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Flyers have to solve Penguins' defensive tactics now

by Mike G. Morreale

VOORHEES, N.J. - The suddenly ferocious defensive system that the Pittsburgh Penguins have so splendidly employed isn't anything new to the Philadelphia Flyers.

After all, the New Jersey Devils had taken great pride in frustrating the Flyers and their fans for almost a decade with their neutral-zone trap. But that was then and the reality right now is the Penguins, unlike Philadelphia's previous two playoff opponents this spring, have seemingly perfected a formula for success in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

How else can you explain their incredible 11-1 record through 12 postseason games? Still, Flyers coach John Stevens may have concocted a solution.

"I went to a coaching clinic one time and a guy presented an aerial attack," Stevens jested. "I'll have to go get my notes out on that one. Seriously, though, I do think there are things we can do from a tactical approach and things we can do from an execution approach. Either way, there's no question we have to do a better job of getting pucks in their end, protecting the puck and working the cycle. We've done it at times and created some chances but if you look at puck possession time, it's tilted in their favor."

Flyers center Jim Dowd played under the tutelage of Jacques Lemaire, who certainly knows a little something about the trap, when the Devils won their first Stanley Cup in 1995.

"They are playing solid hockey in all three zones and playing their positions," Dowd told "Call it the trap or whatever you want to, but it's all about playing your position. And I'm not just talking about in your offensive and defensive zone, but also the neutral zone."

Forward R.J. Umberger concurred.

"We need to angle the puck better and not just throw it away," Umberger said. "We need to do a better job of holding on to the puck and moving our feet. We also must be aware to keep it away from their goalie (Marc-Andre Fleury) when we dump it in. He's been able to play it way too easy. We're just dumping it, their defense is retrieving it and they just pound it back in on us."

Amazingly, the Flyers, who were averaging 3.58 goals per game prior to the Eastern Conference Finals against the Penguins, have been hitting at a 1.66 per game clip ever since. And while Fleury (1.74 goals-against average) has been solid, he hasn't had to be spectacular and that is a direct result of the job the Penguins have done in front of him.

The bottom line is, whenever the Flyers cross their blue line, there are seven or eight players total in the neutral zone and none are moving quickly. That strategy has been frustrating for the swift, skilled players such as Danny Briere, Jeff Carter, Vinny Prospal and Umberger, who have combined for just two goals in three losses to their Pennsylvania rival.

"We've killed ourselves in their system," Carter said. "They obviously clogged the neutral zone up pretty good so we have to play behind them and cycle up to the point and get shots from there. That's how you beat them."

It was inevitable that Stevens would make a lineup change in attempt to jump start his sagging offense for Thursday's Game 4 at Wachovia Center. The most notable switch was having center Mike Richards alongside Briere and Scott Hartnell.

To a man, the Flyers have commended the Penguins for sticking with a defensive game plan and executing as well, if not better, than any other team they've faced this spring. Whether it's Marian Hossa or Pascal Dupuis, the objective is the same -- attack the puck carrier before the red line to force the dump-in or the turnover. The Penguins prefer to chase the puck on offense rather than on defense and that has been the difference.

"This is all about X's and O's since we're not trying to do tic-tac-toe plays," Flyers defenseman Randy Jones said. "You have to do the fundamentals that you've worked on since pee-wee hockey. We need to get the puck deep and make those tape to tape passes, shoot the puck and then crash the net. We're not looking for pretty goals."

Despite holding an advantage on faceoffs, winning 58 percent of the draws to Pittsburgh's 42 percent in Game 3, the Flyers committed 19 turnovers.

"They do a good job keeping the puck in front of them," Jones said. "As any defender knows, the worst thing that could happen is turning back to chase, especially when you have guys bearing down on you. They're playing a strong neutral zone game right now and we're having a tough time getting the puck deep and trying to make plays."

Flyers goalie Martin Biron can sense the frustration during the course of the game.

"It's tough to watch because we're putting in great efforts and trying hard, but things are so clogged up and they are doing a good job of neutralizing our speed and our attack," Biron told "I felt (Wednesday morning) practice was good and we'll make some adjustments. But there's no question Pittsburgh has made it tough on our guys."

Stevens is confident his team will come out hard for Game 4.

"It's up to us to play a simple game and play on their side of the red line," he said. "We need to take some speed out of their attack. They're committed to defense right now and they're as good a team at protecting a lead right as any we've seen in a while."

Contact Mike Morreale at

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