Cook: Mental aspect still final piece of the puzzle for Penguins


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PHILADELPHIA

The Penguins have more than enough talent to beat the Philadelphia Flyers in a game, a season series, even a playoff series. They proved that again Thursday night by digging out of a three-goal abyss in the second period the way few teams can do at home let alone on the road. But are the Penguins smart enough to beat the Flyers consistently? That point remains debatable despite their 5-4 win at Wells Fargo Center.

When the Penguins just play hockey, they are very good and extremely difficult to beat. The Flyers can't match their talent. The Penguins' second period was exquisite. They outshot the Flyers, 12-3. They got goals from Pascal Dupuis, James Neal and, of all players, Tyler Kennedy to tie the score, 4-4. They drove Flyers goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov from the net.

After that, it seemed appropriate that the Penguins were rewarded with a win. It took only 18 seconds in the third period for Chris Kunitz to score the winning goal, finishing a 2-on-1 with Sidney Crosby. Has Kunitz become some player or what? It was his second goal of the game, 14th of the season and seventh in the past five games. Is it just me or are fewer people talking these days about the need for a goal-scorer to play with Crosby, who had a three-assist night?

According to several players, a brief talk from Penguins backup goaltender Tomas Vokoun between the first and second period was inspiring. Coach Dan Bylsma decided to go with Vokoun for the second period after starter Marc-Andre Fleury gave up four goals in the first period, two on deflections off his defenseman, Paul Martin.

"Vokie was pretty vocal," Neal said, clearly pleased with his alliterative play on words. "He normally is pretty quiet. When he speaks, guys listen."

"He showed good leadership," defenseman Brooks Orpik said. "He just told us not to be stupid and not take penalties and not cheat in the defensive end. He said to just play our game and we'd get our chances to score."

And so they did.

"They say great teams have three or four comeback wins a year," Neal said. "This one feels good."

No one took the loss harder than Flyers winger Jakub Voracek. He shattered his stick against the Penguins' net as time expired and threw what was left of it against the boards. This was the second tough loss of the week for the Flyers, who were beaten Tuesday night by the New York Rangers. If the playoffs started today, they would be out.

No one was happier than Neal that the Penguins were able to protect that 5-4 lead through the third period, finish the comeback and finish the first half of the lockout-truncated season with a 16-8 record and 32 points, easily the most in the Atlantic Division. That goes back to that question about the team being smart enough. Ordinarily, it's Evgeni Malkin who loses his mind at the sight of the Flyers. Occasionally, it's Kris Letang. Thursday night, it was Neal, who twice lost his cool and nearly cost the Penguins an important game.

The Flyers scored two power-play goals in the first period after Neal penalties. It was one thing that he was called for elbowing the Flyers' Claude Giroux midway through the period, leading to a goal by Voracek. "I really don't think I elbowed him," Neal said. But it was inexcusable that he was called for slashing at 19:44 of the period when he poked at the puck long after Bryzgalov had covered it up. Voracek quickly scored with 7.6 seconds left for that 4-1 lead.

"I think we could only go up from there," Neal said of the team. As for his game? "I definitely need to stay out of the box more," he said. "We've emphasized being under control and playing with discipline."

The first period brought back bad memories from the Penguins' 6-5 loss to the Flyers Feb. 20 at Consol Energy Center. The Penguins' Matt Cooke, Letang and Malkin were among their players who took undisciplined penalties. The Flyers used the subsequent momentum to get a win they probably didn't deserve.

The Penguins kicked themselves after that loss for not learning their lesson about not taking retaliatory penalties from their shocking playoff elimination last spring by the Flyers. "It's hard sometimes when you get butt-ended seven or eight times in a row," Cooke said. "But you have to realize it's worth getting hit in the head if you walk away with two points."

The Penguins got two big ones on this night because they followed Vokoun's advice in the final two periods, played their game, played smart hockey and didn't sabotage themselves with penalties. They took just one penalty in the final 40 minutes, an interference call against Dupuis midway through the third period.

Orpik saw progress.

"Last year, if we had fallen behind, 4-1, it would have snowballed and we would have gone into a shell."

Not this time.

"We don't want to play special teams," Orpik said. "We want to play 5-on-5. We think we're pretty hard to beat 5-on-5."

Lesson learned?

We'll see.

The Penguins play the Flyers March 24 at Consol Energy Center, a building the Flyers seem to own.

We'll see how smart the Penguins really are that night.

mobilehome - roncook

Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan. First Published March 8, 2013 5:00 AM


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