The Pennsylvania Cold War has turned into something of a rout.
In a series that's starting to look eerily similar to the one in the West, the Pittsburgh Penguins all but punched their ticket to the Stanley Cup finals with a convincing 4-1 victory over the battle-scarred Flyers in Philadelphia Tuesday night. With their first win of the season at the Wachovia Center, the Pens now hold a crippling 3-0 series advantage.
While the result wasn't all that surprising, the Pens' means to the end was. Deviating from the script, the Penguins aren't running away with this thing, thanks to their jet-fueled offense. It's a strict adherence to a defensive style that evokes the late-90s New Jersey Devils more than the run-and-gun Edmonton Oilers of the early 1980s, that's made the difference.
"It's a trap, and they execute it very well," said Flyers coach John Stevens of the Pens' approach. "They pounce on turnovers. They're very committed to their checking game. They're creating all their offense from the checking side of the puck.
"They're checking us into turnovers and feasting on them."
After a choppy start made rougher by a series of borderline penalty calls, the Pens made it their game by being the first to settle into their comfort zone, establishing their defensive posture and waiting to create chances off their transition game.
After Ryan Whitney counted the game's first goal on the power play at 5:03 when he bounced a shot past Martin Biron off the leg of defender Jason Smith, the Pens went on auto-pilot, choking off the passing lines, lining up the body and laying down in front of 14 shots.
That number is significant because it almost equals the number of shots that required the immediate attention of Marc-Andre Fleury (right). In a game that should have been colored by the Flyers' desperation to get back into the series, it was instead a case study in Philly frustration, as they failed to force the young netminder to make a difference. Five measly shots in the first. Three -- three! -- in the second, a period during which they were just one lucky bounce from tying it up.
After those feeble efforts, the 10 shots launched in the third might indicate a furious comeback. It was anything but. Fleury was rarely tested, with none of the shots taken from a distance of less than 25 feet.
That's really been the story of the series. Unable to establish a presence down low against a surprisingly sturdy Pittsburgh defensive corps led by the splendid Sergei Gonchar, it's little wonder the Flyers have managed just five goals through the three matches. The absence of injured defenders Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Coburn cripples their transition game, but there are still players wearing black and orange who should be capable of making an impact. It's no wonder they're nearly buried when Daniel Briere, Vinnie Prospal, R.J. Umberger and the like are being outhustled, outplayed and outscored by the big guns of the Penguins.
It's not all their fault, of course. As a team, the Flyers are shooting themselves in the foot, giving away the puck too often -- 19 times, by the perhaps-generous home accounting in Philadelphia. Three of those giveaways led directly to Pittsburgh goals on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, the confident Penguins are being far less generous. Simple, smart plays minimize the risk of turnovers, and keep the Pens out of trouble. It's not as fun as their swing-for-the-fences approach of 2006-07, but it's proving far more effective. And in combination with the quick-strike capabilities of Sidney Crosby (two assists), Evgeni Malkin (one assist) and Marian Hossa (two goals), it has established them as worthy opponents for the best of the West.
When this series is over, likely sooner than later, Stevens will probably have some advice for those thinking the Red Wings will roll over the Eastern champs. The Pens may be young, but they're ready to challenge for the Cup. Not soon. Now.
Allan Muir is the senior editor of Beckett Hockey magazine and serves as the NHL's official scorer for Dallas Stars home games.