Evgeni Malkin was just too much for the Philadelphia Flyers.
Pittsburgh’s Hart Trophy finalist set up the first goal of the Eastern Conference Finals, then scored two of his own as the Penguins downed the Flyers 4-2 in Game 1 on Friday night.
Malkin snapped a 2-2 tie with 6.5 seconds left in the first period, then added a spectacular shorthanded breakaway goal early in the second — just seconds after being run over by Philadelphia’s Mike Richards. He also set up Petr Sykora’s game-opening goal and now leads all playoff scorers with 17 points.
“It’s a pleasure to play with him and a pleasure to watch him play,” Sykora said.
Sidney Crosby added a first-period goal for the Penguins after Richards had scored twice in a 4:20 span for the Flyers.
Marc-Andre Fleury stopped 26 shots as the Penguins improved to 9-1 in this year’s playoffs. They’ve won all six home playoff games, including their three series openers, and increased their winning streak at Mellon Arena to 14 games since a 2-1 shootout loss to San Jose on Feb. 24.
The Flyers have dropped Game 1 in all three of their series, but rallied to win the first two.
“It's a position we've been in before, [and] it always seems like we come back with another solid effort,” Richards said. “Hopefully we do that on Sunday.”
Game 2 is Sunday night at Pittsburgh before the series shifts to Philadelphia for Games 3 and 4 on Tuesday and Thursday. The Flyers have won all three series between the two teams, the most recent in 2000.
The Penguins took the first penalty of the series when Ryan Whitney backhanded the puck into the seats, drawing a delay of game call at 1:22 of the opening period. The Flyers, perhaps showing the effects of the absence of power-play quarterback Kimmo Timonen — out with a blood clot in his foot — did nothing with the opportunity.
Malkin had the Pens’ first good chance four minutes into the game when he broke through the defense but had his 15-foot wrister stopped by Martin Biron — and Sykora backhanded the rebound wide.
But Sykora didn’t miss at 6:19, finishing off a slick three-way passing play on a 3-on-2 break by roofing a backhander from near the right post. Malkin carried into the zone and fed Ryan Malone to his left. Malone’s quick cross-ice pass found Sykora all alone for a quick deke before giving the Penguins the lead.
“I knew he was going to really challenge me, really come out,” Sykora said. “I put it to the backhand and tried to go upstairs. I was really happy when the puck went in.”
The Flyers needed just over two minutes to pull even. Richards came out from behind the net to the left of Fleury and tried a wraparound. The puck slid across the crease and banked into the net off the sliding goaltender at 8:30.
Richards then gave the Flyers the lead at 12:50 by keeping his cool. With the Flyers banging away after Fleury made a save on Umberger’s shot, Richards dug the puck out of the pile, took a step to his right to escape the pile of bodies and put the puck high into the wide-open net for his sixth of the playoffs.
“I thought we had the start we wanted,” Flyers coach John Stevens said. “We had the shots on net; we had the lead. We just didn't manage a puck as a group of five on the ice. Our support got too far away.”
Added Richards: “We made some mistakes in the first couple of periods that were very uncharacteristic of the hockey team. Give them credit, they had an opportunistic team and capitalized on all of their chances.”
That’s just what the Penguins did on the tying goal at 14:11, only 71 seconds after the Flyers took the lead. The Pens got some help from Biron, who tried to clear the puck around the boards, only to have Marian Hossa cut off the pass in the corner to the goaltender’s right. Hossa whipped a pass into the slot, where Crosby deflected it into the half-empty net before Biron could get set.
Fleury made his best save seconds later, stopping Umberger on a breakaway after the Pittsburgh-area native picked Sykora’s pocket at the Pens’ blue line.
Malkin capped the wild first period when he beat Biron with a wrist shot from the right dot. With time running out, Whitney started the play by forcing a turnover at his own blue line, then threw a long diagonal stretch pass that caught Malkin in full stride and barely onside.
“You turn the puck over and give up rushes against Crosby and Malkin — that's the game you can't play," Stevens said. "We did that. Every time you get an odd-man rush, or I call it a 'stressed attack,' it favors them. Those are the things we can't do."
It was, as Crosby noted during an intermission interview, “one of those periods when everything went in.” Not quite everything, perhaps, but there were five goals on 23 shots — 12 by the Flyers and 11 by the Penguins.
The game turned the Penguins’ way for good early in the second period.
Pittsburgh defenseman Brooks Orpik was called for holding at 3:35, but the Penguins stunned the Flyers with a shorthanded goal 75 seconds later. Richards buried Malkin with a big hit after Malkin’s shot was blocked by Randy Jones, and Malkin needed several seconds to get back to his feet. He had barely reached the Flyers’ blue line when Hossa broke up a play in his own zone and Sergei Gonchar threw a clearing pass that found Malkin all alone behind Jones, who had fallen. Malkin raced into the Flyers’ zone, teed up a slap shot from between the hash marks and blew it past Biron for the first shorthanded goal of his career.
Malkin was 0-for-5 this season on shootout attempts and said he wanted to try something different on the breakaway.
"It was really a last-second decision,” he said through a translator. “All of my penalty shots weren’t that great all the time pretty much, so at the last second I decided to shoot that puck as hard as I can. I didn't think about it, where to (shoot), to make any moves, just as hard as I can."
Added Crosby: “If I had his shot I’d do the same thing. It was a great shot.”
Crosby just missed his second goal with 6:30 left in the period when he split the defense and had his wrist shot from the slot stopped by Biron and had the rebound deflected off the outside of the left post.
But by then, the frantic pace of the first period had calmed down, with the Penguins using their speed to muzzle Philadelphia’s offense. The Flyers ended the period trying to fend off the speedy Penguins, who outshot them 7-6 and almost completely shut down Philadelphia’s offense over the final 10 minutes.
Pittsburgh coach Michel Therrien said he reminded his team during the first intermission that the Flyers would crash the net — and that they would have to work harder to keep Philadelphia’s forwards from invading Fleury’s space.
“We were aware of how they scored their goals against Washington and against Montreal, and we mentioned it to the players and worked on it in practice,” Therrien said. “But having not played for a week, the competitive level is not quite there. Early in the game it was not quite there. We certainly approached it again with our players (at the first intermission), and I believe they did a great job in the second and third.”
Fleury made a fine glove save on Jeff Carter’s 25-foot snap shot from the slot 3:20 into the third — the Flyers’ first good chance in quite a while. Pittsburgh was content to play shutdown hockey, allowing Philadelphia just three shots in the first 14 minutes of the period. Fleury did get a break with 5:40 left when Jones’ screened slap shot from the left point clanked off the crossbar, and he poke-checked Carter a minute later to break up a scoring bid.
"We did a great job. It was kind of odd early on how that first period went," Crosby said. "So many goals, and that's usually uncharacteristic of the playoffs to make mistakes like that early on. But we did a great job capitalizing and as the game went on we maintained that speed."
After rallying from series-opening losses to beat Washington and Montreal, the Flyers aren’t perturbed about having to come from behind again.
“The way we responded in those two series,” Biron said, “we are going to come out with what's going to be our best effort so far in the playoffs on Sunday.”