In an effort to fare better in their quest for a Stanley Cup, the Philadelphia Flyers made wholesale changes over the off-season. Philly GM Paul Holmgren boldly peddled popular stars Jeff Carter and Mike Richards, while inking goalie Ilya Bryzgalov and former Penguins Jaromir Jagr and Max Talbot to lucrative free-agent deals.
The changes paid off handsomely on Thursday night as the former “Broad Street Bullies” out-skilled the Penguins 3-2 before a sellout crowd at Wells Fargo Center to snatch the top spot in the Eastern Conference.
Entering the contest minus superstar Sidney Crosby and several front-line defensemen, the Penguins slogged out of the starting gate. Taking full advantage, the new-look Flyers got the jump on their somnambulant foe thanks to a fluke goal by Daniel Briere at 6:38. Fighting off a touch of the flu, Briere played a two-cushion bank shot off Pens defenders Robert Bortuzzo and Brooks Orpik to stake Philly to a 1-0 lead.
The Flyers padded their margin midway through the second period thanks to a pretty tic-tac-toe passing play. Working with a man advantage, Wayne Simmonds fed NHL scoring leader Claude Giroux high in the Pittsburgh zone. Giroux bisected the Pens’ box with a slick pass to Jakub Voracek, who in turn feathered the puck through the slot to Simmonds. The husky winger ripped the rubber past a helpless Marc-Andre Fleury from the lip of the crease.
Five minutes later the orange and black struck again. Defender Andrej Meszaros blew through the Penguins with a brilliant bit of stickhandling and set up Scott Hartnell for an easy tap-in.
“We just came out flat in the first and second period,” Jordan Staal said. “You just can’t do that.”
Down by three, the Pens finally received their wake-up call. With feisty Zac Rinaldo in the box for interference, the black and gold went to work on the power play. Evgeni Malkin won the draw and nudged the puck to James Neal, who fed Matt Niskanen at center point. The Pens’ defender reversed the puck to Malkin, who threaded a diagonal pass to Neal at the edge of the right circle. The big winger banged home his 15th goal of the season (and league-best eighth on the power play) to cut Philly’s lead to two.
Tyler Kennedy made sure the Flyers got the message. A minute before the buzzer T.K. tore into rookie Harry Zolnierczyk with stunning ferocity to score a unanimous decision.
Their competitive juices flowing, the Penguins came at the Flyers hard in the final period. At 8:31 they broke through, courtesy of another crisp passing play. Ex-Flyer Arron Asham fired a shot-pass to Orpik, who was stationed along the goal line. Belying his defense-first reputation, No. 44 found Malkin with a beautiful backhand pass. Geno drove to the net and beat Bryzgalov to pare the Flyers’ lead to 3-2.
Kennedy, Malkin, and Neal each had golden opportunities to even the score during the final 10 minutes, but Bryzgalov held firm. With Fleury pulled for an extra attacker, the peppery Talbot won two huge draws against Staal to seal the win for his new team.
“We need to start playing 60 minutes,” Asham said. “We played 40 tonight. That’s not enough against a team like Philly.”
Malkin (a goal and an assist) was voted No. 2 star … Malkin and Neal tied Jagr with a game-high five shots … The Flyers out-shot the Pens 29-27 … The Pens won the face-off battle 38-33 … Steve MacIntyre dressed for the first time since Nov. 17 … Bortuzzo exited in the second period following a borderline hit by Rinaldo … Crosby, Deryk Engelland, Dustin Jeffrey, Kris Letang, Ben Lovejoy, Zbynek Michalek, Richard Park, and Brian Strait were scratches.
The Penguins (16-9-4) travel to Long Island to battle the Islanders (9-11-5) Saturday night. Following a sluggish start, the Isles are 4-0-1 in their last five games.
*Be sure to check out Rick’s new book, “100 Things Penguins Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die” at TriumphBooks.com. It features 296 pages of bios, stories, anecdotes and photos from the team’s colorful past in a compelling, easy-to-read style. Whether you’re a die-hard booster from the days of Jean Pronovost or a big fan of Sid and Geno, this book is a must have for any true Penguins fan.
Don’t forget to check out Rick’s first book, “Total Penguins,” at TriumphBooks.com. A complete and comprehensive book on the team’s rich and storied history, it’s filled with season-by-season summaries, player profiles and stats, bios on coaches, general managers and owners, photos from the “Post-Gazette” archives, and much, much more.