PITTSBURGH – The Philadelphia Flyers used the power play to go a long way toward securing home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
Simon Gagne and Scott Hartnell each scored with the extra man as the Flyers beat Pittsburgh 3-1 on Sunday for the Penguins’ first loss in a month.
Philadelphia won its second in a row to open a two-point lead over Pittsburgh in the race for the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference and home-ice advantage in the first round. The Flyers have three games in hand on the Penguins.
“They clicked on the power play, they won the power play and the special teams part of the game, which is a big factor,” Pittsburgh interim coach Dan Bylsma said.
Martin Biron made 27 saves, and Darroll Powe added an empty-net goal that Hartnell assisted on for the Flyers, who have 88 points with 11 games to play to the Penguins’ 86 with eight games left.
Kris Letang scored for Pittsburgh, which hadn’t lost since Feb. 22 at Washington. The team had been 8-0-2 in its past 10 and lost in regulation for only the second time in 17 games under Bylsma.
Philadelphia ranks in the top six of the league in both power play and penalty kill percentage and leads the NHL in short-handed goals while not allowing a short-handed tally all season.
“Obviously, (the power play) was big tonight,” said Philadelphia coach John Stevens. “It goes us an early lead, which I thought was important. The penalty kill (also) did an outstanding job.”
Gagne’s 29th goal came 5:19 into the contest, when he fired home a loose puck from the left faceoff circle.
The Flyers made it 2-0 with another power-play goal 2:54 into the second. Hartnell was credited with his 27th of the season when Jeff Carter’s shot from the right circle grazed off Penguins defenceman Mark Eaton and Hartnell into the net behind Pittsburgh goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.
Although the play was reviewed, it was clear Hartnell did not display any distinct kicking motion to direct the puck into the net.
“(Daniel Briere) made a good play going wide, fed (Carter), and I don’t know if he tried to shoot it or if he knew I was backdoor and had my stick and my skates kind of angled toward the net and was able to find my skate and go in,” Hartnell said. “I definitely didn’t kick it, so it was a big relief when (the referee) pointed to centre ice.”
The Penguins lead the league in victories when trailing after two periods (11), but a possible comeback was thwarted partly by Sergei Gonchar’s double-minor for roughing after time had expired at the end of the second period. Gonchar was livid that Joffrey Lupul cross-checked him as time was about to expire.
“The referee didn’t see it,” Gonchar said. “But he cross-checked me, so I punched him.”
Pittsburgh killed the Flyers’ four-minute power play at the start of the third but only managed seven shots in the period. The Penguins’ goal came midway through the period when Letang, a defenceman with a penchant for pinching in on a play, scored his eighth while on the power play off assists from Crosby and Malkin – the league’s No. 2 and No. 1 scorers.
“I thought we did a pretty good job carrying the play for most of the game,” Crosby said.
Crosby extended his personal point streak to 13 games with his NHL-high 32nd power play assist. Malkin’s point was his eighth in his past three and 105th of the season – but neither Crosby nor Malkin recorded a shot on goal.
“That’s pretty good, you know, to face the top two scorers in the league and keep them to the outside, keep them from shooting the puck,” Hartnell said.
The Penguins were 8-1-1 in their previous 10 home games and had won five in a row against the Flyers at Mellon Arena – eight straight if counting last season’s Eastern Conference final.
If the post-season ended today, the two teams would meet in the first round.
“It’s the regular season; the playoffs are a different beast,” Biron said. “We were tight in the standings, so this was a big game.”
Notes: The Penguins won the season series 4-2. … Gagne has at least a point in nine of his past 10 games. … Pittsburgh is 3-1-1 on its franchise-record eight-game homestand. … The Penguins fell to 3-5-2 this season while wearing their blue throwback uniforms and 4-8-2 in afternoon games.