Flyers build early lead, hold on to beat Crosby-less Penguins 3-2

PHILADELPHIA – The Penguins lost Sidney Crosby, then lost first place in the East.

Led by an offence than can rally from a three-goal deficit to win one night then storm to a three-goal lead the next, the Flyers are now the ones rolling atop the conference.

Danny Briere, Wayne Simmonds and Scott Hartnell each scored to lift the first-place Flyers to a 3-2 win over the Crosby-less Penguins on Thursday night.

The win gave the Flyers 37 points—enough to leapfrog Florida and the Penguins (36 points) and prove an off-season of major change is paying off.

“We had a good start to the season and now we just keep on winning games,” said Flyers star Claude Giroux.

Crosby missed the first of two games as a precaution following a collision with teammate Chris Kunitz in Monday night’s loss to Boston. Doctors told Crosby there was no indication he sustained another concussion. The 24-year-old was sidelined for more than 10 months this year because of concussion-like symptoms. He could skate on Friday.

James Neal and Evgeni Malkin scored for Pittsburgh, who surely could have used Crosby and his game-changing playmaking.

The Flyers built a 3-0 lead and held on a night after they rallied from a three-goal deficit to beat Buffalo in overtime.

The Penguins aren’t concerned that Crosby will miss much more than two games following his latest hard hit. The 2007 Hart Trophy winner has two goals and 10 assists in eight games since his return. He could be available when the Penguins host Detroit next Tuesday.

The Penguins will re-evaluate Crosby over the next few days. Crosby visited with his medical team on Wednesday and underwent testing that ruled out a concussion.

“He’s having today off and anticipates working out (Friday),” Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. “That’s where he’s at right now.”

Over the last two seasons, Crosby has 34 goals and 44 assists in 49 games.

Crosby told the team’s website on Thursday he wanted to be smart about his health.

“It’s been a long road back,” he said, “and we want to err on the side of caution.”

He wasn’t forgotten by the Flyers faithful, who loudly booed when his name was announced on the list of scratches.

Briere, fighting a virus, gave them a reason to cheer on a fluky goal in the first period after the puck knocked off two Penguins defenders and slipped past Marc-Andre Fleury for his eighth goal.

Fleury sat stunned on the ice after the puck found the back of the net.

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The wasted series of the game came in the first when Pittsburgh failed to score on a 5-on-3. The Penguins appeared to catch a break when Max Talbot, playing against his former team for the first time, was helpless after he broke his stick to essentially give them a three-man advantage.

Instead, they got nothing.

“It was certainly a missed opportunity when you get that 5-on-3 and have it for a minute and don’t convert, you feel like you let one slip and didn’t capitalize,” Bylsma said.

Talbot and Jaromir Jagr, who returned after three years in Russia, both spurned the Penguins to join their hated Atlantic Division rivals.

“He was excited to play the Penguins because he played there so long,” Talbot said. “He had some great moments down there. I can say in this dressing room, me and him identify as the old Penguins.”

The Flyers scored twice in the second to stretch the lead to 3-0.

Giroux, who surged to the top of the NHL scoring race with a four-point night against Buffalo, had the assist when his pass from along the boards to Jakub Voracek in the circle helped lead to Simmonds’ sixth goal. He pounded the puck into a wide-open net then said at intermission it was one of the easiest goals of his career.

Hartnell crashed to the ice and nudged the puck in for his 13th goal, second behind Giroux for the team lead. Giroux has an NHL-best 37 points, two points ahead of Toronto’s Phil Kessel.

After rallying from a three-goal, first-period deficit to beat the Sabres 5-4 on Wednesday, the Flyers nearly coughed up their own big lead.

Neal ripped a wrist shot past Ilya Bryzgalov late in the second and Malkin scored his 10th of the season in the third to make it a one-goal game.

Bryzgalov, who struggled against the Sabres, held on the rest of the way. He stopped a strong Malkin shot from the point in the final minute to avoid overtime.

“Bryz made some big saves for us and he definitely came up big in the third period,” Hartnell said. “He’s our No. 1.”

NOTES: HBO’s “24/7” cameras were rolling at the game, filming Flyers chairman Ed Snider, among other parts of the game. The Flyers play the Rangers in the Jan. 2 Winter Classic. … Talbot had eight goals and 21 points last season for the Penguins. He signed a five-year deal with the Flyers over the summer.