At the onset of the NHL season, not many imagined the Philadelphia Flyers sustaining a 4-0 win over the Eastern Conference powerhouse Pittsburgh Penguins. But the term “playoff push” does funny things to a team no matter what their assigned role may be: Stanley Cup favorite, underdog or season spoiler. The Flyers are currently fighting against sustaining the middle label while the Penguins have clearly worn the first through most of this season.
But Saturday’s matinee meeting between the two in-state rivals was a rare sight in role reversal as the Flyers took advantage of the Penguins’ loss of grit with a few key players out of the lineup.
Earlier this week, Pittsburgh announced James Neal is out due to a concussion sustained while playing the Washington Capitals Wednesday night. Although Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma hopes the injury is a short-lived one, there is no time table on Neal’s return. And while the winger’s expertly crafted, sans helmet hair will surely be missed by many female fans during warm-ups each night, Neal has 22 goals and 27 assists thus far in the season and the void left on Pittsburgh’s second line in his absence will not be an easy one to fill.
Another missing link Saturday afternoon was top line winger Chris Kunitz. Despite taking the ice for warm-ups, Kunitz was ruled out just before puck drop with a lower-body injury. The Sidney Crosby line mate has 31 goals this season, in what has been his most successful in the NHL since he debuted with the Anaheim Ducks in 2005.
Playing on a line with perhaps the greatest hockey player of this generation means nine of out 10 times, Kunitz’s own precise skill goes overlooked when the machine is rolling. But the second one of those components goes missing, the value of a player like Kunitz is embarrassingly noticeable.
Saturday afternoon the Flyer capitalized during huge gaps in Pittsburgh’s play. The usual passing game the Penguins made one of the most fun teams to watch disappear. And frustration took over in the defense’s inability to clear pucks and cover goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.
But injuries cannot be an excuse for a loss, a sentiment echoed by Bylsma in post-game interviews.
Learning how to fill in Pittsburgh’s lines with the right components would never be an easy challenge, but the battle is a bit steeper this late in the season when teammates have already found chemistry after months of play. It’s the challenge Pittsburgh faces in the coming weeks; and doing so against teams clawing for those last few spots in the playoffs will not make this one any steadier.