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Penguins defense carrying club through playoffs @NHLdotcom

PHILADELPHIA (AP) - A little more than two years ago, coach Michel Therrien - 11 games into his tenure behind the Pittsburgh Penguins bench - ripped his club for its evident indifference to defense.

Now, one win away from the Stanley Cup finals, the hard-nosed taskmaster looks back fondly on the night his club bought into the rough message he sent.

"When I came to Pittsburgh, the team was in last place," Therrien said Wednesday. "When you're in last place, there is a reason. They had good players, but the commitment, not only defensively, but the all-around commitment was not there.

"If you want to have some success, we had to change everything: the attitude, work ethic, and commitment, because we were going the wrong way."

Not anymore. The Penguins are a stunning 11-1 in the playoffs and own a 3-0 lead for the third straight series. They can wrap up the Eastern Conference finals as early as Thursday when they face the Flyers again in Philadelphia.

The Wachovia Center had been a house of horrors for the Penguins, who lost four times there during the season. They broke through Tuesday with a 4-1 win made possible by Pittsburgh's defense as much as its high-powered offense.

No one could have imagined a team boasting Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Marian Hossa, would concentrate on playing a system based on forcing mistakes and protecting its end.

They even put the trap to good use. Pittsburgh cradled a 2-1 lead in the third period Tuesday before stretching it to a two-goal edge after another costly turnover by Flyers rookie Steve Downie.

Therrien might have been the biggest disbeliever in January 2006 when the Penguins were beaten by Edmonton for their eighth loss under his brief watch.

"It's a pathetic performance," he said then of his inherited club, that had allowed an NHL-worst 166 goals and got coach Eddie Olczyk fired. "Half of the team doesn't care. ... They're doing the best job to be the worst defensive squad in the league. They turn the puck over, they have no vision. The guys don't care. They pretend to care, but I know they don't."

They surely do now.

"Defense wins championships," said 6-foot-7 defenseman Hal Gill, brought in at this year's trade deadline. "If we keep playing well defensively, we have the firepower and it's going to be there."

That style didn't seem to take hold right away in 2006. The Penguins lost their next game, too - a 6-1 drubbing at Columbus. What looked like another poor performance appeared a whole lot brighter to Therrien.

"Sometimes you can't judge a team with results," Therrien said. "The next game, they looked like a team. They looked like they cared. Even if we lost that game ... that was the little light at the end of the tunnel. They showed a little bit more character. I remember that game like we just played yesterday. That was the first step to get where we are right now."

Not only have Crosby, a rookie then, and the rest of the stars accepted the game plan, they have embraced it.

Through 12 postseason games, the Penguins have allowed only 22 goals. It's not merely Gill and rising goalie Marc-Andre Fleury who have led the charge, it's all the guys up front, too. Fleury is fully recovered from his severe ankle sprain and has a stellar 1.75 goals-against average.

"We have always been helping our D and our goalie the best we can," said Hossa, another trade-deadline acquisition who has eight playoff goals. "We're going to have great opportunities offensively. Right now we're concentrating on playing well defensively. We just have to keep doing it to be successful."

Countless times, Penguins forwards have chased opponents and forced turnovers from behind. Fleury faced only eight shots from Philadelphia through two periods Tuesday, a credit to those in front of him. They forecheck, backcheck, and have quite a knack for blocking shots.

"We know if we take care of our own end, hopefully, our skill will take care of itself," Crosby said. "You have to believe in it, and you have to believe in what you do is going to work. We do that.

"There are some times where you can go out there and you know you're doing something right, but you're not sure if it's going to work. That's not the case with us. We really believe in what we're going to do and we're going to have success."

The Flyers are trying to do that while facing long odds. Only the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs and the 1975 New York Islanders have erased 3-0 deficits and won series.

Philadelphia took to the practice ice Wednesday with new lines. Trying to maximize their offense, Mike Richards will move up to play with Danny Briere, who has struggled this series alongside Vinny Prospal.

"Danny and I have had success on the power play," Richards said. "At the beginning of the year when we were put up together it seemed like we had some chemistry. We've got to find ways to get to the net, get more pucks to the net and find them. Hopefully, we can do that together."

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