PITTSBURGH (AP) Mario Lemieux had one question for Sidney Crosby after the Pittsburgh star slipped past his boss as the Penguins‘ career playoff scoring leader during a Game 4 romp over Philadelphia.
”He asked what took so long,” Crosby said with a laugh.
Lemieux’s joke carried with it a pair of messages.
The first is a not so subtle reminder to his protege that it took Crosby 152 games to reach 173 playoff points while Lemieux only needed 107 to get to 172. The second is a nod to Crosby’s playoff excellence. He slipped by his boss because the Penguins – thanks in no small part to their captain – keep finding a way to win in the postseason.
A victory over Philadelphia in Game 5 on Friday night would push the Penguins into the second round for the fifth time in six years and move them a step closer to becoming the first team in 35 years to win three straight Stanley Cups. Pittsburgh has gotten there by developing a killer instinct under head coach Mike Sullivan that it lacked at times before his arrival in December, 2015.
The Penguins are 8-5 when given a chance to clinch a playoff series since Sullivan took over. They were 4-9 in potential clinching games from 2010-15, including letting 3-1 series leads get away in the first round against Tampa Bay in 2011 (when Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were both out) and to the New York Rangers in the second round in 2014, a collapse that cost head coach Dan Bylsma and general manager Ray Shero their jobs.
Sullivan downplays his role in it, preferring to put the emphasis on his star-laden roster.
”This group of players has a real strong competitive spirit and I think it’s hard to win in this game if you don’t,” Sullivan said. ”I think it starts with our core players. They lead the way for us in so many different ways but certainly our compete level is one of them.”
The proof came over the course of six periods in Philadelphia in Games 3 and 4, when the Penguins outscored the Flyers 10-1 with Crosby, Malkin, Phil Kessel and goalie Matt Murray doing their part to reclaim momentum after Philadelphia pulled off a 5-1 stunner in Game 2 to briefly – emphasis on briefly – tie the series.
Now? Not so much. The cross-state rivals have engaged in what amounts to an outlier of sorts in the typically taut playoffs. All four games have been decided by at least four goals. The other seven playoff series have had seven games decided by four-or-more goals combined.
”It’s been weird,” Pittsburgh center Derick Brassard said.
And lopsided. Flyer fans exited Game 4 chanting for the firing of coach Dave Hakstol, and his grasp on the gig become precarious if his team can’t force the Penguins to head back east for Game 6.
There’s a chance the Flyers could have Sean Couturier in the lineup. He missed Game 4 after colliding with teammate Radko Gudas in practice on Tuesday. Either way, Philadelphia knows it needs to find a way to recapture the resiliency it showed during the regular season when it overcame a litany of setbacks to return to the playoffs after a one-year absence.
”They’ve played extremely well, and we need to play better,” Philadelphia general manager Ron Hextall said. ”Our focus has to get back to one game. We’re down 3-1 obviously, but our focus has to get back to winning one game, and that’s tomorrow. There’s no question we have to play better individually, and certainly as a group.”
Or, play a little more like the Penguins, who have shrugged off a sometimes uneven regular season to look very much like the team that celebrated with raucous championship parades through downtown Pittsburgh each of the last two Junes.
There’s much work to be done before another one can be planned, but Pittsburgh is three periods away from getting at least as far as the last three teams trying for a threepeat – the 1998-99 Detroit Red Wings, the 1992-93 Penguins and the 1988-89 Edmonton Oilers.
”We know it’s going to be a tough one,” Crosby said. ”We want to try and carry that momentum and the way we played into our own building.”
PREDATORS ON THE PROW
The team the Penguins edged in six taut games during the 2017 Cup finals have their own shot to move on Friday. The Nashville Predators clinched all three of their playoff series a year ago at home a year ago in reaching their first Stanley Cup Final and have a chance to close out Colorado in Game 5 (9:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN).
The Predators are 11-2 in Smashville since the start of the 2017 playoffs, a run that started by finishing off a sweep of Chicago in the first round a year ago. They can assure themselves of a weekend of rest if they avoid a return trip to Colorado.
”It’s huge that we have a chance to finish the series at home,” Predators goalie Pekka Rinne said. ”Obviously, that’s something that is in the back of your head. We want to take it so bad and have this opportunity. But it’s a good team so we have to play again like this and I think that will be.”
The Predators tried to make sure they’re well-rested by flying back to Tennessee on Thursday, and they will have a chance to advance against Colorado’s backup to the backup goalie. Avs coach Jared Bednar announced that Andrew Hammond will start Game 5 with Jonathan Bernier is out with a lower-body injury. Hammond stepped in and stopped all eight shots he faced in relief of Bernier in Nashville’s 3-2 win on Wednesday night.
”He didn’t have a whole bunch of work, but he was good,” Bednar said. ”He made the saves he needed to make. It was good to see. Hopefully it gives him a little confidence.”
AP Sports Writer Teresa Walker in Nashville, Tennessee, contributed to this report.
More NHL hockey: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey