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Flyers clinch playoff spot with 4-1 win

by Bill Meltzer
PHILADELPHIA – For the 16th time in the last 17 seasons, the Philadelphia Flyers will participate in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Philadelphia assured itself of a postseason berth after earning a 4-1 victory against the Montreal Canadiens at the Wells Fargo Center on Saturday night.

Per the Elias Sports Bureau, the Flyers' 16 playoff appearances in the last 17 years is the second-most of any NHL team during that span. The Detroit Red Wings have made the playoffs for 20 consecutive seasons, with this season looking to be the 21st.

"I thought coach (Peter Laviolette) made a good point before the game," Jaromir Jagr said. "We want our games to mean something, and not get in a situation where it won't really mean much for our (playoff) position if we win games in the final week. I think this could go down to the final game."

Danny Briere scored two power-play goals to lead the attack for Philadelphia. Kimmo Timonen also tallied on the man advantage and Matt Read added an insurance marker late in regulation. Tomas Plekanec netted the lone Montreal goal.

Ilya Bryzgalov ran his record in the month of March to 10-1-1 by turning back 23 of 24 shots. Although he did not face a large quantity of shots until the final period, quite a few were of the difficult variety. Bryzgalov became the first Flyers goaltender to allow two or fewer goals in 11 consecutive games since Bernie Parent accomplished the feat from Dec. 8, 1974 to Jan. 4, 1975.  

Montreal, which had the NHL's top-ranked penalty kill coming into the game, got burned three times by a Philadelphia power play that entered the game ranked fifth. The Canadiens failed to score on five power plays of their own, including a 1:21 two-man advantage. The Flyers were perfect on the penalty kill for the 13th time in the last 15 games: They have operated at a 92.3 percent (36-for-39) efficiency rating during that time.

Peter Budaj, making just his 13th appearance of the season, started in place of Carey Price and made 29 saves in a losing effort for Montreal. The Habs were playing the back end of games on consecutive nights, while Philadelphia was a more rested club.

"I think you can contribute it to some degree of fatigue," Canadiens coach Randy Cunneyworth said. "We made some decisions early in the game that are beneficial to what we were doing and we had the opportunities.  It really comes down to special teams, both ways.  I think our power play had the opportunity at the end to get us one and get us into it to pull us a little closer there and who knows what can happen after that.  We have to be a little better in those situations, but are we going to blame it on fatigue? No, I don't think so."

Philadelphia entered the game looking to break out of a pattern of slow starts that saw the club yield the first goal in 15 of their last 20 matches, and fail to play with a lead in regulation at any point in the previous four games (despite a 3-1-0 record in that span).

The teams traded off 2-on-1 rushes within the first seven minutes of play, but Bryzgalov and Budaj were equal to the task for their respective clubs. Shortly thereafter, Bryzgalov denied a pinching Frederic St. Denis at point-blank range.

It did not take Philadelphia's fifth-ranked power play long to make the Habs' top-ranked penalty kill pay dearly for a Plekanec slashing penalty midway through the opening period. Claude Giroux, who earned his 59th assist of the season, won an offensive-zone faceoff back to the point. Timonen moved to his right and ripped a shot through a Wayne Simmonds' screen at the 11:07 mark; a mere six seconds into the power play.   

Philadelphia outshot Montreal by an 8-4 margin in the opening period. The tempo picked up considerably in the second.

At 3:44 of the second period, Lars Eller spotted Plekanec breaking up the middle of the ice with Philadelphia defensemen Braydon Coburn and Nicklas Grossmann caught flat-footed at the offensive blue line. Receiving the pass in stride, Plekanec sped off on a breakaway and jammed the puck past Bryzgalov to knot the score at 1-1.

Several more Montreal scoring chances followed over the next four minutes. Most notably, with Alexei Emelin in the penalty box for interference, Plekanec went in unimpeded on a shorthanded rush, but was denied by Bryzgalov. Before the expiration of the Montreal penalty, the goal-starved Briere deflected a Matt Carle point shot past Budaj to restore a 2-1 lead at 7:57.

With the exception of an empty-net goal against New Jersey on March 13, Briere had gone 29 games without a tally before tallying Philadelphia's second power-play goal of the game.

"I just want to find a way to keep scoring goals," said Briere. "It's weird. I thought I wasn't playing well earlier and I was scoring. Probably the last three weeks, I was playing better. The chances were there, I just couldn't finish. I knew at some point it was going to turn, but the most important part is to keep it going in the same direction. I like the way our line has been playing the last few games. Hopefully, that keeps up and gives us more power for the playoffs -- another line to do work. Especially Giroux's line."

Philadelphia nearly extended the lead to two goals when Giroux had a late second-period shorthanded bid. He initially appeared to have daylight near the post on a wraparound attempt, but Budaj did the splits to deny the stuff-in attempt.

Seconds later, Philadelphia went back to the power play and Briere forged the two-goal cushion. Montreal cleared the puck out of the defense zone and down the ice. Bryzgalov corralled it and fired a strike to Jagr, stationed near the offensive blue line. Jagr fed the puck to Briere, who beat Budaj high to the glove side at 17:38.
"I think I said (on Thursday) that I thought Danny and his line were getting a lot of chances," Laviolette said. "It looked like they were doing the rights things, and they had jump. You like to see points come, I know they are on the power play but I still think it's an indication of things going in the right direction, offensively for them they're working hard. That line was really effective for us tonight. The power play was effective as well when Danny and his unit was out there.  You can see that forward motion going towards offense, and now I thought that he’s had a few good games in a row."

Montreal caught a break at the end of the period when Zac Rinaldo outmaneuvered the defense and Budaj to tuck the puck in the net roughly a half-second after time expired in the period. Philadelphia outshot Montreal, 10-9, in the second period.

Briere had a crack at completing a hat trick for the second time this season. On the Flyers' fifth power play of the game, Jagr fed a cross-ice pass to Briere near the post to the right of Budaj, but the netminder got over to make the save. Shortly past the 11:00 mark, Budaj kept his team to within two goals by stoning rookie Brayden Schenn on a breakaway.

With 8:15 remaining in the game, Montreal received a five-on-three advantage for 81 seconds. The Habs were unable to convert, as Bryzgalov made a couple of saves and Philadelphia was able to clear the zone several times to relieve pressure.

"We had done it a couple times in practice when we used two forwards and one defenseman as opposed to the other way around," said Laviolette. "That was a good opportunity to do it, took the time out and we were able to put the same three guys back out there and they did a terrific job of staying in lanes, preventing passes."

Read put the game away with a slam-dunk goal near the left post at 18:07. Fellow rookie Sean Couturier drew the primary assist.

"We didn't have a good night and they did a good job," said Plekanec. "They shot the puck at the right time, got it through with a good screen with those first two goals and the third goal, which was big tonight, there was a change I was supposed to stay on that side to prevent that long pass from Bryzgalov, but I kind of got caught in the middle and they scored that third goal, which was big."

With the victory, Philadelphia became the third Atlantic Division team to secure a playoff spot. The Flyers moved to within two points of the fourth-seeded Pittsburgh Penguins, who lost in Ottawa, 8-4. Philadelphia remains five points behind the New York Rangers, who lead the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference with 101 points following a 4-3 shootout win against Toronto.

Flyers captain Chris Pronger, who is lost for the regular season and playoffs due to career-threatening post-concussion issues, was in attendance at the game. Seated next to club president Ed Snider, Pronger received a lengthy standing ovation when introduced to the crowd during a stoppage of play in the second period. Down at ice level, both Philadelphia and Montreal players tapped their sticks in recognition of the future Hall of Famer.
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