A year, ago, the Penguins might have been able to spot Philadelphia a soft goal or two and get away with it, to have an occasional lapse without costing themselves a couple of points.
Not now. Not against the reconstituted Flyers team that exploited just about everything the Penguins gave it -- and gave back very little in return -- in a 3-1 victory at Mellon Arena last night.
And, in the process, made it a mathematical impossibility for the Penguins to match the 8-0 record they put up against Philadelphia in 2006-07, when they finished 49 points ahead of the Flyers.
Which doesn't mean that earning redemption for last season was a major source of motivation for the Flyers.
"There's a lot of guys who weren't here last year, so we wanted to kind of leave that in the past," Philadelphia captain Jason Smith said. "It's a fresh season, a fresh start."
A decidedly different team, too. The Flyers are quicker -- they certainly didn't suffer from plodding defensemen Derian Hatcher and Mike Rathje being out of uniform -- deeper and more defensively disciplined than they were at any point last season
"They have three solid lines, their defensemen are pretty good and they have a quality goalie," Penguins coach Michel Therrien said. "It's not the same team."
Mind you, the Penguins didn't look much like they had as recently as Monday, either. They were almost flawless during a 5-0 victory in New Jersey then, but didn't look to be in sync for much of the game last night.
Philadelphia became the first opponent to hold them without a power-play goal this season; the Penguins had tied a franchise record by getting at least one in each of the previous 14 games. Against the Flyers, they generated nine shots in seven chances with the extra man.
"You have to give the Flyers a lot of credit," Therrien said. "But I don't think we executed well."
The loss dropped the Penguins to 7-7-1, while the Flyers (9-5) vaulted into first place in the Atlantic Division.
The Penguins' miseries didn't end when the game did. Their postgame flight to New York, where they will face the Rangers at 7:08 tonight, was cancelled because of mechanical problems, forcing them to make the trip this morning.
That it would be an unpleasant evening for the Penguins was apparent early, as Joffrey Lupul put Philadelphia in front to stay 28 seconds into the game by beating goalie Dany Sabourin from the slot. Jeff Carter made it 2-0 by scoring from in front at 5:33 as Philadelphia buried two of its first three shots.
"These are the type of games you want to show up and make a statement in early," Lupul said.
Consider it done.
Ryan Malone rejuvenated the Penguins -- and the standing-room crowd of 17,132 -- with 36.7 seconds to go in the period when he converted a Sidney Crosby feed on a two-on-one break.
Crosby's pass caromed off Malone's skate and past Flyers goalie Martin Biron. A video review determined Malone had not used the deliberate kicking motion that would have been necessary to disallow the goal.
Crosby's assist stretched his career-best scoring streak to 14 games.
Unfortunately for the Penguins, that was the only one of their 27 shots that eluded Biron.
"Their goaltender obviously has been playing well," Crosby said. "He bailed them out a few times."
Mike Richards gave Biron some insurance at 8:46 of the second period, when he threw a shot past Sabourin from inside the left circle during a two-on-one break.
With the security of a two-goal lead, the Flyers focused on neutralizing the Penguins' offense and did a pretty fair job of it.
"It felt like we were playing the old Devils," Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik said. "That third period, they did a great job of trapping."
So effectively, in fact, that one of the few opportunities for the crowd to cheer came when Ben Roethlisberger and Jeff Reed of the Steelers, who attended the game, were shown on the scoreboard.
And so the Penguins will head into a rematch Saturday night at the Wachovia Center knowing that they can not equal the 16 points they took from the Flyers a year ago. Philadelphia, meanwhile, seemed to grasp that the only thing it accomplished last night was to seize two of those.
"We have them seven more times," Lupul said. "All it is, really, is we got the first one."
Dave Molinari can be reached at DWMolinari@Yahoo.com . First Published November 8, 2007 5:00 AM