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Flyers defense to be put to test

by Adam Kimelman

Kimmo Timonen will have to help defend against Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in the Eastern Conference Final. Timonen highlights
In the first round of the playoffs, Kimmo Timonen’s task was shadowing Washington’s Alex Ovechkin and limiting the opportunities for the League’s leading regular-season scorer.
In the second round, his goal was to limit the scoring chances for Montreal’s Alex Kovalev and keep his dazzling array of moves from ending with the puck in the net.
In the Eastern Conference Final, though, where does Philadelphia Flyers coach John Stevens deploy his best defenseman? Does he use Timonen to stop reigning League MVP Sidney Crosby? Or does he have him jump over the boards every time burgeoning superstar Evgeni Malkin touches the ice?
Stevens played coy after Wednesday’s practice, but Timonen and his partner, Braydon Coburn, certainly will play major roles in trying to slow down the Penguins’ dynamic duo, as well as their linemates.
“Nobody’s been able to do it yet,” Stevens said. “We’ve certainly got a big task ahead of us. We’re all workers and checkers – we’ll have to be. We’ve been saying for a while, if we don’t have the puck we all need to look the same. Whether it’s Riley Cote or Danny Briere, if we don’t have the puck, we all have responsibilities.”
Those responsibilities will be doubled for Timonen and Coburn, as well as the rest of the Flyers’ defense corps, which includes the second pairing of Derian Hatcher and Randy Jones, and a third pairing of Jason Smith with either Jaroslav Modry or Lasse Kukkonen.
“They’re top players in the League and they’re really good with the puck,” Timonen said. “It’s going to take five guys out there to stop them. Their game goes through those guys, so if we can keep them off the book as long as possible, we’re going to do fine.”
That’s certainly easier said than done. Malkin and Crosby have 14 points each, tied for second among all playoff scorers.
Timonen, who has played nearly 25 minutes a game, did a masterful job against Washington and Montreal, handling the pressure of stopping the other team’s best player while registering six points and a plus-5 rating.
“I don’t mind the pressure,” he said. “I think, under pressure, I get the best out of me.”
But as good as Timonen has been, he knows he can’t do the job alone.
“It’s not just me,” he said. “My partner has to be out there with me, and the three forwards and Marty (Biron) in net. It’s going to take more than me; it’s going to take six guys out there to stop either Crosby or Malkin.”
That includes a defensively accountable group of forwards. Jeff Carter’s line, which includes Scottie Upshall and Mike Knuble, likely will be used to stop one of the Penguins’ top lines. Mike Richards, Joffrey Lupul and R.J. Umberger also will play a checking-first role.
No single strategy works on stopping Crosby and Malkin. They’re different players who play different styles.
Crosby, at 5-foot-11 and 200 pounds, likes to create chances off the rush and is more of a distributor than a pure scorer, as shown by his playoff-best 12 assists in nine games. But Crosby is no shrinking violet, and is far stronger on his skates than his size might belie.
“You can’t play Sid like he’s some 5-10 guy,” Richards said. “You have to play him pretty much the same as you play Malkin. He (Crosby) is really strong. He’s got great leg strength, he’s low to the ice.”
At 6-3 and 195 pounds, Malkin is a power forward who knows how to use his strength effectively down low, but also is a strong skater and finisher.
“I feel like Malkin is more of a puck-possession guy,” Knuble said. “He’s a bigger guy so he can hang onto it a little more. Sidney is more of a give-and-go guy, and gets a lot of chances off the rush. It’s pick your poison. They’re going to get their shots, they’re going to get their chances, a lot like Ovechkin. You just have to minimize, keep them down. You know they’re going to chip in, but you just can’t let them explode. The challenge is to be extremely aware when they’re on the ice.”
“Malkin is a little bigger than Crosby but he actually reminds me of Peter Forsberg when he was in his prime, protecting the puck and making good plays,” added Timonen.
“I think the biggest thing is not giving them too much space to make plays,” Richards said. “Both are good players and creative players, so you have to be ready for anything. They’re both good players and crafty, too.
The Flyers also emphasized that Malkin and Crosby are just one-third of each line. Crosby is flanked by high-scoring Marian Hossa and Pascal Dupuis, while Malkin anchors a jumbo-size line with Ryan Malone (6-4, 224) and Petr Sykora (6-foot, 190).
“They’re both good,” Knuble said of the two lines. “They both have one skilled winger with them and one guy who’s going to work with them. Malkin’s line is maybe more physical, a bigger load because you have Malone and Sykora. But Hossa is playing with Sidney, and Dupuis makes that a great skating line. Maybe they skate a little more and Malkin’s line might grind it out a little more.
“All you can do is finish your checks, wear them out, and if you can bang them up, finish checks, make it hard on them, so at the end of the night, if they are successful, they know they paid a price. Maybe the next night it’ll be even harder.”
To keep it from being a hard time for the Flyers, Stevens accentuated the full-team effort it will take, especially with the first two games on the road, where the Penguins will have the last change and be able to exploit favorable matchups.
“You can’t just say we’re going to have Carter and Richards play against either one,” said Stevens. “It’s going to have to be done by committee. Have to have team structure and it has to be a team commitment to try to contain them.
“It’s not just Malkin and Crosby. The Pittsburgh Penguins have weapons on every line and we’re going to have to be responsible against all of them.”
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