The Pittsburgh Penguins have eliminated the Philadelphia Flyers from each of the last two postseasons. While the reigning Stanley Cup champions appear primed for a spirited defense of their title, their in-state rivals don’t look like a playoff club these days.
Pittsburgh (22-10-1) has dealt with a bevy of injuries to key contributors, but is finally at full strength after left wing Chris Kunitz(notes) returned from a month-long absence Saturday against Florida.
The Penguins beat the Panthers 3-2 in overtime to improve to 8-2-1 in their last 11 games, remaining tied with New Jersey atop the Atlantic Division. Evgeni Malkin(notes) scored the game-winner 37 seconds into the extra session on the team’s 40th shot of the game.
“It’s nice to have the whole group here back at it,” Crosby said. “When guys come back sometimes it takes time, but we’re a pretty familiar group of guys here.”
Malkin’s goal came on the power play after the Penguins had been unsuccessful 14 straight times on the man advantage. Converting at 13.6 percent overall, the unit ranks 29th in the NHL after going 20 of 97 (20.6 percent) during the 2009 postseason.
“I hope it’s what we needed,” Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma said of the game-winner. “We’ve had some good power plays but not scored. … Sometimes the only thing we hadn’t done was score a goal. (Saturday), I think you saw us squeezing our sticks a little bit more on the power play, and sometimes you need a goal to release that.”
Pittsburgh’s road to the last two Cup finals has gone through Philadelphia, which reached the Eastern Conference finals in 2008 before losing in six games to the Penguins in the first round last spring.
Now, the Flyers (15-15-1) have work to do if they hope to return to the playoffs. They were outscored 42-22 during a 2-10-0 stretch through last weekend that cost coach John Stevens his job, but they’re hoping Monday’s impressive 3-1 win at Boston marks the beginning of a turnaround.
Philadelphia outshot the Bruins 15-7 in the third period and scored three unanswered goals, with defenseman Kimmo Timmonen factoring in all of them with two goals and an assist.
“We needed a win. I thought the guys came out and played a heck of a third period,” said new coach Peter Laviolette, who is 2-4-0 since being hired Dec. 4. “You hope you can build on it. We’ve got a long way to go. A big mountain to climb.”
The Penguins topped the Flyers 5-4 at Philadelphia on Oct. 8 in the teams’ first meeting of the season, a game that featured a combined 66 penalty minutes.
“It’s pretty typical for our two teams,” Crosby said. “We’ve all kind of become accustomed to that. With the history of playing each other in the playoffs, that adds to it, too. It’s always an intense, emotional game.”
Since the start of 2007-08, each team has earned 16 points from their 15 regular-season meetings. They’ll face off again in Philadelphia on Thursday.