- Scott Burnside, NHL
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PHILADELPHIA -- The Pittsburgh Penguins are now officially a force of nature.
They are the proverbial snowball rolling down the hill, and the Philadelphia Flyers are the matchstick figures standing at the bottom.
Remember Mr. Bill from "Saturday Night Live?"
Oh, noooo. It's the Penguins. Splat.
Even without their A-game -- heck, even their B-game -- the Penguins rolled over the Flyers by a 4-1 count Tuesday night to take the proverbial 3-0 stranglehold lead in this Eastern Conference final.
"I don't think there's any lack of commitment on our team's part whatsoever," offered Philadelphia coach John Stevens after the Penguins won their first game at the Wachovia Center all season.
"I mean, they're on a roll. You can just see it. They're playing with a lot of confidence right now. They've won a lot of games in the playoffs. They're doing things with the puck that they weren't doing earlier in the series," Stevens said.
Yet they were a team that had had success against the Penguins during the regular season and often teams with strong rivalries like the Pens and Flyers don't follow traditional scripts.
But virtually every single thing that the Flyers needed to do, every thing that had to happen for them to have success has failed to materialize.
Tuesday night was a perfect illustration of just that fact. To wit:
• Playing at home where they were 4-1 in the playoffs the Flyers needed desperately to get on top early and keep the rabid, orange-clad Wachovia Center fans in the game. Instead, the Flyers allowed the Penguins to score twice on their first four shots. The first goal, a power-play marker by Ryan Whitney, bounced off Jason Smith and snuck inside the goal post. The Penguins have scored at least one power-play goal in 10 of 12 games this spring.
"That was crucial," said Pittsburgh head coach Michel Therrien.
"That was kind of our game plan, to make sure we pursued the puck really well, and try to attack them as quick as we can, ended up having a two-goal lead and that took away their emotion."
• Against the Canadiens, the Flyers got scoring from up and down the lineup. R.J. Umberger had eight goals in the five-game set against Montreal, and the Flyers entered this series with the most potent offense in the playoffs. Yet three games in and the Flyers have managed just five goals against the Penguins. There is no hint that there is a hero in waiting for the Flyers. Stevens thought the Daniel Briere, Vaclav Prospal, Scott Hartnell line was better Tuesday, and they did manage the team's only goal. Still, Briere and Prospal have just one point each in the series, Briere is minus-3 and Prospal's goal was his first goal in 10 playoff games. Help.
• Missing their top two defensemen, Braydon Coburn and Kimmo Timonen, the Flyers' margin for error when it comes to mistakes is tiny at best. Yet in two straight games Steve Downie turnovers have led to crucial Penguins goals. Tuesday in Game 3 a Downie pass was picked off by the Penguins in the offensive zone, and on the subsequent rush Ryan Malone ended up backhanding in a back-breaking goal with 10:02 left in the game to give the Pens a 3-1 lead.
"We put him back in [the lineup] because you know he's a big-game player, but he's got to learn, and obviously, he hasn't," Stevens said.
"So you can't make that play. A flat pass, going in the offensive zone with [Evgeni] Malkin on the ice, it hasn't worked all series. I don't know why we think it's going to work now," Stevens said.
• For all the talk about physicality and how the Penguins would deal with the Flyers' toughness, Marc-Andre Fleury has had a pretty easy time of it in the Penguins goal. Some of the Flyers' best chances and goals in this series have come when they've had traffic in front of Fleury or made him go side to side. The Flyers' lone goal came after Prospal got Fleury out of position on a wraparound attempt and Umberger poked home the rebound. But the Flyers have the puck so rarely that traffic is just an old 60s band as far as they're concerned. In the second period, trailing 2-1, they managed just three shots on net.
"We've got to shoot more. We have to get more pucks on Fleury; he looks too comfortable in net. He's making saves, but the rebounds are there. We're not able to find them. Our forwards, including myself, we just have to be better," said Scottie Upshall.
• Of course the one way to create traffic is to actually get the puck in the Penguins' zone. In part because they don't have Timonen and Coburn, that's not happening. But it goes beyond the loss of two players. The Penguins are falling back into the neutral zone and picking off passes like a frog gobbling up flies.
"I just don't see our execution getting up the ice. I mean, we have a lot of pucks that we start out with. We don't get through the neutral zone into the offensive zone. To me, that's where we're really falling short in this series. Our execution when we have the puck is not where it needs to be. You know, I think it's improved at times, but it's not at a level where it allows us to create the offensive attack we'd like," Stevens said.
• When a team is undermanned as the Flyers are, and facing an uphill battle as the Flyers are, the best way to get back in the series is to get a lights-out performance from your goaltender. Once again Martin Biron was only average. The team's MVP through the first two rounds has now given up 10 goals in this series on 82 shots. Yikes. His counterpart, Fleury, has given up half as many goals while facing roughly the same number of shots. Already trailing 1-0, Marian Hossa made a nice move to go around Jeff Carter and then snapped a long wrist shot through Lasse Kukkonen's legs and past Biron. The goal, eminently stoppable, turned out to be the winner.
"We were frustrated a little bit, but that's normal in the situation that is not a good one. We didn't play a good game either. Give the other team some credit, but I think that we're going to have to come up with better games because the first three didn't work. We're going to have to find something that works," Biron said.
The Penguins are now 11-1 this spring and have jumped to a 3-0 series lead in each round.
Did we mention a force of nature?
"Obviously, you know, it's 3-0, but that's where it ends," Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby said. "I mean, we need to make sure that we regroup and, you know, erase everything quickly. That's what we've been doing throughout the whole playoffs. You know, we enjoy this one here, then we move on and focus for the next one, and that's what you have to do."
The Pittsburgh Penguins are going to win this series and go to their first Stanley Cup final since 1992 and they will play the Detroit Red Wings who likewise enjoy the same 3-0 series lead over Dallas in the Western Conference final.
That is a given.
The snowball cannot be stopped. It's just a question of when the Flyers get their final flattening.
The last time Stanley Cup finalists swept their opponents to qualify for the finals was in 1992 when Pittsburgh swept Boston in the Eastern Conference and the Chicago Blackhawks swept the Edmonton Oilers. The Pens went on to win the Cup in a sweep.
Typical of Flyers pest Downie to head-hunt Petr Sykora long after Sykora passed the puck to Ryan Malone on the third Pittsburgh goal. Sykora, blindsided by the hit, lay on the ice for a few moments after. Sykora wasn't the only one who didn't see the hit since no penalty was called on the play.
The Penguins were scheduled to skate at 11:30 am Tuesday morning, but when a number of the players wanted to go on the Wachovia Center ice early, staff refused to turn on the lights over the ice.
Nothing better than watching the Flyers' pregame production, including the national anthem sung by Lauren Hart, daughter of legendary broadcaster Gene Hart. During the playoffs Hart's rendition of God Bless America has sometimes been complemented by video footage of Kate Smith's storied versions of the song. Goosebumps. Too bad no one watching the game on Versus was able to see it or the fans' wild reaction.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
20mPierre LeBrun and Joe McDonald