PITTSBURGH — Any Flyers lead right now has the stability of an awkward-leaning Jenga tower, and all it takes is the slightest miscalculation for the whole structure to come crumbling down.
Monday night’s game at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh was another epic collapse, as the Penguins rallied to beat the Flyers, 5-4, in overtime (see observations). First, the Pens wiped out the Flyers' 3-1 lead in the opening 1:46 of the third period, then erased the Flyers' 4-3 advantage with 1:04 remaining in regulation.
And who other than Sidney Crosby to punctuate the Flyers' misery? He scored the game-winner in the extra session (see highlights).
It's the fourth time in the last six games the Flyers have blown a two-goal lead at some point of a contest, while extending their losing streak to eight straight games, five of those coming after regulation.
“We’ve got to finish one of these,” head coach Dave Hakstol said. “There’s not much more to be said other than that. We’ve got to finish one of these. We’re in position, night after night, and we were in position again tonight.”
“I think they just came at us,” goaltender Brian Elliott said. “They had a good push and it took all of two minutes to tie it up. We talked about it — try to keep our game going and be aggressive. They come out and get a power play and it puts an end to that.”
Confidence is frail right now and it won’t be restored until the Flyers earn that much-needed victory. However, it’s the same recurring problems that continue to plague this team. The Flyers' penalty kill gave up a goal for the sixth straight game, which now brings the total to 10 power-play goals allowed over that six-game span.
Combine that with a team that appears to have taken on the personality of its coach, who doesn’t appear to show emotion in those moments of desperation.
“I understand from a player’s standpoint the frustration level that comes tonight right into this point in time,” Hakstol said. “Again, we have to have a short memory because we have to turn around and play again Tuesday night. Bottom line, you can overthink it and put any terminology you want on it, bottom line is we have to go out and play another good hockey game and push to complete a win.”
The Flyers believed this time would be different. Michael Raffl’s one-man effort late in the game looked to be enough to break the team’s bad luck. Raffl stripped defenseman Matt Hunwick and then outmuscled Phil Kessel before breaking in on goaltender Tristan Jarry, beating the rookie with a backhand shot. At that moment, the Flyers appeared to have weathered the Pittsburgh storm.
“It’s hard because we’re playing really good hockey games,” Travis Konecny, who scored his first goal in a month, said. “We’re giving ourselves a chance to win hockey games. Maybe we just let our guard down for a couple of minutes and teams are taking advantage of those couple of minutes that we’re sitting back.”
That’s when it all started in the opening minute of the third period.
With Andrew MacDonald in the box for tripping, Patric Hornqvist ignited the Penguins' comeback when he batted a puck out of the air and right in front of Elliott’s glove. The Flyers' goaltender appeared as if he was on the verge of snagging the puck before Hornqvist beat him to it. Hakstol elected to review the play for goaltender interference, but the officials determined Hornqvist was not in the crease.
“It’s so gray that I don’t understand what’s a call and what’s not a call, even when you see replays throughout the league,” Elliott said. “I don’t know what’s what. I put my hand out to try and catch that puck. [Hornqvist] is coming in and bumps my hand. They say he’s not in the crease, but I don’t know if that matters if you can’t make a play on the puck.”
Elliott faced a barrage of shots and the Flyers had to feel fortunate they were able to force the game past regulation as Conor Sheary rang a shot off the post with a second to play in the third period.
This was the first time in 355 career starts that Elliott saw 50 shots in a game, as the Flyers were under siege throughout the final period. As a result, Elliott was forced to make a career-high 47 saves, while the Flyers were outshot, 52-32.
“You see it all year. They’re good at just getting to the net and showing for bodies and just getting ugly ones like that,” Elliott said. “That’s how they get a lot of their stuff — shooting off bodies and guys standing at the posts and having those little deflections.”
Perhaps the biggest sting from this game was watching Crosby celebrate his game-winner. With three more points, the Flyers' killer now has 87 in 60 career games against the orange and black.
Watching that has been a frustration over the past decade.