The Philadelphia Flyers played 120 minutes worth of hockey with the Eastern Conference leading Pittsburgh Penguins this weekend. The Flyers were the hungrier, sharper team in about 110 of those 120 minutes including the entire game on Saturday and the majority of yesterday's rematch.
Pittsburgh's wave of key injuries notwithstanding, the Flyers were the better prepared and more focused team all weekend.
Philly kept both Sidney Crosby and Evgeny Malkin off the scoreboard in consecutive games. The Flyers went a combined 3-for-7 on the power play against the club that had entered the weekend with the NHL's top-ranked penalty kill (since surpassed by New Jersey). Philly shut down the NHL's top-ranked power play to the tune of 9-for-9 on penalty kills. Matt Read scored shorthanded goals on successive days. Philly also won the majority of faceoffs in both games.
Steve Mason was not tested all that often in recording a 25-save shutout in Saturday's game in Philadelphia. He had to make 11 third period saves for the Flyers to nail down yesterday's game after leads of 3-0 and 4-2 shrank to 4-3 by the end of the second period.
Sunday's rematch started off much like Saturday's game. The Flyers jumped all over the Penguins with high-intensity puck pursuit in all three zones. Philly's players had their feet moving with good puck support and the Penguins' did not.
When that happens -- as the Flyers can attest from the games this season when they've been the ones getting sliced and diced -- a team looks slow both physically and mentally. They take multiple penalties. They give up crooked-number goals in a period.
Penguins' goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury deserved a better fate in the first period. He was the only reason why the Flyers did not jump out to a 4-0 or even 5-0 lead before the game was 14 minutes old.
At the 2:06 mark of the first period, Brayden Schenn notched an ugly-but-good goal to stake the Flyers to a quick 1-0 lead. The Flyers broke loose on a 2-on-1 rush that became a 2-on-0 as Vincent Lecavalier fed Wayne Simmonds at point blank range. Fleury made an incredible sliding save on Simmonds but was in no position to make a second save on the unpreventable rebound. Schenn followed up the play and tucked the puck through the legs of sliding defenseman Robert Bortuzzo in the now vacated crease.
The goal was Schenn's 17th of the season. Simmonds earned his 29th assist of the season and Lecavalier got his 13th.
Shortly thereafter, Bortuzzo took a penalty for interfering with Scott Hartnell. The Flyers power play struck to double the lead.
At the 6:47 mark, after Fleury made a couple of tough stops around the net but the Pittsburgh penalty killers were unable to clear the puck, Flyers captain Claude Giroux worked the puck back to Kimmo Timonen at center point. Wayne Simmonds set up shop on the doorstep and deflected the puck home. Again, Fleury had no chance.
The power play goal was Simmonds' 20th overall goal and 11th power play tally of the season. Timonen got his 23rd assist and Giroux received his 45th helper. Simmonds would only have to wait 6:54 of game-clock time and about nine minutes in real time for goal number 21 and power play goal number 12.
As he is prone to doing when frustrated, Malkin took a bad penalty -- roughing Flyers' agitator Zac Rinaldo -- at the 8:54 mark of the opening period. Philly was not able to bag a goal on this advantage but the Penguins remained on their heels.
The third and final goal that Fleury allowed was a tad leaky but mostly due to a passive penalty kill as the Flyers attacked on their third power play of the opening period (which also turned out to be their final man advantage of the game). First, Taylor Pyatt headed to the box for two minutes for high-sticking Adam Hall.
At the 13:41 mark, Simmonds struck for another power play goal. Jakub Voracek (31st assist of the season) sent a backhanded pass from the right side to Giroux across the ice. Giroux was unable to handle the pass cleanly but had room to quickly retrieve the puck. The Flyers' captain (46th assist) then passed the puck to Simmonds, who was stationed along the goal line a few feet wide of the post.
Simmonds swung out in front. He does not score many of his goals on this particular puck rotation, but the play worked to perfection this time. Simmonds did not seem to have much to shoot at but pulled the puck backhand to forehand and then jammed it home through Fleury after a couple of whacks at the puck to give the Flyers a 3-0 lead.
Fleury's afternoon was done. In an effort to wake up the team, Penguins coach Dan Bylsma replaced Fleury (12 saves on 15 shots) with little-used backup Jeff Zatkoff. It was just the 15th appearance for Zatkoff this season.
Ideally, the Flyers would have liked to have taken their 3-0 lead to the first intermission without any late-period Pittsburgh goals or carryover power plays. They did a great job of closing out periods in Saturday's game. The finish to yesterday's otherwise tremendous first period wasn't quite as clean.
With 2:27 left in the first period, Brooks Orpik weaved a point shot through traffic for his second goal of the season. Bortuzzo (6th assist) and Joe Vitale (13th assist) got the assists, as the Penguins cut the deficit to 3-1. With just five seconds left in the first period, Brayden Schenn got a minor for interfering with Malkin.
Suddenly, the Flyers' commanding lead didn't seem quite so commanding. The Pens had gotten some life and had 1:55 worth of power play time to start the second period and get back in the game.
The second period was a strange one from the Flyers' perspective. It was the only one of the six periods played this weekend in which the Penguins outscored them (2-1), yet the Flyers limited the Penguins to just five shots for the 20-minute frame and also navigated their way through a combined 5:55 worth of penalty killing time.
