Commentary

Physical Penguins toss down the gauntlet to Flyers

Updated: May 10, 2008, 12:45 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

PITTSBURGH -- If there was one defining sequence in the opening clash of the Eastern Conference finals, it was in early in the second period: While killing a penalty, Evgeni Malkin took the puck and raced in on the Philadelphia net for a short-handed scoring chance.

First Malkin was knocked down by Flyers forward Mike Richards, and the Flyers turned the puck back towards the Pittsburgh zone.

Malkin got up just as the Flyers turned the puck over in the Pittsburgh zone.

Then Malkin took a Sergei Gonchar pass and raced in alone on netminder Martin Biron.

Malkin, arguably the best player in the world right now, did not dipsy-doodle, though gosh knows he has the ability to turn the puck into a pretzel to create a scoring chance. Instead, Malkin simply reared back and blasted a slap shot through Biron to make it 4-2 Penguins -- a score that would hold up through the end of Game 1.

For the Pittsburgh Penguins, that sequence announced that whatever the pre-series talk about physicality and battles and paying the price was, the Penguins were on task.

Malkin's blast, his second goal of the night, was a middle-finger salute to the Flyers, whose game plan coming in was to outmuscle the Penguins, crash the net and take away their time and space.

Instead, the skilled Penguins outhit the Flyers, especially early in the game.

And it wasn't just the physical players getting it done.

Malkin threw himself at bodies all night and was credited with five hits.

[+] EnlargeEvgeni Malkin
Bruce Bennett/Getty ImagesPittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin unleashes what proved to be a backbreaking goal in the second period of the Penguins' 4-2 series-opening win over the Flyers.

"He likes to get in there and get in the rough stuff," Philadelphia forward Scott Hartnell said. "It seems like he thrives on that. We've just got to eliminate his time and space. He's a great player and we've got to be better on him for sure."

Marian Hossa was likewise a dervish, skating back to break up Flyer rushes a half-dozen times.

"They gave us some good hits and we gave them some pretty good hits, too," Pittsburgh head coach Michel Therrien said.

"Probably one of the best hits was Malkin on [Braydon] Coburn, and that shows just the character of the players," he added.

On a night when the Flyers needed desperately to make a statement about their presence in this conference final, it was the Penguins who once again seized the moment, as they have at almost every turn during this postseason. The Penguins are now 9-1 in the playoffs, and the Flyers, who have lost the first game of each playoff series this spring, are in a world of trouble.

It'll be difficult, defenseman Derian Hatcher said.

"But we did the same thing in our last two series so we'll draw from that," Hatcher said.

Without top defenseman Kimmo Timonen, who is lost for the season with a blood clot in his ankle, the Flyers needed desperately to show that they were still capable of keeping pace with the talented Penguins.

And they did -- for a time.

They kept their emotions in check and allowed the powerful Pittsburgh power play just two opportunities. The game marked only the second time this postseason that the Penguins have not scored on the man advantage. Mike Richards was a demon. Playing mostly against Sidney Crosby, the emerging two-way star scored both Flyers' goals in the first period.

At one point Philly held a 2-1 lead.

And still it wasn't enough -- not nearly.

If Malkin's shorthanded effort in the second period was the statement goal, the killer was Malkin's first. With the clock winding down in the first period and the score tied at 2, the Flyers seemed to ease up. Malkin took a long, cross-ice pass from Ryan Whitney and burst in from the right. The play was close -- really close -- to being offside, but no whistle sounded.

With 6.5 seconds left in the period, Malkin snapped home a shot to the stick side, just inside the post.

"The killer one is the one at the end of the period after we fought hard that period. Any time you give up a goal in the last minute, 30 seconds, it's inexcusable and that sometimes changes the momentum," said R.J. Umberger, who was the scoring hero of the previous round for the Flyers and added two more assists Friday night.

After Malkin's slap-shot statement, the Penguins slowly, methodically choked the life out of the Flyers. Pittsburgh limited Philly's scoring chances. They forechecked vigorously, forcing the Flyers into turnovers. They seized control.

In the third period the Penguins managed only four shots on net, but they allowed the Flyers only nine. That is shut-down hockey.

Asked about the impact of Timonen's loss after the game, head coach John Stevens stopped the questioner.

"Let's stop there right now," Stevens said. "Kimmo's not our [entire] line-up. We have six guys that are capable of moving the puck. I thought we had the start we wanted. We had the shots on that. We had the lead. We just didn't manage the puck as a group of five on the ice.

"You turn pucks over and give up rushes against Crosby and Malkin, that's a game you can't play," he said. "You know, we did that. Every time you get an odd man rush error I call it a stressed attack, it favors them."

Stevens is right, of course. The absence of Timonen is now a moot point. What is not moot is that the remaining players will have to be markedly better against a Penguins team that continues to reveal itself as having very few flaws.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.

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