Stage all but set for playoff rematch

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The Penguins' first loss in regulation since what seems like Christmas triggered no blaring alarms yesterday, even if Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin somehow went 60 minutes without a shot.

"Doesn't bother me one bit," said Penguins boss Dan Bylsma, now 12-2-3 since the dismissal of Michel Therrien. "It's a 20-man game out there. You count on every player. I like the way we competed. I liked our game tonight."

No one has yet discovered what time a hockey game has to start so that the hockey folk don't refer to it as "tonight," but clearly it's way earlier than yesterday's 12:30 matinee. Yet Bylsma's overall assessment was not otherwise dislocated. The Penguins played reasonably well in this rare loss, pressuring fairly constantly in the offensive zone, outshooting the opponent handily, and generating more than enough excellent scoring chances to have won, even on an afternoon when they seemed to be working on a new offensive tactic: the drop pass to no one, or at least no one in particular.

In fact, the only ominous byproduct of this 3-1 loss was that it was engineered by the Philadelphia Flyers, who appeared adamant that if the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs begins in three-and-a-half weeks and matches these very teams, the Penguins should anticipate a series wildly different from last year's postseason chapter.

The Flyers who got smoked in five games by these Penguins in May, who got embarrassed, 6-0, on the last night of the Eastern Conference finals inside Mellon Arena, are not the Flyers who showed up yesterday. Though they weren't terribly impressive with the puck, getting a garbage goal by Simon Gagne, another off the skate of Scott Hartnell, plus an empty-netter, they were little less than superb on defense.

"The guys played incredible in front of me," said Philadelphia goaltender Martin Biron, who had a miserable series last spring against the finals-bound Penguins. "Pittsburgh's not a team that likes to shoot a lot; they like to pick good spots, and we were able to read that. They had one play where they came in on me 4-on-2, and Scott [Hartnell] was able to get his stick in there and break it up."

Biron wasn't terribly interested in taking much credit for the win that pulled Philadelphia two points in front of the Penguins with three weeks left in the regular season, but he turned away 27 of Pittsburgh's 28 shots, including a dizzying kick save on Jordan Staal, firing point blank from the near slot at 17:25 of the final period and the Flyers sitting on a 2-1 lead.

"This is a hard building to win in but Biron just played a heckuva game," said Hartnell, who has a career-high 27 goals in a season in which he has appeared in all 71 of Philadelphia's games. "They've got so much speed, but I think we showed that we really want that four spot."

It might not make much difference, given the intensity of this rivalry, which team stages the majority of the games should they meet in the postseason, but if Philly plays the way it did against Crosby and Malkin yesterday, a long and bitter series would seem to be inevitable. Flyers defenseman Ryan Parent hounded Malkin all over the pond in this NBC telecast, and defenseman Braydon Coburn repeatedly beat him to the puck. Crosby wasn't nearly so stifled, setting up several viable scoring chances and probably getting a shot he wasn't credited for, at least that's what Biron said.

"I'm happy with the way we executed the game plan," said Parent, who missed the first half of the season after shoulder surgery. "I'll do anything the coaches want. If it's going to be shutting down the other team's top line, that's great. It was a big part of why we won today. You know Crosby is so dangerous because he likes to find the other guys. He's got [Bill] Guerin with him now so you've got to watch where he is too. Malkin's just dangerous all the time, no matter what he's doing. All you can do is try to force them outside and try to limit their shots."

The Flyers cashed in two power play opportunities, but their fifth-ranked power play failed on a four-minute advantage at the top of the third period, an arrangement that came about when Sergei Gonchar landed a rare left-right combination on or about the skull of Philadelphia's Joffrey Lupul as the second period ended.

It was just the kind of thing that whets the appetite for a postseason Flyers collision, even if Philadelphia clearly has plenty enough depth up front this time to give the Penguins everything they can handle.

"I think that we're hoping we can take some steps from where we were last year," said Flyers coach John Stevens. "You have a rivalry coming out of the playoff situation we had last year and so these games mean a lot. There are still feelings there left over from the past couple of years so it makes for a great matchup. These games are usually played pretty tight."

He should hope so.

Gene Collier can be reached at .


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