Sunday, April 15, 2012

Battle-ready Flyers put Penguins on brink of extinction

by Bob Herpen
Phanatic Hockey Editor

First, the Pittsburgh Penguins tried to subdue their foes with lightning-quick starts.

That failed spectacularly two games in a row.

Then, the Pittsburgh Penguins tried to bludgeon their opponents with force.

That cost them three goals and two players.

You have to wonder what's left in the tank, because the Philadelphia Flyers have weathered all of it and are on the verge of advancing to the second round, following an 8-4 victory on Sunday afternoon in Game 3 of this Eastern Conference Quarterfinal that devolved from an offense-heavy playoff game between two bitter rivals into Wrestlemania.

A total of 12 goals and 158 combined penalty minutes framed what can only be described as The Great Indoor War of 2012.

Behind the nonsense, Danny Briere led the way with two goals and one assist, while both Max Talbot and Matt Read hit the net twice. Claude Giroux and Wayne Simmonds added a goal and assist each, Jaromir Jagr picked up three helpers and it propped up a shaky Ilya Bryzgalov.

"I thought the first two games in Pittsburgh were crazy, but this one was even wilder. Once again, coming out on top is a really good feeling," Briere noted wryly.

Bryzgalov allowed several suspect goals which let the visitors hang around, but ended up stopping 31-of-35 shots to put him one win away from advancing for the first time since 2007 with Anaheim.

With a win in Wednesday's Game 4, the Orange and Black will advance via a sweep for the first time since a 1995 Eastern Semifinal against the New York Rangers.

On the other side, James Neal continued to assert himself as a secret weapon with a three-point game (2G, 1A), but ended up drawing the ire of the sellout crowd and just about everyone on the opposing bench for his late actions. Jordan Staal also tallied twice, with Evgeni Malkin and Chris Kunitz registering a pair of assists.

Sidney Crosby was rendered ineffective to the point of losing his composure, tallying one assist, was a minus-2 and threw down with -- of all people -- Giroux, during an odd first period sequence.

Marc-Andre Fleury was bombed yet again, pulled after two periods of play after allowing six goals on 28 shots. Brent Johnson finished up by letting two shots slip by him of six faced.

Pittsburgh, which challenged for the Presidents' Trophy with torrid stretches after the All-Star break, is in danger of being swept out of the postseason for the first time since 1979 against Boston.

"You gotta win one. It's plain and simple. You can't try to win all four at once and you know there is no sign of anyone giving up in here," said Crosby. "Guys are working hard here and playing their best. We just gotta keep going."

The insanity started in earnest with 7:58 remaining in the first period and the Flyers already up 3-1. That's when Steve Sullivan and Kimmo Timonen came together and exchanged pleasantries, forcing Kris Letang to separate Timonen from the scrum and drop the gloves.

Crosby, apparently dissatisfied that the Flyers most valuable defenseman didn't answer his call, then went after Giroux and two of the least-likely combatants settled their score. Somehow, both Letang and Timonen were given the gate, while Crosby failed to receive what should have been an obvious instigator penalty.

"(It was) entertaining, but not something you want to see too often," Briere added. "I guess it is a good trade off to see the two best players on each team."

It continued with just over five minutes left in the period, as Arron Asham was given a match penalty for cross-checking Brayden Schenn in the head away from the play after Schenn laid a devastating hit on Pens defenseman Paul Martin along the left-wing boards inside the Pittsburgh zone.

Again, logic failed the officiating crew -- led by referees Eric Furlatt and Frederic St.-Laurent, and Schenn was given a minor for charging.

During the ensuing 4-on-4, Neal pumped home the goal of the series, splitting Matt Carle and Andreas Lilja up the middle and slipping one home with 4:43 remaining.

But just 23 seconds later, during a cycle down low, Read netted his first career playoff tally on a wraparound that slipped between the Pittsburgh netminder's pads to restore the Flyers' two-goal edge.

Fleury was saved from a worse fate when the hosts' power play failed to gel during the remainder of the period.

Still, the six combined goals in the opening 20 minutes were the most between these clubs in the playoffs since Game 5 of the 1989 Patrick Division Finals, when Mario Lemieux recorded a hat trick to fuel a 6-1 margin that eventually ballooned into a 10-7 victory.

That was key as the visitors got the jump in the second, pulling within 4-3 on the advantage just after the midway point when Malkin slipped a perfect pass from the left circle into the slot for Neal's successful one-timer.

