PHILADELPHIA -- Pennsylvania's National Hockey League teams are heading in opposite directions early in the 2013-14 season. The team in the western part of the state is on a roll; the team in the eastern part is getting rolled.
And now, after the Pittsburgh Penguins’ 4-1 win over the Philadelphia Flyers on Thursday at Wells Fargo Center, there's a 10-point gap between the in-state rivals in the Metropolitan Division standings.
The battle of Pennsylvania really isn't much of a battle at all right now.
"It's where you want to be," Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said after making 24 saves for his sixth win in as many starts this season. "We're not thinking too far ahead, just getting two points every night and go from there."
He's not wrong.
The Penguins have won three in a row and six of seven to start the season. Sidney Crosby had a goal and an assist Thursday to improve his League-leading point total to 14, four more than anybody else. Jussi Jokinen scored his fourth goal of the season, Chris Kunitz scored his third and Evgeni Malkin added an empty-net goal for his third.
Pittsburgh killed off a pair of Philadelphia power plays in the first five minutes of the third period to preserve a 2-1 lead. It stayed that way until Crosby scored his sixth goal of the season with 2:32 to play. Malkin added an empty-net goal with 12.5 seconds left.
"Starting with [Fleury], you don't win that many games without making some mistakes at different points, and he's been there to shut the door [and] was there again [Thursday night]," Crosby said. "But I think defensively, too, we've made a pretty conscious effort. We got away from it for a couple of games, but for the most part, we've been pretty committed there. I think it starts from there and we kind of let our offense take care of itself."
Fleury has looked every bit as confident and sharp as the Penguins could have hoped. He was the Penguins’ most scrutinized player heading into the season after struggling in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the second straight spring, but he improved to 6-0 with a 1.67 goals-against average and .932 save percentage on Thursday.
Fleury's only blemish against the Flyers was the interference penalty he took with a minute to play in the second period. Wayne Simmonds scored with two seconds to play before the second intermission, but Fleury shut the door in the third with 12 saves.
"He looks strong in the net," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "He's looked strong the whole season. He looked strong again in this game. This is a team that brings a lot to the net. There's a lot of [activity] in front of the net power play-wise and 5-on-5, and they did that. He's strong in there, played really solid and held the fort for us."
Pittsburgh grabbed a 2-0 lead in the second period on goals from Jokinen and Kunitz separated by two-and-a-half minutes.
Jokinen scored after the Penguins forced the Flyers into multiple turnovers in the defensive zone, the second by defenseman Kimmo Timonen, who would eventually leave the game and not return with a lower-body injury. Timonen will be reevaluated Friday.
Kunitz cashed in on a rebound from the left side after the Penguins held the puck in the zone for more than a minute. They won the faceoff, hemmed the Flyers in, completed a line change, wore out the Flyers and continued to get pucks to the net.
"Our second period was not acceptable," Flyers forward Maxime Talbot said.
Ah yes, the Philadelphia side of the story. The team has played at least one lousy period each game this season. It came down to the second period this game.
It's no wonder the Flyers are now 1-7-0 and losers of four straight games.
Flyers goalie Steve Mason, who made 31 saves but again received little support, called the way the Flyers played in the second "terrible hockey." Flyers captain Claude Giroux used the word "sloppy." Simmonds characterized it as "awful" and later used the word "brutal."
"I think if we play 60 minutes, we'll start winning games," Giroux said.
They won't have another chance to do that until next Thursday, when the New York Rangers come to Wells Fargo Center.
"I think it's going to be good to get a break and start from fresh here," Giroux said.
The problem is the Flyers could be even more behind in the standings by then. Every other team in the Metropolitan Division plays at least once between Friday night and next Thursday. The Penguins and Washington Capitals play twice and the Columbus Blue Jackets have three games in the next six days.
"We got a lot of time to look at tapes, look at what we're doing wrong," Giroux said. "If we play 60 minutes responsible and disciplined about our game, we'll be fine. We'll start winning games. It's just a matter of time. We need to start believing it before we start playing. We go into games and confidence is down already. We've gotta start believing we're a good team, and when we do, we'll be dangerous."
The Penguins do believe and they are dangerous. They had a 2-0 lead and a 29-10 edge in shots on goal with 6 1/2 minutes left in the second period Thursday.
Philadelphia responded, as the Penguins expected, but Fleury and Pittsburgh's penalty-killers wouldn't let the Flyers make their third-period push matter.
"They were desperate," Crosby said. "You could tell they really wanted one. They had some good looks. They got sticks on them and fortunately they missed a couple of chances, but I think our mind-set was good. We were patient. Even with that happening, I still think we stayed pretty composed."
Eventually Crosby scored, Malkin followed and the scoreboard read 4-1 in favor of the team on a roll.
The other is simply rolling in the wrong direction.
"I think if we would have won that game, it would have been a big turning point," Giroux said. "It didn't happen, so…"
|Jussi Jokinen (4) ASST: Evgeni Malkin (5)|
1 - 0 PIT
|Chris Kunitz (3) ASST: Pascal Dupuis (5), Matt Niskanen (5)|
2 - 0 PIT
|PPG - Wayne Simmonds (1) ASST: Claude Giroux (3), Brayden Schenn (3)|
2 - 1 PIT
|Sidney Crosby (6) ASST: Pascal Dupuis (6)|
3 - 1 PIT
|EN - Evgeni Malkin (3) ASST: Craig Adams (1), Sidney Crosby (8)|
4 - 1 PIT
|Claude Giroux Hooking against Evgeni Malkin|
|Adam Hall Interference against Harry Zolnierczyk|
|Joe Vitale Tripping against Brayden Schenn|
|Braydon Coburn Tripping against Sidney Crosby|
|Robert Bortuzzo Fighting (maj) against Kris Newbury|
|Kris Newbury Fighting (maj) against Robert Bortuzzo|
|Luke Schenn Cross checking against Chuck Kobasew|
|Marc-Andre Fleury Interference against Maxime Talbot|
|Brooks Orpik Hooking against Maxime Talbot|
|Matt Niskanen Roughing against Brayden Schenn|