PHILADELPHIA – The Pittsburgh Penguins showed another side of themselves Tuesday night that few people talk about. They displayed a side that should give the Detroit Red Wings something to think about once these two teams reach their inevitable destination in the Stanley Cup finals.
Pittsburgh moved to the same place Detroit sits – needing just one win with as many as four tries to get it – after a 4-1 victory Tuesday in Game 3 against the depleted Philadelphia Flyers. The soon-to-be Eastern Conference champs didn't do it with an offensive foray, rather a stifling defense that has quietly emerged throughout the second half of the season.
"This is a young team playing a mature game," coach Michel Therrien said. "They are all committed defensively. This is what I like about our team. Our focus is there, and I like our chance right now."
The Penguins are making it look easy as they've rolled to a 3-0 lead for the third straight series. Their only playoff stumble was a 3-0 loss in Game 4 of the second round at New York on May 1.
"I don't know if we look at it as an accomplishment," said Sidney Crosby of his team that is the fourth in playoff history to start with 11 wins in 12 tries. "We're consistent, we're happy with the attitude and the way we're working."
The key is the Pens are working, and they're getting rewarded. The same could not be said about the Flyers for much of Game 3. Compounding the problem is the fact Philadelphia is missing its two best puck-moving defensemen to injury – Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Coburn – and the Flyers are having numerous problems moving the puck up the ice, regardless of how well Pittsburgh is executing.
Flyers forward Mike Richards said the team needs to simplify its approach, that they are committing too many turnovers in the neutral zone when the best approach is to play more dump and chase to establish a forecheck.
The problem there is the Penguins are a better skating team, and as long as goalie Marc-Andre Fleury doesn't over-handle the puck, like he almost did a couple times Tuesday, there's really not a lot the Flyers can do.
Philadelphia didn't work hard enough to draw penalties either. Pittsburgh's last of three minors came at 11:50 of the first period.
"Everyone is committed here playing defensively," defenseman Brooks Orpik said. "There's so much talent here, we're going to score goals. It's something we stress – don't cheat offensively."
The final numbers are interesting as other than Sergei Gonchar (24:41), no Penguins skater logged more than 20:48 of ice time. Pittsburgh permitted only 18 shots, including just three in the second period and eight through 40 minutes. The visitors were credited with 14 blocked shots, and the Flyers missed the net on 10 other drives.
"What can I say? We're focused and we're playing as a team," said Marian Hossa, who scored two goals. "We know if we play well defensively we can be successful because we have the talent to score goals. We help the goalie and the goalie helps us."
"I don't think it's difficult, we all depend on each other," Crosby added. "Everyone has their responsibility and you don't want to let your teammate down."
Playing solid defense is also easier when you have the lead, and the Penguins have scored the first goal in nine of their 12 playoff games; they're 9-0 when they strike first. They did that again Tuesday night in the first period when, late in Derian Hatcher's hooking penalty, Ryan Whitney's drive from the left circle deflected off Flyers defenseman Jason Smith and past surprised Philadelphia goalie Martin Biron at 5:03.
"We knew if we could score first that would be huge for the team," Hossa said. "We could quiet their crowd because that's their sixth man and they are unbelievable."
The second goal was probably more deflating. Hossa skated around Richards at Philadelphia's blueline and used Lasse Kukkonen as a partial screen by threading a shot through the defenseman's legs at 7:41.
R.J. Umberger scored his first goal of the series when he punched home a centering feed from Vinny Prospal at 10:59, but the Flyers stopped generating chances until early in the third period soon thereafter.
Again, the Pittsburgh defense had something to do with that.
"We have guys who can play different roles," said Hal Gill, a defenseman acquired at the trade deadline. "Everyone wants to play better, but we've been pretty good so far. We're keeping it simple, the forwards are coming back and they've done a great job helping out."
The Penguins played keep-away in the middle period, something Detroit has done to Western opponents throughout the first three rounds. Halfway through the third period, after Fleury turned away a couple quality chances by the Flyers, Ryan Malone made it a two-goal game with his fourth of the postseason as taxed defensemen Randy Jones and Hatcher couldn't handle one of the Penguins' two potent lines.
"Obviously we want to get that next goal, and we're better off playing in their end," Gill said. "Whatever we did tonight worked."
"I think they tried to forecheck hard, that was part of their game plan, but we were able to contain them," Therrien said.
It could all end in two nights as Detroit goes for a sweep Wednesday in Dallas and Pittsburgh does likewise Thursday here. Coincidentally, it was the first time in five tries the Penguins have won in Philadelphia this season.
"I think it's rewarding," Crosby said. "You come into a building that is a challenge to play in and you're facing some adversity. You have your teammates and the guys on the bench and that's it.
"Obviously it's 3-0, but that's where it ends," he added. "We know we need to regroup, refocus and move on."
- The Penguins