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Pens make case as NHL's hottest team

by Dan Rosen / Pittsburgh Penguins

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.



NHL.COM'S THREE STARS:
Hossa
Marian Hossa helped the Pittsburgh Penguins move within one victory of the Stanley Cup Final by netting a pair of goals in the Pens' 4-1 Game 3 win over the Philadelphia Flyers. Check out who made NHL.com’s Three Stars of the Night. ...more


PENS TOP FLYERS, CLOSE IN ON TRIP TO FINAL:
Whitney
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. ...more


NOTES FROM PENGUINS-FLYERS GAME 3
:
Crosby
The Pittsburgh Penguins hope this isn’t as good as it gets, but the euphoric feeling they had after their 4-1 victory in Game 3 against the Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday night was undoubtedly the best they’ve experienced in this year’s Playoffs.

Not only did they move one win away from a trip to the Stanley Cup Final by taking what is most likely an insurmountable 3-0 lead in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference Finals, they won at the Wachovia Center for the first time all season.

...more



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.

Contact Dan Rosen at drosen@nhl.com

Author: Dan Rosen | NHL.com Staff Writer

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