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Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby a challenge to Pens' next opponent

PITTSBURGH - Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Better learn to deal with them.

The Philadelphia Flyers still haven't, and it's the primary reason why the Pittsburgh Penguins sent them to the Eastern Conference sidelines for the second spring in a row.

As the Penguins' Game 6 comeback in Philadelphia showed, any team that expects to beat them without effectively controlling two of the NHL's best players probably has little chance of succeeding.

Pittsburgh has played four conference playoff series the last two seasons, and not one has gone to a seventh game. Only one - the Penguins' first-round elimination of the Flyers that ended with a 5-3 victory in Game 6 on Saturday - even reached a sixth game.

Thank goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and his 2.15 goals-against average during the last two post-seasons, for sure, but most of all thank Malkin and Crosby.

No one on their roster is saying the Penguins will cruise through the rest of the conference playoffs, as they did while losing only two games in three rounds before being beaten by Detroit in the Stanley Cup final last season.

A year ago, the Penguins owned the home-ice advantage in each of their three conference playoff series and went on to win the first two games each time. They did the same thing in beating the Flyers, getting off-track only when a 3-0 loss in Game 5 at home forced them to a Game 6 on Saturday, where they fell behind 3-0 but rallied with five consecutive goals.

A 3-0 lead at home, and six consecutive goals scored in the series. The Flyers had to be feeling pretty good about returning to Pittsburgh for Game 7 on Monday night, only to forget that Crosby and Malkin can change a game or a series in a hurry.

"Crosby and Malkin ... it almost looked like they took the game over, to be honest with you," Flyers coach John Stevens said.

Crosby had two goals in Game 6 and Malkin set up goals by Ruslan Fedotenko and Sergei Gonchar with a pair of exceptional rushes - the kind of ride-my-back brilliance that picks up the game of their teammates.

"The playoffs is about giving players a chance to get opportunities to put the cape on," coach Dan Bylsma said. "Different guys had the chance to be the hero."

Except in Pittsburgh, it's usually Malkin and Crosby in the middle of everything. Malkin was the NHL's leading scorer with 113 points during the season and remains that way in the playoffs with four goals and five assists. Crosby was second going into Sunday's games with four goals and four assists.

By contrast, the Flyers' Jeff Carter, second in the league to Washington's Alex Ovechkin with 46 goals during the season, was held to one goal in six playoff games.

The last two seasons, Malkin has 14 goals and 17 assists for 31 points in 26 playoff games, and Crosby has 10 goals and 25 assists for 35 points. Some NHL players make more than US$1 million a season for putting up those numbers during a full regular season.

With players like those, three-goal playoff deficits can be erased, and not just occasionally. The Penguins also were down 3-0 against the Rangers in a second-round game last spring and came back to win 5-4.

"We believe in each other," said Crosby, who is serenaded by fans with a derisive cheer every time he plays in Philadelphia. "All those experiences you go through build trust, and we have that."

Even if the Penguins must open their next series on the road, they've been winning consistently under Bylsma no matter where they play. Counting the Flyers series, they are 22-5-4 since former coach Michel Therrien was fired less than a year after taking the Penguins to the finals and Bylsma replaced him.

One problem the Penguins must address before the conference semifinals is a power play that should be much better considering Malkin and Crosby often play together. The Penguins were only 1-for-19 with the man advantage during the final four games against Philadelphia and were 4-for-32 during the series.

The Penguins did not practice Sunday, but will work out Monday as they await the start of the second round. This is the first time since 2000-01 they have advanced to at least the second round in successive seasons.



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