PHILADELPHIA -- Something bizarre happened to the Penguins Sunday, long before they turned into the Philadelphia Flyers -- whom they claim to hate so much because of their dirty play -- and shamelessly tried to beat the Flyers with cheap shots when it was obvious they couldn't beat them fair and square on the ice.
Marc-Andre Fleury turned into a mediocre goaltender, even worse than the Flyers' Ilya Bryzgalov, hard as that it is to believe.
That isn't to say Fleury is solely responsible for the unimaginable 3-0 hole the Penguins find themselves in after losing Game 3 of their first-round Stanley Cup playoff series, 8-4. The defense in front of him has been horrendous. The power play has been awful, not just going 1 for 5 Sunday but giving up another short-handed goal, making it three in the past two games. The penalty kill has been worse, allowing four more power-play goals, six for the series on just 10 chances. Soon-to-be NHL MVP Evgeni Malkin has been mostly invisible and has just one even-strength point in the first three games. He hasn't just been outscored by Flyers star Claude Giroux (four goals, four assists). He has been outscored by the man largely responsible for checking him, rookie Sean Couturier (three goals, one assist). He has been a shocking no-show.
"I don't think any one of the 20 guys in this room has had a good series," Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik said.
No argument here.
"We've been playing terrible [defense]," center Jordan Staal said. "I feel bad for [Fleury]."
Again, no argument.
But that doesn't change the harsh truth. Most of the blame has to fall on Fleury. That's the nature of his position. During the season, he was the biggest reason the Penguins won 51 games and finished with 108 points. But when the team loses three consecutive games in the playoffs and allows 20 goals doing it, the goaltender has to take the heat. Fleury has been so bad that coach Dan Bylsma replaced him Sunday with Brent Johnson at the start of the third period despite the fact Johnson has been bad all season.
Fleury probably should have been benched after the first period when he fished four pucks out of his net. Bylsma said he gave it consideration -- "There were some [early] goals that you obviously want back." -- but there were too many power-play and penalty-kill situations in the mayhem-filled first period to make a move. A change almost certainly wouldn't have won the game, anyway. Johnson gave up a goal on the first shot he saw -- just 27 seconds into the third period -- when Giroux was left alone in front.
It is hard to say one goal is a killer in an 8-4 game, but the first one Fleury allowed was. It came fewer than three minutes after Staal had given the Penguins a 1-0 lead. As Bylsma put it, "Almost right away, we find an interesting way to erase it."
Fleury tried to cover a loose puck with his glove hand and knocked it into his net. The Flyers' Max Talbot got credit for the goal.
"It was stupid. I screwed up. I don't know how or why," Fleury said. "But I still felt good. I knew we had a good start. But they just kept coming."
These Flyers have been doing it all series. They aren't just a bunch of dirty players. They are very talented and don't get down about anything. The Penguins score? So what? They figure they'll get the next one and then get it done. Quickly.
That has been Fleury's biggest problem. As bad as his defense has been, he hasn't been able to make the big saves to bail out the mistakes.
In Game 1, the Penguins couldn't protect a 3-0 lead after one period and a 3-1 lead after two. In Game 2, Talbot scored just 3:17 after a Chris Kunitz goal gave the Penguins a 2-0 lead and Couturier scored 17 seconds after Tyler Kennedy gave the Penguins a 5-4 lead. Sunday, Talbot answered Staal's goal, Matt Read answered one by the Penguins' James Neal 23 seconds later and Wayne Simmonds answered Staal's second goal just 3:34 later.
Fleury needed to make the strong save to keep the Penguins' momentum going but couldn't do it. Bryzgalov has had a poor series, but Fleury hasn't been able to make him and the Flyers pay for it.
"Too many goals," Fleury said. "Sometimes, they had good chances, but that's still too many goals to give up."
Not even the despicable shenanigans by the Penguins could bail out Fleury. It was one thing that Sidney Crosby picked a half-hearted fight with Giroux in the first period to try to get his team going when it trailed, 3-1. It was something worse when Kris Letang fought with Flyers defenseman Kimmo Timonen during the same break and was given a game misconduct along with Timonen. Letang looked ridiculous when he shushed the crowd the way Talbot did here in a playoff game in 2009 when he played for the Penguins and fought the Flyers' Daniel Carcillo. You almost could hear the fans laughing at him.
Then, things really got ridiculous. Arron Asham cross-checked the Flyers' Brayden Schenn in the chest/chin and then punched him in the head when he was down. Neal put dirty hits on Couturier and Giroux on the same shift.
And the Penguins call the Flyers cheap-shot artists?
The Flyers and the fans had the last laugh. Could you hear them chanting, "You can't beat us!" at the Penguins?
If there's anything that is encouraging -- and this is a reach -- Fleury rebounded to play great after he was benched in a big playoff game. He was pulled in a 5-0 loss in Game 5 to Detroit in the '09 Cup final and came back to win Games 6 and 7, 2-1, as the Penguins took the Cup.
"That experience helps," Fleury said. "All I can do now is take it one game at a time, one shot at a time."
Bylsma made a curious statement -- a daring or, depending on your perspective, silly prediction, really -- when he was asked about Fleury starting Game 4 Wednesday night.
"I know Marc-Andre Fleury is going to be the guy in our net in the next four games."
At least one more, anyway.
Ron Cook: firstname.lastname@example.org. 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 April 16, 2012 10:45 AM