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Pens make case as NHL's hottest team

by Dan Rosen

Ryan Whitney of the Penguins quieted the raucous Wachovia Center crowd by scoring a goal just five minutes into the contest.  It was the ninth time in their 12 playoff games that Pittsburgh scored the first goal.
WATCH Whitney's first period tally
PHILADELPHIA — Another game, another win for the Pittsburgh Penguins, aka the Detroit Red Wings of the East.
Which is the hotter team? Looks like we’re going to find out sooner than anyone could have predicted.
Unless the Dallas Stars and/or the Philadelphia Flyers beat the tremendous odds they now face being down three games to love in the Conference Finals, the Red Wings and Penguins will meet in what promises to be a scintillating Stanley Cup Final.
The Penguins moved one step closer on Tuesday night with a resounding 4-1 victory over the Flyers, their first win at the Wachovia Center in five tries this season. The Penguins needed only four shots to take a 2-0 lead and never looked back.
Before all you Red Wings fans bring your brooms out of the closet for Game 4 in Dallas on Wednesday night, here are some items to consider from Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals.

Feel free to discuss while at work today. Your boss won’t mind.

1. Fantastic Firsts
For the ninth time in their 12 playoff games the Penguins scored the first goal. Not surprisingly, they’re 9-0 in those games. Scoring first isn’t a prerequisite to win playoff games, but it definitely helps — especially on the road.

The Wachovia Center was buzzing before the puck dropped for Game 3. Lauren Hart and Kate Smith — via video, of course — combined for a stirring rendition of “God Bless America.” A brilliant tribute to Stephen Liczbinski, a Flyers fan and Philadelphia police officer who was killed last week, drew a roaring ovation from the crowd.

But five minutes into the game, the fans were quieted by Ryan Whitney’s power-play goal. Less than three minutes later, they were dead silent after Marian Hossa knifed down the middle and beat Marty Biron with a shot through Lasse Kukkonen’s legs.

The Penguins had a 2-0 lead and never looked back. They have now outscored the opposition 12-5 in the first period in these Playoffs and are 6-0 when leading after the first period.

It only stands to reason that if the Flyers hope to get back into this series, they better start scoring early in games — or at least before the Penguins put one up on the board.

2. Neutral Zone Misery/Mastery
For the third straight game the Flyers struggled to generate much speed through the neutral zone. At times, they couldn’t get the puck through the area at all.

The Penguins’ 1-2-2 forecheck has been dynamite thanks to their forwards’ speed and aggressiveness. When the Flyers do get the puck into the offensive zone, Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik said they aren’t coming in with much speed, which makes it easier on the defense.

The Flyers’ troubles establishing possession showed up on the scoreboard, which displayed the number 18 next to their shots on goal for the game. That includes 10 shots in the third period, when the Flyers were much better in the transition game.

Still, eight shots through two periods just won’t cut it.

Speed and aggressive forechecking are only part of the reason why the Penguins have been dominant against the Flyers’ transition game. Another reason is the Penguins’ puck possession time, which is due in large part to their unwillingness to shoot just for the sake of shooting.

The Penguins are very deliberate when they have the puck. They are able to keep it with some fancy tic-tac-toe passing around the zone and look for good shots instead of just winging the puck at the net.

If they were taking a lot of shots from the perimeter, their forwards could get caught deep going for a rebound and the Flyers could break out and get through the neutral zone, perhaps even with an odd-man rush.

The Penguins aren’t letting that happen — and as a result the Flyers are not generating many good chances or odd man rushes.

3. Good Gosh Gonchar
A lot of people will talk about Hossa’s gorgeous goal that put the Penguins up 2-0, but defenseman Sergei Gonchar made arguably the play of the game when he raced back to thwart Mike Richards’ breakaway attempt with about 11 minutes to play in the second period and the Penguins leading 2-1.
Whitney turned the puck over at the blue line and Richards raced in on Marc-Andre Fleury, cutting through the right circle and toward the net. Gonchar came from the other side, dove on the ice and with his stick was able to poke the puck free before he slid into Richards, driving the Flyers center into Fleury and dislodging the net.
It’s very possible that Gonchar’s stellar effort saved the Penguins’ one-goal lead.
It’s also an indication of the improvement on Gonchar’s defensive game. Long known as one of the NHL’s top offensive defensemen, Gonchar is playing better defensively than at any time in his career — and he’s doing it at the right time.

4. Balanced Bunch

The Penguins have some high-profile stars such as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Marian Hossa, but the big guns are hardly doing it all by themselves. A total of 18 Pittsburgh players have had a hand in the Penguins’ 12 goals and 19 assists against the Flyers.

Hossa, who has three goals, Crosby and Malkin are the only players with multiple goals, but five others have scored at least one. Sergei Gonchar leads the team with five assists and Crosby has three; eight other players have at least one.

Going down the line, the Penguins’ top line of Crosby, Hossa and Pascal Dupuis have combined for five goals and five assists. The second line of Malkin, Ryan Malone and Petr Sykora has four goals and five assists.

Jordan Staal has the lone point from the third line, which has played a stellar brand of defensive hockey. Fourth liners Maxime Talbot, Gary Roberts and Georges Laraque all had a hand in on the game-winning goal in Game 2.

In fact, of the forwards who have played in this series, only Dupuis, Jarkko Ruutu, Tyler Kennedy and Adam Hall don’t have a point. Let’s not forget about the D-men either because Gonchar has five assists, Whitney has a goal and Hal Gill has an assist.

5. The Insurmountable Lead

OK, you know this by now, but only two NHL teams have ever come back from 3-0 deficits to win a best-of-seven series. It has only happened one other time in the three other major pro sports.
What a historic story it would be if both Dallas and Philadelphia did it this season.
Back in the real world, we can say with near 100 percent certainty that that won’t happen.

However, do not expect either team to go quietly — especially these Flyers, who have played against adversity almost all year long.

After winning only 22 games and registering just 56 points a year ago, no one expected them to be in the playoffs this season, let alone make in the Eastern Conference Finals.

So, while they face their greatest challenge now, don’t be surprised if they play their best game of the postseason Thursday night. This team has a knack of embracing the impossible, or near-impossible.

Whether that will be enough to beat the red-hot Penguins remains to be seen.

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