PHILADELPHIA – Mario Lemieux walked over to Michel Therrien in the hallway at Wachovia Center with a smile as big as Pennsylvania.
The Hall of Famer and minority owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins shook his head coach’s hand and mumbled something to the effect of great job. What else needs to be said at this point.
The Penguins unveiled yet another page from their playbook Tuesday night, suffocating the Philadelphia Flyers with a defensive gem that put them just one win away from the Stanley Cup final.
“We are more known for our offensive attack and the star players we have, but especially since the start of the playoffs the players are really committed defensively,” said Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.
“We’ve really improved in that area since the start of the season and we showed it again tonight.”
Marian Hossa had two goals, while Ryan Malone and Ryan Whitney also scored for the Penguins in a 4-1 victory that put them on the verge of a four-game sweep in the Eastern Conference final. And a likely date with Detroit in the Cup final, the Red Wings also up 3-0 in their conference final with the Dallas Stars.
“We’ve got a long way to go,” cautioned Malone. “The next game will be the most difficult. We need to dial it up a notch.”
No need to dial it up. The Flyers have no answers for a Penguins team that beat them with their offensive stars in Game 1, their fourth line in Game 2, and Tuesday night with a New Jersey Devils-like defensive masterpiece.
“They’re committed defensively right now,” Flyers head coach John Stevens said of the Penguins. “Everyone talks about their offence, but they’re really committed defensively.
“They’re on a roll … We’re getting outplayed right now and we have to dig in.”
Fleury made 17 saves for the Penguins, who jumped out to a commanding 3-0 series lead for the third consecutive playoff round. They can wrap it up Thursday night here at Wachovia Center (7:30 p.m. ET).
R.J. Umberger had the lone goal for the Flyers, who were playing without their top two defencemen in Kimmo Timonen (blood clot) and Braydon Coburn (facial injury). Martin Biron made 21 saves in the Flyers net.
The Penguins played a low-risk game, choosing safe options along the boards instead of fancier plays one might usually see with the star-studded squad. It was a smart approach for a game where Pittsburgh knew the Flyers would throw everything at them on home ice in order to avoid going down three games in the series. The patient approach put the onus on the Flyers to take chances, and it backfired on Philadelphia.
“Top to bottom a great team effort,” said Malone. “We tried to keep it as simple as possible. … It’s all five guys out there being on the same page.
“Everyone has done a good job of buying in and that’s why we’re in the position we’re in today.”
With their usual raucous crowd of 19,965 providing a jungle-like atmosphere, the Flyers were hoping to get the boards rattling with a physical start. Instead, defenceman Derian Hatcher took a hooking penalty on Evgeni Malkin just 3:33 into the game, setting up Pittsburgh’s opening goal. Whitney banked a pass off Flyers defenceman Jason Smith and it was 1-0 at 5:03.
If that was a lucky goal, Pittsburgh’s second tally was a thing of beauty. Hossa danced around Jeff Carter into the Flyers zone and deked himself into a shooting lane for a wrist shot along the ice that beat Biron at 7:41.
So much for coming home and using one of the loudest crowds in the NHL for inspiration. It was 2-0 Penguins and people were sitting on their hands.
“We knew they’d come out hard,” said Fleury. “The two quick goals took some pressure off and helped us relax a little.”
Umberger gave his team some life when he banged home a rebound after a wrap-around effort by Vaclav Prospal at 10:59. The goal gave the crowd some energy.
The Penguins, however, snuffed out the Philadelphia attack in a scoreless second period. The shots were 17-8 for the Penguins through 40 minutes and the Flyers were beginning to show their frustration.
“They play really well with the lead,” said Stevens. “You play into their hands right now when you give them the lead.”
Pittsburgh stayed with their game plan in the third period, waiting for the Flyers to force a play. The Penguins came in numbers after a giveaway, Malone getting the valued insurance goal at 9:58, his backhand beating Biron five-hole in front of the net. Game over. And almost surely series over.
Hossa added an empty-netter with 54 seconds left.
Notes: Veteran winger Gary Roberts was a scratch for the Penguins. “He was sick this morning when he came to report to the team,” Therrien said after the pre-game skate. Roberts missed five games with a groin injury earlier in these playoffs … Rookie Ryan Parent replaced the injured Coburn on the Flyers blue-line … Penguins centre Jordan Staal will go home to Thunder Bay, Ont., on Wednesday morning for his grandfather’s funeral and return the same night … The last time both conference finals were four-game sweeps was 1992 when the Penguins beat Boston and Chicago swept Edmonton.