PITTSBURGH -- Memorable comebacks don't always begin with a defining moment or an otherworldly play. Sometimes they begin with one team planting a very tiny seed of doubt with the other.
Maybe it's turning away the same shot that's been going in the entire series. Maybe it is finally stopping a streaking power-play unit. Maybe it is getting a fluke goal. Maybe it is a big scorer finding the net.
As the Pittsburgh Penguins return to Philadelphia to play a Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals that wasn't being anticipated in either city only a couple of days ago, that's what they hope they've done with the Flyers: Planted a seed of doubt.
The Penguins gave the Flyers no reason to expect they wouldn't go down quickly and easily after losing 8-5 in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals and 8-4 in Game 3 to fall down 3-0 in the series. The Flyers weren't just dominating the favored Penguins, they were embarrassing their rivals.
Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury looked shaky and unconfident on every shot. NHL scoring champion Evgeni Malkin was off his game. The Penguins' penalty killing was allowing goals at a historic pace, and there were so many defensive breakdowns that the Penguins couldn't catalog them all. Even worse, they looked powerless to stop all the chaotic, high-scoring play that was going on around them.
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They weren't just losing, they admittedly looked lost.
But the Penguins kept the series going by winning 10-3 in Game 4, when the Flyers didn't appear to play with the sense of urgency or the keep-the-pedal-down mentality they possessed in the first three games.
However, the Flyers owned both qualities Friday in Game 5, pressuring the Penguins from start to finish while throwing 14 shots at Fleury in the third period alone and seven on a single power play. Yet the Penguins, who trailed 2-1 in the first period, escaped with a 3-2 victory that set up Game 6 on Sunday afternoon at the Wells Fargo Center.
The Penguins remain in a big hole, with the Flyers having multiple games at their disposal to clinch the series and move on to the conference semifinals.
But only two years removed from rallying from a 3-0 series deficit to eliminate the Boston Bruins, the Flyers are under considerably more pressure now than they were when they were up 3-0. They saw in 2010 how a series seemingly won can be lost; now they must regroup to try to make sure the same scenario doesn't play out with them.
"They're not far removed from doing the same thing to another team, so they know it can be done," Penguins forward Pascal Dupuis said Saturday. "They have it in the back of their minds."
With the Flyers still in control, the Penguins were being especially careful following their 30-minute practice at Consol Energy Center to not say anything that could be construed as bulletin board material.
To a man, they promised not to veer away from their one shift at a time, one five-minute segment at a time, one period at a time concept. They believe that such an approach is the only way possible to be successful under the circumstances they now face.
"We just think about the next game and not Game 7," Malkin said. "Just [Sunday], the next game and 60 minutes to play. Of course we have a chance, but Philly is a great team and they're playing at home, so, of course, they'll try to finish the series at home."
However, the Penguins took notice when star Claude Giroux broke his stick over the net in frustration Friday after the Flyers couldn't get the tying goal past Fleury in the third period. Was it a sign that self-doubts are creeping into the Flyers' minds?
"I think they're there right now, I think they're there right now," Dupuis said. "Seeing Giroux breaking his stick the last game when they didn't come back in the third. I think we're in there (the Flyers' heads)."
Still, Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said momentum can be a fleeting, temperamental quality in the playoffs. It can rest with one team, only to swing unpredictably back to the other with no notice or no sense of timing.
"The emotions from game to game are real hard to deal with. … You can't look at any other momentum building or any other thing other than our one-game focus and not really worrying about where the Flyers are at," Bylsma said. "We have to have that focus and it's very important for how we play Game 6."
And as difficult as Game 5 was for the Penguins to win, Game 6 could be harder still, with the Flyers owning the last line change, the series lead and a determination to finally close out the series.
"We expect them to be desperate. This is a big game and we have to be desperate as well," Sidney Crosby said. "Our situation and our mindset haven't changed. It won't change. We expect it to get tougher and tougher."