In all likelihood the Penguins and the Flyers will clash in the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs during the very near future. If Sunday’s matinee contest at CONSOL Energy Center was a preview, the Pens could be in big trouble. After striking for two quick goals, the home team crumbled like the dome on the old Civic Arena en route to a frustrating 6-4 defeat at the hands of their cross-state rivals.
With the memory of a bitter last-second overtime loss to the Flyers on March 18 still burning in their collective conscience, the Penguins ripped into their foes from the opening draw. After weathering an early Philly thrust, Steve Sullivan chipped a one-timer off a Flyers defender and past Sergei Bobrovsky at 1:14.
Near the five-minute mark the amped-up Pens widened their lead to 2-0, thanks to crisp passing play by the “Firing Line.” Chris Kunitz fed Evgeni Malkin, who quickly moved the puck to a wide-open James Neal below the right circle. The big winger rifled a shot past Bobrovsky to the stick side for his 39th goal of the season.
Realizing his club was in dire straits, Philly coach Peter Laviolette called a time out to settle his troops. The move worked like charm. While the locals frittered away their early momentum with drop passes and fancy east-to-west plays, the visitors went to work. Following a glaring turnover by Matt Cooke, Claude Giroux cashed in from the high slot at 15:09. Ex-Pen Max Talbot provided another spark for the orange and black when he challenged Neal at the buzzer.
“Mad Max” soon got on the scoreboard, too. After a languid opening shift by the Pens, Talbot tipped a short pass from Zac Rinaldo past Marc-Andre Fleury at 1:25 to knot the score at 2-2.
The rest of the period belonged to the goalies. Fleury stopped two chances by speedy Eric Wellwood at the five-minute mark. At the other end of the rink Bobrovsky was nothing short of sensational. The 23-year-old Russian thwarted Sidney Crosby with a pair of dazzling saves, the last on a diving try by Sid in the closing seconds of the period.
Working with a man advantage, the Pens applied good pressure during the opening moments of the final frame. However, Kunitz drew an ill-timed interference penalty and the black and gold completely unraveled. Wayne Simmonds capped off a series of stunning tape-to-tape passes with a power-play goal at 2:35. Four minutes later Jakub Voracek blazed into the Penguins’ zone and beat a helpless Fleury with a brilliant forehand-to-backhand move. Marc-Andre Bourdon zipped a two-cushion bank shot off Zbynek Michalek and the right post to up the Flyers’ lead to 5-2.
Sullivan beat Bobrovsky from the slot at 15:18 to bring the Pens back within striking distance. But Voracek potted an empty-netter with just over a minute remaining.
The game exploded on the ensuing shift. Joe Vitale leveled Daniel Briere with a bristling check at the Flyers’ line to ignite a wild five-on-five brawl. Arron Asham tracked down Brayden Schenn—who had cross-checked Crosby earlier—and scored with several stiff rights. While Craig Adams tangled with Bourdon, Deryk Engelland pounded an overmatched Simmonds. Even the coaches engaged, as Laviolette screamed at Pens bench bosses Dan Bylsma and Tony Granato.
After the penalties were sorted out, Kunitz struck on a backhander with 32 seconds remaining. But Jaromir Jagr’s Cheshire smile said it all.
Sullivan (two goals) was named No. 3 star … Pascal Dupuis (two assists) extended his NHL-high points streak to 14 games … Kunitz, Crosby, and Malkin had two points apiece … Pittsburgh outshot Philadelphia (47-25) … The Pens out-hit the Flyers (41-27) and controlled the faceoff circle (36-33) … Kris Letang returned to the lineup … Simon Despres was sent to Wilkes-Barre … Dustin Jeffrey, Ben Lovejoy, Richard Park, Brian Strait, and Eric Tangradi were scratches.
The Penguins (48-25-6) travel to Beantown to challenge Boston (46-28-4) on Tuesday night. The Pens hold a one-point lead over Philadelphia in the Atlantic Division race.
*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.