By Brian Cazeneuve, SI.com
PITTSBURGH -- Memo to the Philadelphia Flyers: the Pittsburgh Penguins do not need your help. They are perfectly capable of skating like the wind, creating lemonade out of lemons, scoring from geometric impossibilities and generally handling their offensive needs on their own, thank you very much. The problem was that the Flyers, playing the Penguins even or better for most of the first two periods, gave the explosive Pens a silver platter with pucks on it four times on Friday night. It was enough to give Pittsburgh a 4-2 victory in Game 1 of its Eastern Conference playoff series against the upstart and undermanned Flyers, who are most definitely underdogs in this series, and underdogs cannot make these kinds of mistakes.
It would be easy to highlight Evgeni Malkin, who scored twice, showed a mean streak and is slowly emerging as the Penguins' (and perhaps the league's) best player in these playoffs. But the Flyers have overcome teams with bigger stars in the post-season; they just haven't done it after serving up freebies. "The difference from my perspective was the chances we gave them as much as what they created for themselves," said Flyers coach John Stevens.
Let's review ...
In the first period, Flyers' defenseman Patrick Thoresen coughed up the puck to Ryan Malone in the neutral zone after the puck bounced over his stick. Malone gave the puck to Malkin, who led Petr Sykora down the right side. Sykora then flipped a backhand top shelf over Marty Biron for the game's opening goal. At this point, the Flyers owned most of the game's better chances but didn't have anything to show for it on the scoreboard.
Mike Richards changed that, scoring twice within four minutes on a wraparound and a rebound when he beat three Penguins to the puck in the slot with seven minutes left in the first period. The Flyers owned a 12-3 advantage in shots, playing an outstanding road game by getting traffic in front of Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and getting back against the speedy Penguin forwards. It was a great template for the Flyers to follow for the rest of the night, but instead they loaded, aimed and nailed themselves in the big toe. It was bad enough that the Philadelphia's defense had already been shot in the foot. Kimmo Timonen, the Flyers best shutdown backliner, was already a scratch while recovering from a blood clot he suffered after blocking a shot in the previous series against Montreal.
Without Timonen, the Flyers had Jason Smith on the ice, skating a regular shift with Derian Hatcher. That may have contributed to Biron's critical goof a minute after his team had taken the lead. Biron went behind his net with ample to time to play the puck, but instead of leaving it for Smith, who was right next to him, Biron wound the puck to the opposite corner. Marian Hossa picked it off and fired a goalmouth pass to Sidney Crosby, who redirected it with a subtle slant of the stick past Biron for a 2-2 tie.
Later, Hossa credited teammate Pascal Dupuis for pressuring Biron into the pass. "Pascal was bearing down on him," Hossa insisted. "It wasn't his fault, because Dupuis forced the play." From this angle, Biron had at least a two-count to make a decision. In hockey-standard-time, that's plenty.
Then in the closing seconds of the period, Scotty Upshall sent a lazy clearing pass to the Penguins' blue line, where Ryan Whitney picked it off. Whitney barely looked up ice before send a cross-ice pass up the right side for a streaking Malkin, who was either offside, or daringly close, depending on whether his left skate was actually touching the blue line. Either way, Malkin took the lead pass and beat Biron with a snap shot from the right circle.
Then four minutes into the second period, with the Flyers on a power play, Randy Jones whiffed on a shot attempt and coughed up the puck to Penguins defenseman Sergei Gonchar. Malkin then headed up ice, took a lead pass, was denied by Biron and got clobbered behind the Flyers goal. Malkin was dazed and never made it back up the ice. The Flyers left him alone and seconds later he was in alone against Biron. By his own account, Malkin was a little sore about the previous play -- through his Russian interpreter, he may have said something like "royally ticked off," -- so he wound up and drilled a slap shot from 12 feet under Biron's arm and into the net for a 4-2 Penguins' lead. "I didn't know where to shoot," Malkin explained. "I just wanted to hit it as hard as I could."
This was a game the Flyers could have won, especially since they held Crosby to a manageable one point and three shots. "It's uncharacteristic of a playoff game for a team to make mistakes like that," Crosby said afterward, "but we still had to capitalize on them and we really made them pay."