Flyers stop streaking Pens to take first place

By JAY BOEHMER
Senior Hockey Insider — jboehmer@highhopesblog.com
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Claude Giroux celebrates with Danny Briere and Matt Carle after Giroux's first period goal (Philly.com)

The battle for Pennsylvania supremacy. The battle for the Atlantic Division. The battle for the Eastern Conference. Pittsburgh Penguins versus Philadelphia Flyers from Wells Fargo Center. It’s a rivalry that grows with each meeting – from the constant battle between Richards and Crosby to the words the Flyers captain exchanged with enforcer Matt Cooke earlier this year (and the fight that followed).

With the Penguins on a tear through the league – winning their last 12 games and establishing themselves as the top team in the NHL – the Flyers had their work cut out for them. But in those 12 games, the Penguins didn’t once face a top tier team like the Flyers, and so this was going to be far more of a test than the rest of those games.

If the Penguins continued winning through this game, then they truly are remarkable. As it stands, they’ve simply been consistent in winning the games that they’re supposed to win – which is still a feat in itself. But that’s not to downplay this game, which had all the intensity and excitement of a playoff meeting in spring, only the calendar still read December.

“I think tonight was a big game for our group. You play a team that comes in undefeated, they’re in your building, they’re in your division, they’re one point ahead of you in the standings, and playing for first overall,” said coach Peter Laviolette.

“I don’t think it should be sold short, it was a big hockey game.”

Recognizing this, the Flyers came out with a spark of intensity to start the game, producing the majority of the game’s shots and scoring chances during the majority of the first period.

Eventually, as Danny Briere pressured Marc-Andre Fleury during a chase behind the net, Fleury lost both his stick and the puck, forced to retreat to his goal paddle-less while Briere roamed free into the slot. Danny dumped the puck back to the point for a shot through traffic. Claude Giroux, reading the play, waited for a chance to sneak the puck out for a shot past Fleury.

As the first period came to a close, and the second period began, the Penguins seemed to retake control, as Malkin capitalized on a power play chance in the second.

It wasn’t long, though, until Nikolay Zherdev – in the game due to the suspension to Jody Shelley – proved his worth on a fast break with Danny Briere driving the net, driving the defenders back and giving Zherdev room to rip a wrister past Fleury.

The Penguins didn’t let this 2-1 lead last long into the third, with Malkin coming through on another extra man opportunity.

In even strength play, the Flyers were the better team. But time and time again, minor penalties let Pittsburgh shift the momentum in their favor. This almost cost the Flyers, as a 3-2 lead they picked up on a Scott Hartnell power play goal was jeopardized in the final minutes when Darroll Powe took a goalie interference penalty during a 2-on-1 scoring chance.

In the end, it served only to make the game more exciting, as some hard play in front and blocked shots kept the Penguins from getting anything through while the Flyers held on to take first place in the division, conference, and overall.

The key for the Flyers in winning this game was their ability to shut down the Penguins during even strength hockey. They met the Penguins in the neutral zone, slowed them down, and forced them to play a dump-and-chase game. While they worked hard to establish a forecheck, Brian Boucher’s veteran presence and comfort in puck movement kept the forecheckers at bay and allowed the Flyers to turnaround quickly and go right back on the offensive.

Chris Pronger pointed out the added help that a strong backcheck brought to the defense – with players like James van Riemsdyk, Jeff Carter, and Ville Leino even coming down low to help out the defenders.

“Forward did a great job of backside pressure and having a third man high,” he said. “Having a good third man like we did tonight allows us as defensemen to stand up and it forces them to dump the puck. It doesn’t allow them any sustained pressure.”

Any time you can keep the likes of Sidney Crosby – especially when he’s put up 36 points (20-16-36) in his last 18 games – off the puck low in your end, you’re going to have a much easier time controlling the game.

Sitting at first place in the NHL, the Flyers have proven themselves to be one of the elite teams – a fry cry from the bottom feeders they were this time last year. Now, it’s just a matter of maintaining this level of play – with the expected ups and downs – throughout the rest of the season and into the playoffs. Easier said than done. But with a squad like this, you have to believe.

Leighton to Return

General manager Paul Holmgren announced before the game Tuesday that the team would more than likely activate goaltender Michael Leighton at some point Tuesday night. Holmgren said that Leighton was meeting with a doctor for final clearance during the Flyers-Pens game.

“Michael’s going to see the doctor tonight,” Holmgren said. “So sometime during the game, or just after the game, we’ll most likely activate him onto our roster.”

As the team departed the Wells Fargo Center to catch a flight to Montreal, it was announced that Leighton has been officially added to the roster.

Leighton is able to fit in under the cap, as the team announced yesterday that they would place Ian Lapperrierre on long-term injured reserve, ending his season. As Leighton joins the team for tomorrow’s game, the Flyers will more than likely carry three goaltenders, at least for the foreseeable future.

Shay Roddy contributed to this report.

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