Penguins playoffs

On Wednesday night, the Pittsburgh Penguins hit the ice to start the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, as they seek to capture their third consecutive championship.

Their quest this year began against the Philadelphia Flyers, the Pens’ fierce in-state rival. Crosby and company handled the Flyers deftly in Game 1, scoring a dominant seven goals and shutting down Philadelphia’s offense altogether, holding them to just 24 shots. Goaltender Matt Murray completed the shutout, allowing no goals on a series of stellar saves.

The game was a non-stop parade of Pittsburgh sports dominance, and the atmosphere in the arena reflected that. From the first puck drop, it was clear the Pens were more lively than the Flyers, and the crowd at PPG Paints Arena fed into that energy. With some key players injured from the start, Philadelphia came onto the ice looking jaded and demoralized. Game 1 ate them up, and the Penguins’ two-time defending championship team looked as strong as ever.

Being at Game 1 Wednesday night, the veteran talent really stood out to me. Evgeni Malkin danced around defenders to score in the first period with weightless skating that reminded me of Connor McDavid. Assists from Kris Letang, Derick Brassard and Patric Hornqvist were snappy and played to modern NHL tendencies.

And then, there was Sidney Crosby. Crosby had a hat trick and he didn’t even score until the second period for Pittsburgh’s 5th goal of the game. That goal was a dazzling no-look mid-air deflection that seemed to defy the laws of physics. Crosby has made a few mid-air goals this year, a skill he seems to have improved even at 30 years old.

But Wednesday night’s deflection was special. The puck moved at near full speed to Crosby’s left, with his back turned away from the goal. Without looking to the net, he batted the puck when it passed his side, and it sailed over Philadelphia goalie Brian Elliott’s shoulder to land top shelf. The crowd’s response was noticeably quieter than that of the first four goals of the night, mainly because people were staring in disbelief at what they just witnessed.

Even seeing the goal from the middle of the upper bowl, it was clear to me how incredible what Crosby had done was. The crowd darted to the replay, and as the slow-motion video played for the first time, the crowd gasped again, before rising into the loudest uproar of the night. For the rest of the game, chants of “Sidney Crosby” persisted. It certainly did not hurt that he followed that up with two more goals, one of them being another — but slightly less impressive — mid-air deflection.

I left the arena Wednesday night with the impression that the Penguins would sweep the Flyers in four short games. Philadelphia’s offense looked completely static, and the defense and goaltending appeared helpless against Pittsburgh’s unforgiving attack. So I was shocked following the score of Game 2 from my phone Friday night. The Flyers pulled ahead to a 2-0 start through two periods, and added a third goal just 90 seconds into the third period.

The Penguins, unable to score, were visibly frustrated. Crosby slammed his stick into the opposing net as the end of the second period sounded, having just barely missed a great scoring chance. If Game 1 saw the Pens as a consistently dominant team steamrolling their rivals, then Game 2 exemplified the exhaustion of playing through long regular seasons and four grueling rounds of playoff hockey for two years in a row catching up to them. Philadelphia was the more physical team in Game 2 as well, and even if it took a questionable Claude Giroux hit on Kris Letang, the Flyers won the mental battle of Game 2.

Now, the Penguins travel to a bloodthirsty Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia for Games 2 and 3, with an even series score and a chip on their shoulder. This is going to be a great series.