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Noah Cates, Flyers stun Penguins, 4-1, and could alter their playoff matchup

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Noah Cates, Philadelphia Flyers
Noah Cates, the Philadelphia Flyers' third-line left winger, had two goals and an assist in a win Sunday over Pittsburgh. Photo: Zack Hill.

For the Philadelphia Flyers, using a lineup filled with six rookies, it may have been their most unexpected win of a torturous season.

Flyers 4, Penguins 1.

Honest.

Rookie Noah Cates scored two goals — both on deflections — and collected three points as the Flyers (25-43-11) stunned the Penguins (45-24-11) at the Wells Fargo Center on Sunday.

The loss could be costly to the Penguins, who are in third place in the Metropolitan Division —  one point ahead of Washington. The Caps have a game in hand on the Pens.

Before the season is over, Pittsburgh, which was playing on back-to-back days and looked lethargic at times, could fall to the final wild-card spot and be matched against powerful Florida in Round One.

The Penguins can’t want that.

“Maybe this game didn’t have a typical feel to it with the two teams,” Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby said. “I think even with that, we still had our chances. We still have to find ways to win these games, and we didn’t do that today.”

Flyers interim coach Mike Yeo liked how his young players responded. The Flyers were coming off a 6-3 win over the struggling Canadiens.

“I was anxious to see how they played this game,” he said. “I thought they really played well in Montreal. … I don’t want to say it is easy for a young guy to get intimidated in front of a team like this (Pittsburgh), but that could have easily been the case. They showed no signs of that.”

With the win, the Flyers avoided being swept by Pittsburgh in the four-game season series.

Martin Jones nearly notched his first shutout as a Flyer, but Crosby scored from out front to make it 3-1 with 3:33 left in the game. Travis Konecny (16th) iced it with an empty-net goal with 2:34 to go.

Three games remain in the Flyers’ season. Three games before the evaluation process begins and GM Chuck Fletcher sorts out the mess. Three games, it is assumed, before Fletcher reveals when/if Ryan Ellis will need surgery and if he will play next season.

But the future is starting to look better because of the rookies’ strong late-season showing.

Here are five observations from Sunday:

1. Noah Cates looks like he belongs in the NHL.

Cates, a left winger who starred at Minnesota-Duluth, redirected Keith Yandle’s point blast to give the Flyers a surprising 2-0 lead with 13:11 left in the second.

Midway through the third period, he scored on another deflection while the Philadelphia Flyers were on a power play, giving him his first two-goal game and increasing the lead to 3-0.

Cates, who finished with six shots, also had his first three-point performance in the NHL.

He has been so impressive in all aspects — winning board battles and playing with a high hockey IQ — that it would be surprising if he wasn’t a regular next season. Ditto Bobby Brink.

“It’s nice playing with these great players,” said Cates, who has nine points, including five goals, in 13 games. “I’m just trying to play my game, keep it simple and play hard in front of the net. Luckily, I’ve been rewarded a couple times, so it’s been nice.”

2. Morgan Frost is building some confidence.

The center has had problems converting his chances most of the season. He had just one goal in a 38-game stretch, but tallied Sunday for the second straight game.

Frost, who also had an assist in the game, said his confidence level is “better for sure. It definitely feels good. I think I’ve kind of been struggling in that department this year, so it’s nice to contribute, and hopefully, I can keep building on it.”

Frost opened the scoring by netting his fifth goal after a wild scramble, cashing in on a rebound late in the first period. Linemates Cates and Owen Tippett had assists. The respective ages of those three players: 22, 23, and 23.

The last sentence has to make GM Chuck Fletcher happy.

“You can definitely see some of these (young) guys are getting more comfortable out there,” Jones said after the Flyers recorded back-to-back wins for the first time since March 5 and 8. “They’re starting to make plays and handle the puck a bit more. We’re starting to see some results to go along with that.”

The young trio had great chemistry Sunday. The three players combined for three goals, three assists, and 14 of the Flyers’ 43 shots.

“We’re all in the same boat,” Frost said. “We’re all a little bit younger and trying to make a mark in the league, so that adds hunger.”

3.  Philadelphia Flyers young defensemen did the job.

The defense included three players — Ronnie Attard, Linus Hogberg, and Egor Zamula — who entered the matchup with a combined 20 games of NHL experience.

And they contributed greatly to the near shutout.

Hogberg, 23, playing in his second NHL game, broke up a two-on-one down low — Jeff Carter and Jason Zucker were on the attack — with a nice defensive play late in the first period. He later contributed an assist, his second in as many games.

Attard 23, blocked five shots and was plus-1.

Zamula 22,  had a couple of hits and, along with Attard, was solid on the penalty kill.

“They played real well,” Yeo said. “I thought all of our D were good tonight.”

Attard was on the top pairing with Ivan Provorov, Hogberg played on the No. 2 pairing with Travis Sanheim, and Zamula was on the third pairing with Keith Yandle (two assists).

4. Goalie Martin Jones was terrific.

I admit it. I’ve been disappointed that the Flyers have started the veteran Jones the last three games. From here, it’s time to find out more about rookie Felix Sandstrom.

That said, Jones was excellent Sunday as he stopped 37 of 38 shots.

5. Did you notice that Ron Hextall’s draft picks had a banner game?

Hextall is now the Pittsburgh Penguins’ general manager. Once upon a time, he was the Flyers’ GM, of course, and he was responsible for drafting Cates (two goals, three points) and Frost (goal, two points), forwards who led the win over his Penguins.

Cates was a fifth-round steal (137th overall) in 2017, and Frost was taken in the first round (27th overall) in that same draft.

Breakaways

The Flyers snapped a five-game home losing streak. … Konecny now leads the Flyers with 51 points. … The Flyers play in Chicago on Monday, and Sandstrom is expected to finally get back in the nets. … Kasperi Kapanen was among the Penguins’ scratches.

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