At the 5:50 mark of the middle frame, the Penguins cut the deficit to 3-2. Vitale retrieved the puck on a dump-in, winning a battle against Andrew MacDonald. The Penguins then worked the disc around the perimeter with Jussi Jokinen (30th assist) sending the puck to Rob Scuderi (third assist) at the left point and Scuderi going to partner Matt Niskanen at the right point. Niskanen ripped a right point shot through a screen and high over Mason for his 10th goal of the season.
Midway through the period, Steve Downie took a roughing penalty from a tussle with Pittsburgh defenseman Deryk Engelland. The Penguins now had a power play with a chance to tie the game. Instead, the Flyers drove a stake through their hearts. At 12:11, Read scored his second shorthanded goal of the weekend.
Engelland, who has been prone over the years to getting victimized in games against the Flyers, made an ill-advised pinch and turned the puck over to Luke Schenn. A quick lead pass later from Schenn (seventh assist of season, second breakout pass assist of the weekend) to Read, the Flyers were off to the races on a 2-on-1 as Sean Couturier joined the rush. Read elected to shoot rather than pass and snapped a shot past Zatkoff.
The goal was Read's 19th of the 2013-14 season. It was his 4th shorty.
Philly once again had a multi-goal lead. Again, it would have been ideal to close out the period strong so that the Penguins could not have any potential building blocks to take into the third period. Instead, the Flyers suffered their only major breakdown of the two-game set this weekend.
The sequence started innocently enough. Michael Raffl won a neutral zone faceoff back to Kimmo Timonen, who went cross-ice to partner Braydon Coburn as the Flyers organized a rush up the ice. Raffl turned over the puck to Brian Gibbons in the neutral zone and then Coburn ended up on the wrong side of the puck when he was unable to stop Gibbons from stepping past him along the walls. Now the Penguins had a 2-on-1.
With Timonen as the lone Flyer back to defend, the veteran defenseman tried a desperation slide to prevent Gibbons (7th assist of the season) from getting a pass across the ice to Jayson Megna. It failed, and Megna made mo mistake. He scored from near the right post to make it a 4-3 game at 16:19 of the second period. The goal was Megna's fifth of the season.
Now the Flyers had a dogfight on their hands. They survived an early third period penalty kill as Read was sent off for holding Megna. Shots in the final stanza were 12-12, but Mason and company held the fort and the Flyers managed a fair amount of attack of their own. Crosby hit the outside post late in regulation but he, Malkin and the Penguins came away empty from the home-and-home.
Truth be told, the Flyers needed both games this weekend far more than the Penguins did, and the play on the ice reflected that disparity of urgency. Even with the home-and-home sweep with a pair of regulation wins, the Flyers remain 15 points behind the Eastern Conference leading Penguins in the standings.
Nevertheless, the two wins were of huge help to the Flyers in both the Metropolitan Division and Eastern Conference playoff races. With the Columbus Blue Jackets idle yesterday and the New York Rangers losing 1-0 in regulation to the San Jose Sharks, the Flyers jumped from fourth place to second place in the Metro last night.
With 77 points in 67 games, the Flyers are one point ahead of both the Rangers and Blue Jackets. That, of course, is a very skinny lead but the Flyers currently hold some other advantages against both teams beyond the one-point lead in the standings.
The Flyers hold two games in hand over the Rangers. Meanwhile, Philly holds a tiebreaker advantage in regulation and overtime wins (32 to 30) over Columbus, who have also played 67 games.
That's the good news. The bad news for Philly is that the schedule isn't about to get any easier now that the home-and-home with the Penguins is done.
Tomorrow night, the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks come to town. Chicago, which is realistically more or less locked into a first-round playoff matchup with Colorado with only home ice at stake down the stretch, has been coasting for awhile. The Hawks are a mediocre 5-5-0 over its last 10 games.
However, the club was recently called out by head coach Joel Quenneville for its lack of intensity and focus in recent games; playing similarly of late to the Penguins performance in Saturday's 4-0 shutout loss to the Flyers. The Blackhawks are still very, very dangerous to play against and seemed to wake up on Sunday, downing old rival Detroit by a 4-1 count.
Are the Blackhawks back on track now? Or did the win against the Red Wings lull them back into complacency mode? The Flyers can't worry about that. All the Flyers can do is try to duplicate the process that led to the weekend sweep of the Penguins.
If the Flyers attack Chicago with the same level of ferocity and show the same level of resiliency when there is a bit of adversity, they can beat the Blackhawks or any team. If not, and they need Chicago to sleepwalk through tomorrow's game, the Flyers won't deserve to win. It's as simple as that.
Legitimate playoff teams do what the Flyers did this weekend. They relish the chance to control their own fate and to challenge themselves to elevate their game against top-notch opponents.
On Saturday, the Penguins showed no push-back and the Flyers didn't let them come up for air. On Sunday, the Penguins did push back. The Flyers handled it with aplomb.
There is no reason to fear any team -- respect, yes, but not fear -- when the process gets followed. The Penguins' depth may be depleted right now but the Flyers won because they were the better team in both games.
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