But that good feeling was erased when Kunitz went to the box for tripping and Jagr's cross-ice dish found Read in the left circle for a blistering one-timer and 5-3 game at 14:18.

The seesaw continued to rock 1:22 later on the worst goal Bryzgalov surrendered all game. Neal put what appeared to be a harmless wrister on net from the right wing, but the puck trickled through to the left post, where an alert Staal knocked it home.

Kunitz followed up by taking his second straight minor, and Philly made him pay. Towards the end of the advantage, the Pens opted for a shift change -- one that Braydon Coburn exploited by sending Simmonds in alone on the right wing. He cut in and beat Fleury with a backhander for a 6-4 lead with 46 seconds remaining.

Putting an end to any speculation, a resolute Pens head coach Dan Bylsma pronounced Fleury his man for the balance, despite his gaudy goals-against average that soared to 6.34 and a save percentage more suited towards beer leagues.

"Marc-Andre will be in net for Game 4. He will be in net for the next four games."

Johnson was in the crease to begin the final stanza, but Giroux greeted him rudely at the 27-second mark for a three-goal spread. Jagr did all the heavy lifting on the play, literally carrying Pascal Dupuis on his back in the right circle before one-handing a pass back to his centerman for a rising shot.

"If you want to talk about the skill and the points, one of his greatest assets is his competitiveness and his will to win," said Flyers head coach Peter Laviolette of his regular-season scoring leader. "It's the best I've ever seen. It's a guy who just will not stop, won't quit."

Talbot added his second of the game with 2:46 to play, scoring on a spinning backhander off a broken-up Jakub Voracek pass while on the advantage.

That score came as a result of the edge the officials gave following the scrum that occurred at the 15:18 mark. It began as a scrap between four players along the boards between the two benches, leading Craig Adams to jump an unsuspecting Flyer. Adams was pulled away by Hartnell, who proceeded to score a win in that bout and whip the crowd into a frenzy on his way to the dressing room.

Minutes earlier, Neal went unpenalized for a hard check to the head of Sean Couturier in the neutral zone. The 40-goal scorer managed to charge at the rookie, leave his feet and escape the notice of four sets of eyes who were following the play further up ice.

"That was probably the longest game I've ever played without overtime," Jagr admitted. "It was crazy. The last 10 minutes were just too long. On 'Couts' he didn't have the puck and Neal hit him...the puck was nowhere close. I thought it was kind of a dirty play."

It was an indication of things to come when Zac Rinaldo and Deryk Engelland were given concurrent minors before three minutes elapsed.

During that 4-on-4 Staal fired away from the bottom of the right circle and found enough space between Bryzgalov's arm and body for a 1-0 game at 3:52.

Like a sleeping beast awakened by the frenzied drum beat of more than 20,000 strong, the Flyers responded with the next three goals.

First, with Voracek off thanks to a high stick, Talbot flung a harmless shot off a Giroux rebound that Fleury waved at with his glove and missed at 6:44. Then, Briere struck on the power play, taking a Hartnell dish and wristing his shot under the crossbar from the top of the left circle in a 5-on-3.

Briere brought forth another trademark fist-pump at 11:45, slipping behind the defense during a 3-on-2 rush to redirect a Simmonds pass at the left side.

"There really is no explanation for it," Crosby said of the amount of goals and huge momentum shifts in just three games. "There are times it looks like neither team is really dominating. They have ended up being able to execute a little more than we have."

Notes: Sunday marked the first time in franchise playoff history that the Flyers scored eight times in back-to-back contests...It was the first time Philly scored eight at home in the postseason since April 9, 1987, an 8-3 victory over the New York Rangers in Game 2 of the Patrick Division Semifinals...Philadelphia has held a 3-0 series advantage 11 times in its history, and closed out the previous 10 successfully...Former WWE star Hulk Hogan appeared on the ArenaVision following the Hartnell/Adams scrap in the third period...The Penguins have never rallied to win a series when facing an 0-3 deficit...Per the Elias Sports Bureau, the Flyers also set a new franchise record for most goals scored in the first three games of a playoff series (20)...The previous record of 17 was set during the 1980 Semifinals against Minnesota...Pittsburgh has dropped six consecutive playoff games since taking a 3-1 edge in last year's ECQF against the Tampa Bay Lightning...The last time the Flyers scored three power-play goals in one playoff game was the clinching Game 5 of the 2000 East quarters against the Buffalo Sabres, a 5-2 victory.
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