done -- blow a 3-0 playoff lead in a best-of-seven series. The fact that they were the last team to overcome the odds, in 2010 against Boston, probably isn't much comfort to the faithful. It certainly didn't look that way on the ice when the horn sounded, when Claude Giroux made like Pete Townsend after the last The Who encore and smashed his playing instrument to bits.
The Penguins won despite zero points on the score sheet from either Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. It was Malkin, in fact, who put his team short-handed twice with foolish penalties late in the first and second periods, and generally looking like a sulk all night on the ice. Malkin also creamed Crosby with an accidental head shot in the first period, slamming No. 87 to the ice and causing near-coronaries for half the crowd.
The Penguins still had Jordan Staal and Tyler Kennedy, though.
The scene: Flyers up 2-1 entering the middle part of the second, and generally outplaying Pittsburgh. While it would be foolish to say that one more goal would have put the Penguins in absolute peril, given the putrid play to that point of all goalies in the series, the Flyers did seem on the precipice of gaining the final hold on things. And just at that point, out of nowhere, came a brilliant set piece by the Penguins.
With the puck deep in his zone, Pens defender Kris Letang shot the puck out to the point between the two benches. From there, Kennedy tipped the puck off the boards to a flying Staal swooping from center ice down the right side. It was the hockey version of the hook-and-ladder, and when Staal ripped a wrister past Flyers goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, she was all tied up again. Consol was brimming with energy again. It was a kind of goal the Pens, with all that skill, are good at: lots of misdirectional passes at creative angles, finished off by any number of skilled sticks.
The game-winner, by Kennedy at 9:53 of the second, was more of a routine slapper from the right circle, a one-timer following a Matt Cooke feed from behind the net.
Someone could have made a lot of money taking bets against the Flyers scoring another goal the rest of the way. Consider this amazing stat:
The 23 goals scored in the first period alone in this series were more than any other playoff series COMBINED to that point.
But Fleury finally stiffened up. Goaltending can be so mercurial in the playoffs, and so it was in watching Fleury look totally, completely unlike any other form he'd shown to that point in the series.
Now the Penguins have what appears to be genuinely hot goalie entering Game 6, while the Flyers continue to get mediocre-to-very-bad netminding from the high-priced Byzgalov. Make no mistake, if the Breezer blows this series, he'll need a fake mustache and sunglasses to make it out of Philly for the offseason.
"Five-on-five, we got badly outplayed, badly outscored," left winger Scott Hartnell told reporters. "Now we've got to regroup."
There are other worries for Philly: very reliable defenseman Nicklas Grossman is out indefinitely with a concussion. His absence was noticeable in little areas, perhaps on the Kennedy goal, when Cooke had plenty of time and space from behind the net to make a play.
Grossman is especially good behind the net, but on the game-winner, Matt Carle made a late, token attempt at going after Cooke behind the cage, making it an easy time for Cooke to feed the charging Kennedy.
Kennedy's goal made it Camelot again in Pittsburgh. But they've still got to do it two more times. The Flyers can still lose another game and win this thing.
See ya Sunday. Then maybe again on Tuesday. Yup, this series has got that seven-game feel to it now.