PREVIEW: Pittsburgh Penguins look to rebound in rubber match vs. Flyers

Mar 4, 2021; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby (87) prepares to take a face-off against the Philadelphia Flyers during the third period at PPG Paints Arena. The Flyers won 4-3. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

It’s something much more common in baseball than hockey, but Saturday afternoon’s contest between the host Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers will serve as the rubber match of a three-game series.

The teams’ first two contests originally were scheduled, while Saturday’s game is a makeup of an earlier postponement.

The cross-state rivals have split the first two meetings. The Penguins, despite the absence of star center Sidney Crosby, recorded a 5-2 win on Tuesday before squandering an early three-goal lead two nights later in a 4-3 setback.

The spirited comeback might give Philadelphia the edge in momentum heading into Saturday’s game.

“For us to make the playoffs, we need to win games like (that),” said Flyers captain Claude Giroux, who capped a two-goal performance by scoring the go-ahead tally with 2:08 remaining in the third period.

Philadelphia coach Alain Vigneault called Thursday’s result “a character win.”

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Center Scott Laughton expounded on that, describing Thursday’s victory as a template for what works for the Flyers, especially given the way things are set up during this condensed schedule.

“Guys were playing for each other, and that’s what you have to do, especially in these mini-series,” Laughton said. “The longer (a series against the same team) goes on, the more physical it gets, the more you have to dig in. Guys were digging in for each other. Guys took big hits to make plays.”

Taking things even further, Vigneault hinted that Thursday’s game could be a moment the team looks back on as pivotal.

“I do think there are some moments in a regular season when the team has a gut check. … Our guys stayed positive,” he said. “And to come back against the Penguins, in my estimation one of the strongest teams in the league, is very good for us.”

It was equally as bad for the Penguins.

Pittsburgh, sitting below the four-team playoff line in the East, is frustrated by inconsistency.

The Penguins were a relative no-show Sunday in a 2-0 road loss against the New York Islanders before spanking the Flyers while Crosby was on the COVID-19 protocol list. With their captain back in the fold, Pittsburgh zoomed to a 3-0 lead in under four minutes on Thursday before the Penguins, as defenseman Kris Letang said, “settled. We didn’t keep pressing.”

So it has gone most of the season for Pittsburgh.

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“It’s frustrating from the coaches’ standpoint because I know we’re capable of more consistent play, but we haven’t found it yet,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said.

“Some nights we play the game hard and we play committed and we play the right way and we work together (and) we’re a competitive hockey team. And then for whatever reason, other nights we get away from it.”

With inconsistency being the Penguins’ most consistent trait, Sullivan has been uncharacteristically critical of his team this week.

“The majority of these guys have been here for a while. Concepts that have been instilled have been here for a while,” he said. “Everybody needs to be committed. I’m not sure that’s communication as much as willingness to make sure we play the game the right way.”

So Pittsburgh gets a chance to rebound and win the three-game “series” on Saturday afternoon.

“We’ve got to move by (Thursday’s loss), learn from it and have a short memory,” Crosby said. “You know, whether you win or lose, you’ve got to learn from it. But we definitely can’t allow games like (Thursday’s) to happen.”

–Field Level Media