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Pittsburgh's defense doing the job

by Mike G. Morreale

The Pittsburgh Penguins unheralded defense held the Flyers to only 18 shots and a single score in their 4-1 victory over Philadelphia in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
WATCH Highlights of the Pens 4-1 victory in Gm. 3
PHILADELPHIA — In case you missed it, the Pittsburgh Penguins put on a clinic on how to stifle a counterattack.

The Philadelphia Flyers, a team that thrived on its strong transitional game through the first two rounds of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, are discovering why the Penguins have lost just once in 12 postseason games. While Pittsburgh has three of the League’s premier point producers in Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Marian Hossa, make no mistake — Michel Therrien’s group is winning because of its ability to completely shut the door on an opposing offense and throw away the key.

“We try to slow them down through the neutral zone so they can’t fly in on our defense,” Penguins wing Ryan Malone said after Tuesday’s 4-1 win gave Pittsburgh a 3-0 lead in the Eastern Conference Finals. “When it came down to one-one-one battles, I think our defense did a great job. It was a great team effort.”

The Penguins continually frustrated the Flyers by clogging the passing lanes in the neutral zone with a great deal of poise. They played the perfect road game on Tuesday and now are one win away from sweeping their Pennsylvania rival in this best-of-seven series. They’ll have that chance on Thursday at the Wachovia Center.

The Penguins used their speed as a defensive weapon, clogging the neutral zone and giving the Flyers no room to move. The Flyers were held to 18 shots, the second-fewest by the team in 15 playoff games. Montreal limited the Flyers to just 14 shots in Game 3 of the conference semifinals, but the Flyers still managed a 3-2 win.

Flyers center Mike Richards admitted he was surprised by the Penguins’ exceptional defensive play in the series.

“Their defense is playing back and we’re not doing enough things to get the puck in deep,” Richards said. “We’re turning pucks over, and their forwards are countering off our mistakes. Their defensive play has surprised me a bit. We all know they have good forwards but, when you play against them, you realize those forwards are very patient and very good defensively. Really, it’s those forwards that do a lot of the attacking while their defense does a good job holding their gaps and not turning the puck over.”

Flyers forward Joffrey Lupul felt the Penguins’ defense also did a fine job blocking shots.

“I don’t know if I have an explanation right now,” Lupul said. “We didn’t get many chances and when we did, we either missed the net or they blocked shots. We’re working, skating and digging as hard as we can, but they are just doing a good job defensively. We’re making it tough on ourselves with costly mistakes. It doesn’t help that we’ve been playing from behind for three straight games.”

Pittsburgh was credited with 14 blocks for the game, including three by rookie defenseman Kris Letang and two each by fellow defenders Brooks Orpik, Rob Scuderi and Hal Gill and forwards Pascal Dupuis and Ryan Whitney.

Penguins center Sidney Crosby rated his team’s defensive effort in Game 3 as one of the club’s finest of the postseason.

“Especially the first two periods when we didn’t give them much at all,” Crosby said. “I think you have to give (Marc-Andre) Fleury credit because he didn’t see a lot in the first two periods and when he did see shots, (he) was solid and sharp. A lot of people don’t realize how tough that is for a goaltender, especially one who sees more than that typically. He was mentally sharp throughout the whole game.”

Fleury, who entered the game with a 2.80 goals-against average in the postseason, turned aside 17 shots, the fewest saves he’s had to make in the playoffs.

Flyers forward Scottie Upshall was frustrated by his team’s inability to generate chances.

“I think the forwards up front have to do a better job of getting pucks out over our blue line and then moving those pucks behind their defense by finding the spaces in the neutral zone,” Upshall said. “Our play isn’t where it was in the first two rounds, and it’s a big momentum thing when you keep turning pucks over — and there’s no reason for it.
There defense holds the blue line very well, causing us to make the perfect play every time. They do a good job of not allowing us to gain the middle of the ice where a lot of our guys can make some plays. They’re moving us to the outside, and we just haven’t been using our speed to our advantage.”

R.J. Umberger knows it’s back to the drawing board in an attempt to rediscover the team’s transitional game.

“Our play in the neutral zone has been a concern the last couple of games, and we’ve addressed it — and it must continue to be addressed, because if we’re going to win a game here, we have to be better with puck possession,” Umberger said. “Pittsburgh is actually doing a little bit of what Montreal did as they’re getting some pressure from the forwards while their defense is backing up. The forwards press from underneath and our wingers and centers just haven’t been getting the puck and going. We need to get the puck in and go.”

That’s easier said than done.

Marian Hossa, who was acquired at the trade deadline, has showcased a fine two-way game throughout this series. Hossa logged 20:03 of ice time in Game 3, scored twice and was a plus-1.

“I think a lot of the stuff he does away from the puck goes unnoticed by the fans,” Orpik said. “He has been great defensively, and that’s something that goes unnoticed by a lot of people — but not the guys in here.’’

Flyers coach John Stevens feels the Penguins have done a great job defensively — but maintains that his club has yet to find its rhythm.

“They pounce on turnovers, and they’re committed to the checking game right now,”  Stevens said. “They’re creating all their offense from the checking side of the puck — and they’re doing it very well. Our puck support execution is not where it needs to be, and I think you have to give them some credit for it. They’re feasting on our turnovers.”

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