Pens close in on trip to Final
Adam Kimmelman | NHL.com Staff Writer
PHILADELPHIA - Ryan Whitney’s statistics this season don’t look a whole lot different than last season, when his play earned him a six-year contract extension.
Looks can be deceiving, though, which is why Whitney, a lifelong defenseman, found himself taking shifts at forward for a pair of games in late March.
“Coach (Michel Therrien) was upset with my consistency and he let me know it,” Whitney said. “It was a wake-up call.”
The alarm went off sounded Tuesday night, as Whitney scored the game’s first goal — his first in nearly three months — sparking the Pittsburgh Penguins to a 4-1 win against the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
Marian Hossa scored twice, Ryan Malone had a goal and Sidney Crosby had a pair of assists as the Penguins moved within one win of their first Stanley Cup Final since Mario Lemieux led them to their second straight championship in 1992. Their first chance to accomplish the feat comes in Game 4 at the Wachovia Center on Thursday night; if not, there’s always Game 5 back in Pittsburgh on Sunday afternoon.
The Penguins also became the fourth team to start the playoffs 11-1. Two of the previous three — the 1968 and 1976 Montreal Canadiens — went 12-1 en route to winning the Stanley Cup. The 1983 Edmonton Oilers started 11-0 but were swept by the New York Islanders in the Final.
R.J. Umberger scored the lone Flyers goal, and Martin Biron stopped 21 shots.
Playing in a city in which they hadn’t won all season, the Penguins’ goal was to start fast and quiet the raucous Philadelphia crowd.
“We knew if we could score first it would be huge for our team and we can quiet the crowd,” Hossa said. “Basically, it’s their sixth player. Those people here, they’re unbelievable, they’re really loud.”
In a span of 2:38, they gave the sellout crowd of 19,965 laryngitis.
On the game’s first power play, Whitney skated the puck into the left circle and tried to center a pass to Crosby, but the puck went off Flyers defenseman Jason Smith and behind Martin Biron at 5:03 of the first period. Hossa walked past Jeff Carter and fired a wrister between Lasse Kukkonen’s skates and past Biron at 7:41.
It was a fortuitous bounce for Whitney, who hadn’t scored a goal since Feb. 21, a span of 30 games.
“Whitter’s played great for us,” said Crosby, whose two assists gave him a Playoff-high 19 points. “For him to step up like that, you think of other guys who can score goals, but he’s a guy who’s offensively gifted, and when you work hard, good things happen. He put a puck on net and got a great bounce. That’s a great goal for us.”
While Whitney hadn’t been contributing on the scoresheet during the postseason, Therrien said he has been pleased with the defenseman’s play — especially his plus-6 rating through 12 playoff games.
Obviously, whatever message the coach was trying to send got through.
“I was just playing one good game, one bad game,” Whitney said. “I tried to put a string of games together here, and I think I’ve done that in the playoffs.”
Therrien has been pleased with Whitney’s improved all-around game.
“He's playing much better than he was during the regular season,” he said. “There was a time that he wasn’t playing great. For a young defenseman, sometimes consistency was not there at times. We worked with him, we tried different recipes, and just to make sure that when it's going to get to playoff time, he is going to get the message, and he's going to get ready.
“He's doing a great job right now. He's playing like a veteran. He's moving the puck really well. He's solid defensively and doing everything we asked him to do.”
The Penguins as a whole are playing well defensively — they limited the Flyers to eight shots through the game’s first 40 minutes and 18 for the game.
“This is a young team who is playing a really mature game,” Therrien said. “They're committed defensively. And when you have skilled players committed defensively like we're doing right now, it gives us a chance to win.”
Down 2-0, the Flyers got a goal back midway through the first when Umberger scored his 10th of the playoffs. Daniel Briere
, jumping out of the penalty box, carried the puck into the attacking zone and passed across to Vaclav Prospal. He carried the puck behind the net and tried a wraparound as he came out the other side. The shot hit the post, but Umberger was in front to bang it in at 10:59.
A Philadelphia turnover allowed the Penguins to ice the game midway through the third period. A bad pass by Steve Downie in the offensive zone sent Evgeni Malkin
into the Flyers’ end on an odd-man rush. He lost the puck, but it rolled to Petr Sykora, who pushed the puck to Malone in front. He backhanded the puck past Biron at 9:58 for his fourth goal of the postseason.
Hossa added an empty-net goal with 53.7 seconds remaining.
The Flyers had opportunities to get back into the game, but never were able to sustain much push in the offensive zone.
“They're very committed to the checking game right now,” Flyers coach John Stevens said. “They're creating all their offense from the checking side of the puck, and they're doing it very well. … They're checking us into turnovers. We're not executing with the pressure that we're receiving, and they're feasting on the turnovers.”
When the Flyers did have chances, though, they couldn’t put them away. They failed to record a shot on three power plays, and their best scoring opportunity of the game came midway through the second period with the team playing shorthanded. Mike Richards took the puck from Whitney at the Flyers’ blue line and broke in alone on Pens goalie Marc-Andre Fleury
, but Sergei Gonchar made a diving poke check to thwart the breakaway.
Fleury was forced to make just 17 saves, including two nice stops on Carter wristers in the second period.
Philadelphia now faces the daunting task of trying to become just the third team in NHL history to come back from a 3-0 deficit, an accomplishment managed only by the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs and 1975 New York Islanders.
“It is pretty simple — we cannot lose again,” Flyers forward Joffrey Lupul said. “It has happened before. Teams have come back.
“We are not going to quit. We are going to come out in Game 4 and play as hard as we can. I can guarantee you that.”