VOORHEES, N.J. -- Even the Philadelphia Flyers are surprised they lead the Pittsburgh Penguins 3-0 in the teams' Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series.
"If you would have told us that before the series, we would have probably laughed at you," Claude Giroux said after Philadelphia won Game 3 on Sunday 8-4, "but guys are working hard, playing as a team, and we've got four lines rolling."
All true, but there's many more reasons why the Flyers have so thoroughly frustrated the Penguins and given themselves a chance to close the series in Game 4 Wednesday at Wells Fargo Center (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, TSN).
Here are five of them:
1. Reacting instead of initiating
For years, the Flyers have been an organization known for embracing the role of antagonist. During the regular season they led the NHL in total penalties (472) and penalty minutes (1,318). They also had the third-most major penalties (58) and tied for the third-most fighting majors (57).
They've done a complete about-face in this series. Instead of initiating all the extracurricular, post-whistle activity, the Flyers are responding to what the Penguins are trying to do.
"We can't control how they're going to play, how they're going to get in the scrums," Danny Briere said. "But one thing we talked about was trying to stay disciplined, and trying to play hard whistle-to-whistle. For the most part we've done that. After whistles you're used to seeing the Flyers start trouble, and for the most part we're staying away from it unless we have to protect our goalie or protect each other from guys trying to take advantage of us."
PENGUINS VS. FLYERS
Orpik: Lack of composure betrays Pens
Dan Rosen - NHL.com Senior Writer
To a man, the Penguins say the fact that they're trailing 3-0 in this Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series against the Flyers has nothing to do with their effort or character. READ MORE ›
Yes, they are engaging in fights, including three in Game 3, but they are not starting them. In fact, the player that was the biggest aggressor for all the extra stuff Sunday was Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, who whacked twice at Ilya Bryzgalov's glove after the Flyers goalie had the puck frozen, poked Jakub Voracek's glove away from him as he was bending down to pick it up, and grabbed Scott Hartnell from behind.
The Flyers want to play on the edge, frustrating the Penguins enough so they are the ones that fall over it.
2. Movement on the power play
The Flyers are 6-for-10 on the power play in the series because they never stop moving when they get it into the attacking zone. Their passing has been crisp and quick. As a result, the Penguins' penalty killers have struggled to rotate in time to pick up the pass that ends up setting up a goal.
"Penalty killers do such a good job, they're so well-schooled -- I know how much time we spend on the penalty kill, trying to figure out the lanes and the routes and where to block the shots and block the seam passes," Laviolette said. "You have to move the puck quickly, and if you don't you're probably not going to find work against the four killers on the ice."
Matt Read's goal with 5:42 left in the second period was on a one-timer from the left circle off a tremendous circle-to-circle pass from Jaromir Jagr. The play started when Briere fanned on a one-timer from the slot. The puck came to Read at the right point. He drifted to his left before feeding the puck back to Jagr.
Here is where the motion came in. Instead of passing, Jagr had his head up, surveying the scene, as he started to move down inside the right circle. The Penguins turned their attention to him, leaving Read alone on the far side. Jagr saw him and set him up for a one-timer that Pens goalie Marc-Andre Fleury had no chance to stop because he was almost pinned on the other side of his crease with all attention on Jagr and the puck.
Maxime Talbot scored a power-play goal late in the third period after the Flyers made five tape-to-tape passes in the zone to work the puck around from one side to the net.
3. Pressuring the points on the PK
Philadelphia has scored three shorthanded goals in the last two games -- matching the amount of power-play goals the Penguins have scored -- because of the pressure Talbot and Giroux are applying on Pittsburgh's point men.
Instead of sitting back and letting the Penguins work their power play, a safe move by all accounts considering the firepower that Pittsburgh has with the man-advantage, Giroux and Talbot have been relentless up top.
Their pressure led to Giroux getting a shorthanded breakaway chance in Game 2 that Talbot cashed in when he hammered home the rebound. Their pressure also led to a three-on-two shorthanded chance later in Game 2 that turned into a goal when Talbot swung a pass back to Giroux for a sizzling one-timer from the slot.
That same pressure caused Pittsburgh to turn the puck over at the left point in the first period of Game 3, leading to Talbot's game-tying shorthanded goal.
"[Assistant coach] Craig Berube is pretty good on the PK. He runs pretty much everything. Guys just listen," Giroux said. "We want to take their gaps away. The more time they're going to have with the puck, they're obviously going to be pretty dangerous. [Evgeni] Malkin and Crosby can make a lot of plays, so it's important for us to be hard on them. Any time we have a chance to clear a puck, we want to do it."
4. Erasing Evgeni Malkin
Flyers rookie center Sean Couturier may be the underrated MVP of these playoffs so far. The 19-year-old has been assigned arguably the most difficult task in this series -- shutting down Malkin at even strength, and he's doing it flawlessly while also outscoring the Art Ross Trophy winner in even-strength situations.
Malkin has just one even-strength point despite playing just over 50 even-strength minutes. By comparison, Malkin averaged three points per every 50 minutes he played at even strength in the regular season.
"Couturier has played so good," Scott Hartnell said. "If you think he's getting under [Malkin's] skin, I think you're right on the money there. The goals are great by Couturier, but you can really tell the way he's playing defense and the way that line plays against [Malkin], it's awesome to see. It's awesome to see the frustration in their lineup. That's what we want to have."
Couturier has stolen Malkin's time and space by using his long, lanky frame. He's a constant presence when Malkin and linemates Chris Kunitz and James Neal are on the ice. That line has just five even-strength points in the series.
5. Quick transition
Once they're able to gain possession, the Flyers are motoring through the neutral zone and into the attacking zone, creating odd-man rushes that are leading to offensive chances. They've simply been faster than the Penguins, and they've successfully used the stretch pass to their advantage.
For example, look at a few of the goals they scored Sunday.
Briere's second goal in the first period was a direct result of speed in tandem with vision. Brayden Schenn picked up the loose puck at the left wing half-wall and darted ahead. Joining him were linemates Briere and Wayne Simmonds. The Penguins were caught with three skaters deep in the Flyers' zone, leaving defensemen Brooks Orpik and Zbynek Michalek to handle the three-on-two that was coming at them.
Schenn sent the puck into the center of the Pittsburgh zone to Simmonds while Briere kept on his path to the net. Simmonds found Briere, who had gotten behind the Penguins defense, and it was an easy slam-dunk goal.
In the second period, with the Flyers on the power play, Braydon Coburn picked up the puck at center ice, curled back into the defensive zone, looked up and spotted Simmonds at the far blue line. Coburn made a blue line-to-blue line pass to Simmonds, who got behind Paul Martin and went in alone on Fleury for a power-play goal that extended the Flyers' lead to 6-4 with 45.8 seconds left in the second period.
"I thought that the Simmonds goal was a real timely goal for us," Laviolette said. "The gap had closed and to stretch it back out by two, that was a really important stretch to go in before the period ended."
Another example was Giroux's goal 27 seconds into the third period. He got the puck in the defensive zone and skated it out quickly with Jagr already ahead of him, realizing there could be a scoring chance. The Penguins were backtracking, but never impeded Giroux's entrance into the zone. He fed Jagr, got it back, and blasted a one-timer past Brent Johnson from the right circle for a goal.
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